U.S. CITIZENS expected, and got, another close presidential election. Many remain concerned that the nation is even more divided than it was four years ago. Anticipating such divisions, a number of pundits and scholars have taken notice of the 2000 outcome, when the popular vote winner was the electoral loser.
The lightning rod for such criticism is found in the controversial institution called the Electoral College.
The 2000 outcome marked the fourth time the popular vote winner did not become president. In other words, though it didn't happen this year, nearly 10 percent of American presidential elections have failed to produce presidents that most citizens cast votes for.
Renewed debate has surfaced regarding the efficacy of the Electoral College. Citizens do not directly vote for the president, but for electors. Consequently, whether electors decide to remain faithful matters.
Although no election has yet been decided by a faithless elector, such a possibility needlessly persists. States have sought to legally bind electors to their pledges. But no faithless elector has ever been prosecuted.
While many have been attentive to the problems of representation associated with the Electoral College, few have recognized that all arguments enveloping the institution fall upon the shoulders of those selected to be electors.
After intensively examining those who comprise the institution, one thing has become increasingly clear to me: we need to take the guesswork out of the Electoral College.
Nearly a thousand reforms have been introduced in Congress to change the way we select presidents.
Only one significant mechanical reform occurred: the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The 12th Amendment sought to correct the constitutional crisis emanating from the election of 1800. In that election, a tie occurred between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.
This happened because the founders did not envision the concept of presidential tickets. Because the Democratic-Republicans ran as a party ticket, a tie occurred between the presidential candidate (Jefferson) and his vice presidential running mate (Burr).
This, in turn, forced the House of Representatives to ultimately select Jefferson as the president. Within only a few years, the method of selecting the president revealed an unforeseen flaw with the Electoral College. Soon thereafter, the 12th Amendment was passed.
Among other things, it requires electors to cast two ballots, one for president and one for vice president. More importantly, it illustrated that when necessary, the Constitution should be amended to account for its imperfections.
It is now time for a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, whereby all electoral votes are tabulated automatically. Although several serious proposals have been debated, none has enjoyed success. The incidence of faithless electors has increased in recent elections and the 2000 campaign revealed that presidential electors are under much pressure from a variety of sources.
A number of problems are associated with these rogue electors. First, faithless electors invalidate the votes of those who selected their pledged candidate. One elector may negate thousands of votes.
Also, numerous examples illustrate the potential for chaos these electors can cause. In 1960, a concerted effort was undertaken within the Electoral College to lobby Democratic electors to change their votes to a more "acceptable" candidate than John F. Kennedy.
Most of this activity was aimed at Southern Democrats. One elector did defect as a result of this internal lobbying. More recently, Republican electors in 2000 were besieged with requests from fellow Republicans reminding them to honor their pledges as well as Democrats who appealed to their instincts of democratic rule. Thousands of e-mails and scores of telephone calls were received by these electors. Several electors even reported receiving death threats.
Although only eight individuals have taken on the role of "faithless elector" during the past 60 years, the independence of electors is something that needs to be corrected.
As recently as 2000, we witnessed a faithless elector when a Democratic elector from Washington, D.C. cast a blank ballot. Although it did not affect the outcome of the election, thousands of Washingtonians failed to have their votes accurately reflected in the Electoral College. This year, a Republican elector from West Virginia said he would not vote for President Bush if he carried the state. Rather than support John Kerry, the elector claimed to be searching for a third alternative.
A case such as this signifies an abridgement of representation and should not be taken lightly. Because the pledges binding electors to candidates are constitutionally dubious, only a constitutional amendment making electoral votes automatic can rectify this situation.
Originally the framers envisioned the Electoral College as a nominating body. They believed electors would have the most knowledge about a stable of candidates apart from each state's favorite sons.
However, the rise of political parties and the advent of party tickets changed the rationale for the office of elector. While the 12th Amendment dealt in some part with this change, it failed to address the independence of presidential electors.
And while a number of states have attempted to dissuade electors from exercising their independence, these attempts have failed.
Although the District of Columbia allows for the punishment of faithless electors, no such admonishment occurred with their runaway elector in 2000. Moreover, most constitutional scholars agree that these punishments may not hold constitutional weight. Therefore, it is time for a remedy that should have occurred in 1804.
In short, the rationale for the office of elector is outdated and obsolete.
The independence of electors endangers representation. And, in close popular elections, the pressure placed upon electors to defect as well as remain faithful may introduce the institution to the same opportunity for cabal and intrigue that Alexander Hamilton argued the procedure would inhibit.
Although our Constitution is a living constitution, the position of elector should not be open to interpretation. Bring on the 28th amendment!
Robert Alexander is assistant professor of political science at Ohio Northern University.