Constitutional Elections by Michael Hough

The Washington Times Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Reprinted with permission


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Every four years about this time, news stories start to appear about the Electoral College, the constitutionally established system we use to elect the president of the United States.  Invariably, pundits use this season to lambaste and ignore the important role the Electoral College plays in preserving our republic.  Recently the attacks have gotten worse and they have even convinced four states (Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii) to enact legislation to do away with the Electoral College.  Nationally, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, has introduced legislation to abolish it.


But, before we discard the Electoral College, we need to understand its importance.  As President Lyndon Johnson said of the Electoral College, “Our present system of computing and awarding electoral votes by States is an essential counterpart of our federal system and the provisions of our Constitution which recognize and maintain our nation as a Union of states.”


The Electoral College emerged from the constitutional Convention of 1787 as a compromise between delegates who wanted to directly elect the president and delegates who were worried about large states overpowering small states.  As one delegate from Connecticut said, “(The people) will generally vote for some men in their own state, and the largest state will have the best chance.”


To overcome this problem, the Founders created the current system that awards every state one elector for every U.S. senator and member of Congress from the state; plus the District of Columbia is awarded three electors.  When voters go to the polls they are actually voting for the presidential electors and not the candidate.  This system, while not perfect, ensures that less-populated states, like North Dakota with a population of 635,000 and three electoral college votes, is not totally overwhelmed during elections by a state like California with a population of more than 36 million and 55 electoral college votes.  The system creates a balance because while California has 57 times the population of North Dakota, it only has 18 times more Electoral College votes.


President Ronald Reagan summed up the consequences for small states of scrapping the Electoral College when he said, “Presidential candidates would be tempted to aim their campaigns and their promises at a cluster of metropolitan areas in a few states and the smaller states would be without a voice.”


The Electoral College also ensures the winning candidate, who must obtain 270 Electoral College votes, has a broad coalition of support from multiple regions of the country.  If we were to adopt a direct election system in which the candidate receiving the most votes won, we could have a regional candidate like former segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who won five Southern states in 1968, win the election in a multiple-candidate race.  It may seem far-fetched that a large democratic country would elect an extremist, but in 2002, France’s perennial extremist candidate Jean-Marie LePen defeated then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and garnered enough support to enter into a runoff with President Jacques Chirac.  Mr. LePen had previously made statements downplaying the Holocaust and Nazism, but because he received 16.8 percent of the vote, in an election with multiple candidates, he made it to the final round of the election.


Finally, the Electoral College respects the unique role of states in a national election.  If we went to a national popular vote, election laws would become even more federalized.  Members of Congress would be encouraged to pass more and more unfunded mandates down to the states.  An example can be seen in Mr. Nelson’s bill, which in addition to abolishing the electoral College, forces states to purchase new voting machines and to adopt early voting laws.


What’s worse, a close election like the one we had in 2000 could put the entire nation in turmoil.  Imagine Florida, but with lawyers spread across the country demanding recounts in all 50 states.  The consequences of this could be disastrous.


It is no wonder the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan called efforts to get rid of the Electoral College, “the most radical transformation in our political system that has ever been considered.”  This is also the reason the American Legislative Exchange Council, which represents more than 2,000 state legislators, opposes efforts to abolish the Electoral College.  This splendid system, while not perfect, has allowed America to remain a stable and prosperous republic more than 200 years and it should not be replaced.


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