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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: In defense of the Electoral College

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 30, 2008 - It is time, once again, for my quadrennial defense of the Electoral College. Around this point in every presidential campaign, somebody notices that we don't elect the president by direct vote. Outraged democracy enthusiasts who slept through their civics classes respond to this revelation by demanding that we abandon our anachronistic system of electors in favor of the popular vote. They make their case with the best of intentions and, as history has shown, the road to hell is paved with those.

I should confess that I've long been fond of obscure governmental institutions and the comfortable sinecures they often create. I still remember my boyhood dismay when I learned that the United States did not have a Chancellor of the Exchequer. My subsequent plans to defect to Great Britain were abandoned only upon discovering the Office of the Vice Presidency.

Though my affinity for needless pomp and circumstance may make my appreciation of the Electoral College predictable, the arguments on its behalf are firmly grounded in practical considerations.

We are on the eve of the nation's 56th presidential election. In 51 of the previous 55, the popular vote winner has won the presidency -- meaning that about 93 percent of the time, there's been no conflict between the electoral and popular votes. The remaining four elections were characterized by extremely close popular vote margins and wild irregularities in the popular voting process that determined the electoral result. The most recent instance provides a case in point.

Election 2000: The Circus In Florida

As the first election since 1888 where the popular vote loser became president, this exercise in confounding redundancy provided new life for the direct vote movement. It made hanging chad, butterfly ballots and then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris household words while prompting Fidel Castro to offer his assistance to show Americans how to run an election. Rather than making the case against the Electoral College, the confusion it generated actually demonstrates the institution's primary strength -- namely, it yields a clear verdict.

Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote by approximately one-half of 1 percent. Despite that razor's edge, the electoral outcome was unambiguous; whoever won Florida attained the required 270 electoral votes to ascend to the presidency. The ensuing month of chaos arose from trying to determine who'd won the Florida popular vote and thus its 25 electors. Once those electors were awarded, the matter was closed.

Consider the same election determined by direct vote. Gore took about 26 percent of the vote in Utah. Obviously, in a state-by-state system, a recount there would be pointless. But in a popular vote scenario, he might want one because any possible increase in his vote share would be added to his national total. Instead of limiting the circus to Florida, 50 states and the District of Columbia would host such events every time the polling was close because in a popular vote system, losing percentages count.

A Federation Is Just That

Constitutionally, the United States is exactly what its name would suggest: a union of otherwise sovereign states. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have five or less electors. Under a popular vote system, these inconsequential population centers would tend to fall by the wayside while under the electoral system, they collectively control about 33 percent of the vote.

Additionally, key constituencies would lose relevance. Missouri farmers, for instance, could prove pivotal in deciding which way this closely divided state will go in November, so candidates can ill afford to ignore them. Throw that same group into a wad of humanity spanning Maine to Hawaii and it vanishes without so much as a whimper.

Solutions Without A Problem

Another concern of direct-vote adherents involves the problem of so-called "faithless electors." Because the Electoral College was conceived as an independent deliberative body, the electors can vote for anyone they choose. Though modern electors are pledged to a specific candidate (Obama has a slate of electors in each state, as does McCain), they are not legally compelled to cast their ballots as promised.

Of some 21,000 electors in the nation's history, exactly 11 have voted "faithlessly," and none has affected the outcome of an election. We thus have a problem that historically has occurred approximately .05 percent (five-hundredths of 1 percent) of the time and has had a 0 percent impact on actual outcomes. This poses a compelling need for reform?

There is also a movement afoot to persuade state legislatures to enact laws requiring their respective electors to vote for the candidate who wins the national popular vote. This refreshingly stupid idea is a backdoor approach to a direct vote system that combines the worst of both worlds as it entails all of the popular vote difficulties while maintaining a now completely redundant college of electors.

If It Ain't Broke...

The Electoral College and the U.S. Senate -- the upper house of Congress in which each state is represented equally -- are constitutional bulwarks against that historical bane of democratic societies: the tyranny of the majority.

Though you'd never guess it by listening to campaign ads, our presidential elections are held to select a chief executive for a federation of sovereign states. To accomplish this, we quite reasonably vote by state. If you'd like to see how a national popularity contest works, tune into American Idol.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon. 

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