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The "Electoral College"     –     a ticking time bomb

November 2004
Some of the very good reasons why the U.S. should rid itself of the "Electoral College" and elect its President by direct vote of the people.
Another U.S. presidential election has just passed, where the peculiar institution known as the "Electoral College" has again threatened to thwart the will of the American voters. Four years ago Mr.Bush was elected President in spite of the voters selecting his opponent, Senator Gore, by a plurality of half a million votes. That result brought a lot of talk about amending the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College and instituting a direct one-voter-one-vote selection of the President, in the same manner that we select governors and every other elected officeholder in this country. But, although such an amendment was introduced in Congress – as it has been in every session for generations – the politicians were unable (read "unwilling") to move it through Congress, just as in all previous attempts. This year President Bush won the popular vote by 3.5 million votes, yet a shift of a few thousand votes in a couple of western states would have given the election to Senator Kerry, in spite of him having been rejected by the voters.

As demonstrated by the last two presidential elections, the operation of the Electoral College can overturn the will of the voters even if the popular vote margin for one candidate is substantial. It was just a stroke of luck that we did not have a constitutional crisis this year, and such a crisis will surely come if we do nothing. It is now up to the American people whether we wish to wait for such a crisis and deal with it ad hoc, or whether we should take the necessary steps to avert a crisis by retiring the Electoral College.

This year, even before the election, has been an active one for hopeful reformers of the election process. Two constitutional amendment bills have been introduced in the House of Representatives: Joint Resolution 103 by Green of Texas, and Joint Resolution 109 by Jackson of Illinois. The two bills differ somewhat, and will probably be amended and consolidated: HJR 103 requires that voters be registered voters and residents in a U.S. state or the District of Columbia, while HJR 109 permits all citizens to vote, even if they are not residents of a state or D.C. The latter bill also requires that the winner get more than 50 percent of the vote.

Also, in July of this year, a landmark book by Professor George Edwards III of the University of Texas, "Why the Electoral College is Bad for America," was published, which examines the many drawbacks of the Electoral College, and thoroughly demolishes whatever justifications may be proffered for its continuance. It turns out the only remaining justifications are based on pure power play – the (mostly imagined) advantages that one's own state may get from the present system. I recall with no pride that it was a senator of my (present) home state of North Carolina, Sam Ervin, who filibustered the most recent nearly-successful amendment effort to death in 1970, because the state wanted to preserve what it perceived as a voting advantage at the expense of other states' citizens.

Here are some of the reasons why the Electoral College should be abolished (from Edwards):

  • Each voter does not have an equal vote. A voter from Wyoming, for example, has three times the influence of a voter from California, because Wyoming has three times the per-capita representation in the Electoral College.
  • A voter in a state with high voter turnout carries less weight than a voter in an equivalent state with a low turnout because the state with lower turnout still gets the same number of votes in the Electoral College. In effect, the citizens who don't show up to vote wind up being counted (for the winner) after all.
  • Votes for the losing candidate within a state are also counted for the winner. They turn to votes for the candidate they voted against in the electoral vote process.
  • Allocation of Electoral College votes among the states is done after each 10-year census, and is therefore always out of date; sometimes as much as 10 years out of date.
  • The census, on which the Electoral College votes are allocated, counts residents, not just citizens. Therefore votes of citizens in states with high counts of alien residents are given more weight than those in states with fewer alien residents.
  • The paternalistic Electoral College was created in 1787 for reasons that no longer have any relevance: Slow communication channels, concern that voters did not have adequate information about candidates, and frankly, the founding fathers' lack of faith in the judgement of the ordinary citizen.
And the most important reason of all: The system can give (and has given) the presidency to a candidate who did not get the most votes. While this has only happened three times, that's three times too many. Surely we can't be satisfied with an electoral system that produces the fair result most of the time! In addition to the three election disasters produced by the Electoral College, we have had any number of near disasters, such as this year, when a shift of a few thousand votes in a few small states would have given the election to a candidate who polled 3.5 million fewer votes than the opponent. That kind of mega-disaster will happen eventually, if we do not act to prevent it.

The reasons to eliminate the Electoral College are convincing. So how does the nation go about making the change to direct election of the President? The only known way is to amend the Constitution. Now, constitutional amendments have been introduced in every congressional session in memory, but have regularly met with defeat, either in the House or the Senate. The key to getting an amendment passed through Congress is therefore to bring pressure on representatives and senators to vote for the amendment.

To accomplish this we need a national movement and a national leadership and coordination center. The links below illustrate the many interest groups that have worked on this issue; but they lack coordination, and they generally lack a plan of action beyond getting amendments introduced in Congress. That's a good start, but we've already been down that road many times. It's time to use the voting power of the people to force the issue. I believe the key action will be to force candidates for Congress – especially for the Senate – to declare themselves on this issue at every election, through persistent questioning at every opportunity. Support for dropping the Electoral College is strong enough that candidates must then take a positive stand for this action if they expect to be elected. But in order to get to that point the issue must be raised incessantly, by letters to the media – especially to TV discussion hosts – and to members of Congress, by calls to radio talk shows, and by urging organizations that have already taken a stand to organize themselves in a coordinated campaign for the cause. The Internet is the ideal vehicle for publishing a scorecard of which members of Congress favor a Direct Election amendment and which ones oppose it. My small effort is driven by the belief that we can bring our country closer to a true democracy. Here's to a successful campaign!

Below are some links to further information about the fight to put the Electoral College on the historical scrapheap.

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

George Edwards: Why the Electoral College is bad for America
Boston Globe: Peculiar Institution
New York Times: Abolish the Electoral College
"Green Papers": Historical Analysis of the Electoral College
Center for Voting and Democracy: The Electoral College Indefensible Electoral College

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