Electoral College Deserves a B.S. Degree in Politics

Yugoslavia is not the only country where the candidate with the most votes isn’t necessarily assured of election (although they did straighten out things in Belgrade eventually). It can happen in the United States, too. If this election is as close as it is said to be, and if, as is also said, the outcome will be determined by what happens in a few “battleground” states, it is just possible that the recipient of the most votes will nevertheless lose.

The possibility that the man with the fewest votes might win the election anyway derives, of course, from the archaic Electoral College system of Presidential selection embedded in the Constitution. Archaic or not, the fact that it exists shapes the strategies of every modern Presidential campaign. Time, money and effort are always put into the states whose electoral votes are needed. No effort is ever made by a Presidential campaign to maximize its total national vote. The prize goes to the candidate who wins the largest number of electoral votes, not the largest number of votes.

I venture to guess that not more than 15 percent of our slap-happy, ever-more-ignorant population knows there is an Electoral College and that, when you and I cast our ballots, it’s to choose a nameless, faceless member of said Electoral College who will, in due course, meet in Albany with the other electors from our state to give New York’s 33 electoral votes to Al Gore or George W. Bush (or, if an angel bearing a burning sword appears on the top of the Empire State Building, to Ralph Nader). I suspect most people believe the Electoral College is a place down the road where you learn accountancy and dental hygiene.

But just how could the candidate with the most votes lose? Quite easily, in an election like this one. Say Mr. Gore carries California (54 electoral votes) by a million and New York by three-quarters of a million, but loses a whole string of battleground states like Ohio (21 votes) and Illinois (22 votes) by tiny majorities of 8,000 or 10,000. Should such a thing happen, Mr. Gore, the winning candidate, would lose, and Mr. Bush, the losing candidate, would win.

If that scenario begins to unfold during Election Night, imagine how television would explain it. The blathering heads would begin by informing an incredulous audience that, thanks to the Founding Fathers’ quirkiness, the candidate with the most popular votes was going down to defeat. The networks would trot out their overexposed, oft-heard bands of worthy wise people to explain to an increasingly angry national viewership that sometimes in a democracy, the candidate who gets the most votes loses and that’s O.K.

By the end of the evening, the bosses who run the pro-Democratic identigroup organizations would be in apoplectic frenzy. African-American bosses, lesbian bosses, Hispanic bosses, labor bosses, gay bosses, feminist bosses, Hollywood bosses and pro-abortion functionaries would be screaming in front of television cameras in Washington, Manhattan and Los Angeles. From Democratic Party strongholds like Harvard University, casuist jurisprudes will show why the black letters in the Constitution don’t mean what they mean and the Electoral College shouldn’t count.

From the other side will come an equally distasteful collection of bosses-business bosses, trade-association bosses, veterans’ organization bosses, gun-nut bosses, pollution bosses, cheap-labor bosses, school-prayer bosses-and all the right-wingish political flotsam who also make their livings scaring the hell out of their memberships and fomenting illusions of crisis and despair. They will tell a surprised public that the Founding Fathers didn’t found a democracy but a republic because the Founding Fathers didn’t trust us, the people, enough to allow us to elect our President. Our job is, they will say, to elect electors with better judgment, who then elect the President for us.

In the year of our Lord 2000, the Republican argument will go over about as well as the government shutdown of a few years ago. There’s no way that the country can be persuaded, Constitution or no Constitution, that in a democracy the man with the fewest votes wins. The furor will grow until enough Republican electors are found and browbeaten into switching their votes to Al Gore.

The Electoral College, which is nothing more than a quaint 18th-century cultural lag, dares not exercise the power the Constitution vested in it. Any attempt to install a second-place finisher will finish the Electoral College. It is inconceivable, in an era so egalitarian that half-wits and madmen are legal voters, that a losing candidate can be chivvied into the White House without the Executive Mansion being burnt down around his or her ears.

