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Published: Tuesday, 11/14/2000

The imperfect compromise

The Electoral College is again taking knocks as impatient Americans, includ-ing Hillary Clinton, deplore the lack of instant closure in this year's presidential election.

Polls and pundits, exploiting the ignorance of too many Americans about how they pick their chief executive and why they do it that way, frame the question simplistically: Would you keep the Electoral College or go to direct election of presidents? The query, as well as its surefire answer, mock the complexities and the thought that went into this system.

While the fire for change burns hot today, the odds are not good that things will change much. The Electoral College as an issue can't sustain people's passion, nor will the majority of small states that benefit from it give way.

Though it's worthwhile to reassess everything periodically, the Electoral College is so firmly cemented into the state-federal power-balancing act our Founding Fathers created to assure the republic's survival, its extraction, were it not nigh onto impossible, would be painful and divisive.

In 200 years the voting arrangement that honors the one-man, one-vote principle state by state, has withstood more than 700 proposals to alter or dump it, and more proposed constitutional amendments than any other subject, the National Archives and Records Administration says.

Why did the framers of our Constitution set things up this way?

  • To assure that ephemeral national passion or panic didn't sweep a crank or demagogue into office. They believed average people were often misinformed and easily misled. The effectiveness of today's negative advertising would not change their minds.

  • To assure stability by discouraging third parties and avoid a vote so diluted by the number of candidates as to preclude a majority for anyone, a situation that would create a disorder they viewed as unhealthy.

  • Because they were creating a republic, not a democracy. And though they couldn't have known it then, to keep populous states of California and New York from dictating to the rest of the nation.

    Rejecting direct election, then election by Congress for the conflict of interest inherent in it, the electoral system became the compromise it is today. No one loved it then. No one loves it now. Winston Churchill called the American system probably the worst possible form of government, except, he said, for all others.

    If changes are to be made, they can only be made in the way electors in each state function, and not via the college's abolition, which the small-states majority won't allow.

    One suggestion is to reform the winner-take-all habit to let minority candidates garner electoral votes in proportion to their popular votes. The devil is in the details.

    The Constitution is silent on how electors are picked and how they function. So states select the way they want. Most do it through the two political parties. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia require electors to vote with the popular majority. The Supreme Court lets political parties get pledges from their electors to keep faith with party nominees, and most do. It hasn't ruled on whether parties can punish faithlessness, which they by and large don't anyway.

    Forty-eight states have the “winner-take-all” rule. Maine and Nebraska allocate electors proportionally, which accommodates third parties, but threatens the two-party system, and could, in a worst-case scenario, give a candidate in second place in two districts more votes than either winner.

    But this method mitigates against candidates' currying votes in the most populous states, so there may be some solid, unthought-of variations out there without disastrous unintended outcomes.

    The Electoral College has always been a compromise designed to serve multiple aims. Compromises are never perfect. This electoral system isn't perfect either, but, to quote Alexander Hamilton, who defended it in Federalist No. 68, “it is at least excellent.”



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