Graduating from Electoral College

In a famous dramatic line, Shakespeare's disillusioned Prince Hamlet observes, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Shakespeare, of course, never saw the state of Florida. Had he been alive this November, traipsing about among the palms and orange blossoms of the Gold Coast, he would have found abundant material for another morality play -- maybe two or three.

As the extended presidential election of 2000 winds down, the last act is being played out in the nether reaches of arguably the most politically bizarre, faction-ridden, and corrupt jurisdiction in the Union. If anecdotal and circumstantial evidence can be believed -- and given the Sunshine State's history of questionable elections, it probably can -- the hoary Florida tradition of shady politics is again in full flower. The list of confirmed or suspected outrages is impressive: selective voter intimidation, the premature closing of polling places, the disallowance of tabulations on technicalities, confusing or misleading ballots, absentee-vote irregularities, harassment of vote canvassers by partisan thugs, and a biased state official certifying results.

Such chicanery, which would have drawn a knowing smile from the late Mayor Daley of Chicago, mostly benefitted George W. Bush and helped maintain his precarious state lead through early December, while simultaneously casting suspicion on his tentative Electoral College victory. The possibility that the GOP campaign may have engaged in improprieties to secure its tenuous hold on Florida's 25 electors is only part of the story of the 2000 vote, however. There is also a basic question of fairness and legitimacy hanging over the entire election process nationwide. Americans like to think they live in a political democracy, the most complete, full-fledged democracy in the world; they're wrong, as this year's election once more revealed.

The United States is not, and never has been, a pure democracy; it is a representative republic whose government only indirectly reflects the expressed will of the people. The Founding Fathers, bless their powdered wigs, were not by and large (Jefferson excepted) small-d democrats in the modern sense; they were landed and mercantile aristocrats who deliberately wrote a constitution that, however admirable in many respects, aimed primarily at protecting property rights and ensuring the ruling gentry's survival and societal dominance. The Electoral College that determines the election of the American president is one manifestation of this 18th-century construct. (The US Senate, which empowers small, underpopulated states and was not popularly elected until 1913, is another.)

The Electoral College's function of preventing "mob rule" (that is to say, popular democracy) has now apparently frustrated the one man-one vote ideal in four national elections, counting this year's contest. Each time, the candidate with the most popular votes lost the White House to the candidate with the most electoral votes, a tally based on a winner-take-all, state-by-state poll in which each state's vote equals the size of its congressional delegation. To those unfamiliar with American political history, this may come as a shock, but it's true. Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams by 45,000 votes in 1824 -- and lost; Samuel J. Tilden defeated Rutherford B. Hayes by 247,000 votes in 1876 -- and lost; Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin Harrison by 91,000 votes in 1888 -- and lost; and Al Gore defeated George W. Bush by more than 330,000 votes in 2000 -- and appears, as this is written, to have lost.

In each case (assuming a Bush win), the more conservative of the two presidential aspirants -- the losers were all Democrats -- reached the victory stand without a popular mandate, a result countenanced in advance by the Founders. It must be remembered that the vestigial remnant that is the Electoral College was created in an era when only white, male property owners had the right to vote; the franchise was truly circumscribed to favor the rich and well-born, those capable of exercising political "discernment" in Hamilton's elegant phrase.

Since then, the Constitution has evolved under amendment and judicial interpretation in a more majoritarian direction; the pernicious influence of campaign money notwithstanding, the America of 2000 is an undeniably more democratic place in every sense than the America of 1800 or 1900. Yet, we insist on maintaining one very real roadblock to the full expression of popular will in our national elections. That has to change.

Here's why: As the Electoral College now operates, Wyoming (population: 483,000) has three electoral votes, one for every 161,000 residents, while California (population: 33,425,000) has 54 electoral votes, one for every 619,000 residents. In effect, a citizen of Wyoming gets four times the voting representation of a Californian. Similarly, Alaska (623,000 population and three electoral votes) has nearly three times the influence of New York (18,224,000 population and 33 electoral votes) on a per-person basis.

There is a simple reason for these unjustifiable disparities. Under the Electoral College system, each state's slate of electors is based on the size of its combined congressional delegation (representatives plus senators), which in turn is based roughly on the state's population -- but not entirely, and there's the sticking point. The Constitution allocates congressmen according to population, but each state also gets two senators, regardless of population. States like Wyoming and Alaska receive one presidential elector for their single congressmen, plus two more for their Senate delegations, for a total of three electors each, two of whom are undeserved in a fundamental democratic sense.

Replicated many times, as it is, this overrepresentation of sparsely populated states can skew an entire election by giving rural parts of the country the power to partially offset the large popular votes of urban or suburban population centers. Under the Electoral College, the expressed opinion of a farmer in Nebraska is simply worth more than those of a factory employee in Michigan or an office worker in Massachusetts. Since rural areas tend to align with the Republicans, and did this year, the effect on the tight 2000 race for the White House is obvious.

It should go without saying that counting a state's two senators in the distribution of electoral votes should be ended. That's a minimal reform to demand. But why stop there? Any system to elect a chief executive on the basis of winner-take-all balloting -- the essence of the Electoral College -- is hopelessly flawed from the start. Up to 49.9 percent of the individual votes in any given state do not count; the voters who cast them are not represented. We are not discussing a lottery, a game show, or an athletic contest, but the election of a president; winner-take-all is clearly unacceptable. Ultimately, the Electoral College system, the product of another time and the brainchild of a generation with radically different values from our own, must be consigned to the dustbin of history. After 200 years in class, it's time for the American people to graduate from Electoral College.

O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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