Long path to electoral reform


The odds are stacked heavily against a new attempt to reform the manner in which we elect our president every four years, but that doesn't mean that a change in the operation of the Electoral College isn't a worthwhile idea.

A bipartisan group of former members of Congress, including former Sen. Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, and former Rep. John B. Anderson, Republican of Illinois, who ran for president unsuccessfully in 1980, is behind the latest proposal. It aims to ensure that a presidential candidate cannot win the White House without at least a plurality of the national popular vote.

Supporters remind us - as if anyone needs a reminder - that George W. Bush was elected president in 2000 even though Al Gore got a majority of the popular vote. But they also point out that the reverse almost happened in 2004, when Mr. Bush won the popular vote by some 3 million nationally but would have lost in the Electoral College if John Kerry had carried Ohio, where the margin of victory was only 118,599 votes.

Direct election is an idea that has gained currency in recent years among those who believe in the old American adage that the person elected should reflect a national consensus rather than electoral gimmickry.

Every four years, however, voters have to be reminded that the process of choosing the country's chief executive is an indirect and complicated one. Voters actually cast ballots for slates of electors pledged to candidates. The winner of each state's popular vote takes all of the state's electoral votes, which are then cast at meetings of the so-called Electoral College held in each state capital on the same day in December following the November presidential election.

The process was written into the Constitution by the Founding Fathers as a compromise to ensure that the most populous states could not disregard the interests of small ones. Changes in this delicate balance of power have been suggested more than 700 times, and they've all failed.

Rather than a constitutional amendment, the latest plan involves an agreement, to be buttressed by legislation in all 50 states, that would require electoral votes to be awarded to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. And therein lies a problem.

Such a procedure inevitably would be challenged strongly on constitutional grounds. A better solution would be an amendment requiring electoral votes to be apportioned according to a candidate's percentage of the popular vote.

The difficulty of amending the Constitution is both a blessing and a curse. The arduous process protects against hare-brained schemes that might do permanent damage to our democratic system, but, as in this case, it also can lengthen the path to electoral reform.

Credit goes to Mr. Bayh and Mr. Anderson for at least renewing a worthwhile debate.