Second-Guessing the Founders, Dissing the Electoral College

Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America , by George C. Edwards III. Yale University Press, 198 pages, $26.

A Rube Goldberg contraption, the Electoral College was adopted by the Founding Fathers because it beat the alternatives. In a direct election for President, gullible voters might choose a demagogue. Worse yet, a chief executive chosen by Congress would be beholden to that body, checkmating checks and balances. To insulate them from heat and ferment, pressure and intrigue, the U.S. Constitution made the electors a temporary group, chosen in a manner prescribed by each state, confined to that state when they cast their votes. In most elections since 1788, the candidate who prevailed in the Electoral College also won the most popular votes. When he didn’t-in 1876, 1888 and 2000-the Electoral College became the mechanism (almost) everybody loves to hate.

George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A&M University, throws the kitchen sink, the stove and some old socks at the Electoral College. Electors, he reminds us, are scarcely the men of information and discernment envisioned by the Founders. With few exceptions, they are party hacks and fat-cat donors. Their names are on the ballot in only eight states. When they do their jobs, electors resemble “marionettes in a Punch and Judy show.” In the last 60 years, eight “faithless” electors substituted their judgment for that of the voters; statutes binding them are unenforceable and may be unconstitutional.

The Electoral College, as Henry Cabot Lodge noted, threatens the nation with “political peritonitis.” The Tilden-Hayes race of 1876 was “the fraud of the century.” Several crises have been narrowly averted. With shifts of only a few thousand votes, the Presidential contests of 1884, 1916, 1948, 1960 and 1976 would have been thrown into the House, with the likes of Strom Thurmond, Harry Byrd and George Wallace holding the levers of power.

Mr. Edwards’ greatest objection to the Electoral College is that it violates the principle of political equality. His case is compelling: Since the electoral votes of each state equal the number of Congressmen and Senators from that state, small states have a much larger percentage of the electoral vote than larger states. Nor does every ballot carry the same weight. In 2003, one electoral vote in Wyoming corresponded to 167,081 persons, and to 645,172 folks in California. What happened to the Supreme Court doctrine of “one man, one vote”?

The winner-take-all system in place in every state but Maine and Nebraska (where a few electors are chosen in districts), Mr. Edwards adds, disenfranchises millions of voters and depresses turnout. What incentive was there, really, for a Bush voter in New York or a Gore voter in Texas to come to the polls? In effect, their votes went to the winner.

And yet the Electoral College has defenders. They believe that the Electoral College is a pillar of American federalism, which divides power between the national government and the states. The Electoral College forces Presidential candidates to work with governors and other state-based officials to knit together groups in broad coalitions and to pay attention to state interests. It prevents them from ignoring states with small populations.

Mr. Edwards energetically rebuts these arguments. Even James Madison, he points out, recognized that “the President is to act for the people not for States.” At one time, states did have coherent, unified interests; slavery is the prime example. In the 21st century, states are diverse and heterogeneous; their populace does not have a single interest in common. Although they live in the same state, residents of Chicago and Cicero, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Manhattan and Monticello, share little with one another. Farmers, members of the American Federation of Teachers, gays and individuals earning more than $200,000 a year often reach across state lines to ally with those like them. Every once in a while, a special-interest group does deliver a state for its candidate. Should we retain the Electoral College, Mr. Edwards asks, because it allows Cuban-Americans in Florida to dictate the foreign policy of the United States?

The Electoral College, Mr. Edwards maintains, does not ensure that candidates will appeal to specific state interests or devote a disproportionate amount of time to small states. Candidates almost never speak about local or state issues. More importantly, Presidential aspirants spend virtually all of their time in the “battleground” states. In 1996, Bill Clinton made no campaign appearance in 19 states; Bob Dole visited only 21 states, steering clear of 14 of the 17 smallest states. Four years later, 17 of the 28 smallest states saw neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush. New Mexico and Iowa hosted them more frequently than New York, Texas and Ohio put together. Neither federalism, democracy nor good government is served, Mr. Edwards concludes, when so much attention is lavished on states solely because they are “in play.”

If, then, the Electoral College is so bad for America, why hasn’t it been abolished? State legislators, members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senators-the very people who must vote to amend the Constitution-are not likely to be moved by Mr. Edwards’ meticulous analysis. They might agree, in private, that states do not have coherent interests. But they know that states do have interests-and that politicians stay in office by looking after them. Yes, all politics is local, so state officials would like a candidate to visit. But far more important to them is the journey of federal appropriations from Washington, D.C. When the pork stops here-that is, in the state capitals-politicians claim credit before sending it to cities and towns. Try telling them that delivering their state to the winner doesn’t get them a bigger slice of federal largesse. Or that federalism will continue to work just as well without an Electoral College.

One final objection, and it is a big enchilada, bedevils abolitionists. Direct election of Presidents does promote political equality. But to avoid the possibility of electing a President who has only a plurality in a crowded field, advocates of direct election provide for a runoff if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote. The runoff, Mr. Edwards acknowledges, “has some potential to fragment the party system.” He argues, strenuously, that runoffs would be rare and would not destabilize the political system. The provision, however, is fraught with danger. Third-, fourth- and fifth-party candidates-let’s call them Ralph, Ross and Lyndon LaRouche-could enter the first round. Without a winner-take-all in each state, voters might be less likely to think they were wasting their votes on them. These reforms might weaken the already fragile two-party system-which, for all its flaws, has served this country well-and put fringe parties in the driver’s seat, à la Israel. It doesn’t seem worth the risk. Maybe, after all, the Founders were right.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University . Second-Guessing the Founders, Dissing the Electoral College