If that is the case, why do managers of national campaigns base their allocation of money and effort on the distribution of electoral votes? Possibly because, in this time when all we do is talk about change, real change-as contrasted to what advertising agencies tout as change-is not so easy to recognize. The social maps most Americans carry around in their heads may be one or even two generations out of date. An example of how slow people are to recognize real change is seen in the reluctance of politicians, political journalists and academicians to accept that national party political conventions stopped having anything to do with nominating candidates 40 years ago. Change had occurred. The convention system has been supplanted by the primary system, which had, after all, been slowly taking over for the previous 60 years.

It has been 112 years since Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but defeated Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College. It was an exceedingly close election, the only kind one can imagine in which the popular-vote winner could lose. Out of more than 11 million votes cast, Cleveland came in ahead of Harrison by 90,280. For corrupt cynicism, the Harrison Republicans of 1888 rival the Gore Democrats of 2000. In mid-campaign the Republicans were caught bringing floaters, or mattress voters, in squads of five, but Harrison’s manager brazened out the scandal in much the same spirit as Mr. Gore.

What Ralph Nader calls the “cash register campaign” of Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore was gaily ringing up sales in 1888. In the Harrison camp, where the connection between business and politics has never been more obvious, fund-raiser John Wanamaker, the great Philadelphia Quaker merchant, assessed his fellow businessmen $10,000 each, a sum perhaps equal to half a million dollars in modern money. In return, each contributor was issued a “stock certificate.” Wanamaker then took half the money and put it in the campaign and bet the other half on Harrison. After the election, the contributors were awarded their dividends.

There are other similarities between 1888 and 2000 besides the profligate and pernicious use of money. This year’s flagrant ass-kissing of identigroups was paralleled then by the courting of the Roman Catholic Irish, especially in New York, a battleground state which both sides considered pivotal to winning. In a manner reminiscent of modern American–Middle Eastern relations, Republicans and Democrats in 1888 tried to outdo each other in dissing the English to please the New York Irish. Before Election Day, the Cleveland administration had declared the British ambassador, Lord Sackville, persona non grata, handed him his passport and kicked him out of the country.

But the biggest issue of the 1888 campaign was the huge surpluses piling up in the U.S. Treasury as the government continued to take in more than it spent. The difference between then and now is that the surpluses of the 1880’s were real, and not the political and statistical projections of the 2000 campaign.

One hundred and twelve years ago, the party polarities were reversed. The Democrats wanted to give the money back to the people; the Republicans wanted to keep it by maintaining the protective tariff. In the wild campaign of that year, which saw thousands of marching bands, pyrotechnic displays and outpourings of people, the Republicans paraded back and forth across the country singing:

“Protection, oh, Protection, the joyful sound proclaim,

“Till each remotest nation has heard the tariff’s name.”

The low taxation–free trade position was somewhat more soberly expressed by President Cleveland in words and syntax few modern voters, I fear, are literate enough to understand:

“When we consider that the theory of our institutions guarantees to every citizen the full enjoyment of all the fruits of his industry and enterprise, with only such deductions as may be his share towards the careful and economical maintenance of the Government which protects him, it is plain that the exaction of more than this is indefensible extortion and a culpable betrayal of American fairness and justice. This wrong inflicted on those who bear the burden of national taxation, like other wrongs, multiplies a brood of evil consequences. The public treasury, which should exist only as a conduit conveying the people’s tribute to its legitimate objects of expenditure, becomes a hoarding place for money needlessly withdrawn from trade and the people’s use, thus crippling our national energies, suspending our country’s development, preventing investment in productive enterprise, threatening financial disturbance, and inviting schemes of public plunder.”

Budget surpluses aside, it remains to be seen whether national political managers understand that the 1888 rules won’t apply in 2000 and that running campaigns premised on them is a serious mistake. They should know their job is just to get the most votes and leave the tricky stuff to, er, less-developed countries.