Many Schools Of Thought On Electoral College

Posted: November 09, 2000

In the weary aftermath of Tuesday's long election count, the recurring debate over the Electoral College - and whether to change or abolish it - has resumed.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said he would propose a constitutional amendment to replace the college with the direct election of presidents, so that the candidate who got the most votes would win the Oval Office.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R., Ill.) has said he would push for a similar amendment in the House.

"A basic principle of democracy is that a majority should rule," Specter said during a news conference in Philadelphia.

Although few would argue with that proposition, changing the college will not be easy. Hundreds of such proposals have died in Congress over the years.

The last serious attempt was in 1970, when the House adopted the kind of amendment Specter is proposing, only to see it die in a Senate filibuster led by Sam Ervin, the North Carolina Democrat who chaired the Watergate Committee.

That proposal, according to polls at the time, enjoyed broad public support, but it lacked the kind of urgency that Tuesday's results might provide.

As it stands, Vice President Gore would win the popular vote but could lose the electoral vote and the presidency to Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

"The attention span of the Congress is pretty limited," Specter said yesterday, but in light of Tuesday's results "there's a lot of sentiment to act."

Norm Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said he believes it unlikely that an amendment would pass this time, either, "but it may depend on what happens in the next couple of weeks. If we get mischief, you might see a move for that."

The Electoral College is a quirk of the American system - an "anachronism," according to Specter; a safeguard for democracy, according to its defenders.

Each state receives one electoral vote for each of its two senators, a carrot the founders gave the smaller states, and one for each House member. The District of Columbia gets three. There are 538 electoral votes, and it takes a majority - 270 - to be elected.

In every state but two, the candidate carrying the state wins all of its electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska each award two votes for winning the state's popular vote and one additional vote for each congressional district carried.

Bush has 246 electoral votes; Gore has 255. Whoever captures Florida's 25 in the recount will win.

As envisioned by the founders, electors were to be learned and trusted men named by the state legislatures to meet, deliberate and wisely select a chief executive. It was an alternative to direct election, which the founders considered too risky.

Now, though, electors are loyalists appointed by party leaders and chosen by popular vote. When Americans on Tuesday voted for Gore or Bush, they actually voted for electors pledged to Gore and Bush. Those electors will meet, each delegation in its own state, on Dec. 18 and officially choose a president.

Many scholars believe the Constitution gives the electors absolute freedom of choice. Over the years, there have been occasional "faithless electors" who voted against the candidate to whom they were pledged. These defections never affected the outcome of an election.

But in a race as close as Tuesday's, a very few "faithless electors" could alter the result. No one expects that to happen, but the possibility is one of the arguments raised against the Electoral College.

President Lyndon Johnson proposed an amendment in 1968 to keep the electoral system, but get rid of the Electoral College. A candidate winning a state would automatically win the electoral votes. The idea went nowhere.

If there is a tie in the Electoral College, the election goes to the House, where every state delegation has one vote.

That has happened twice, the last time in 1824 when none of the four candidates won a majority. The House chose John Quincy Adams, even though Andrew Jackson had more electoral and popular votes.

An intriguing historical footnote: Aside from Adams, George W. Bush is the only son of a president to seek the office.

Adams was one of only three presidents elected with fewer popular votes than the opposition. The others were Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. None of three was elected to a second term.

"They lacked legitimacy," said Robert Reinstein, dean of the Temple University law school, who said the college ought to be scrapped.

Any system that allows a candidate to win more votes but lose the election will face periodic challenge.

But constitutional amendments are difficult to pass, requiring a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and then ratification by three-fourths of the state legislatures. There have been only 27 constitutional amendments in the country's history, the last in 1992.

But the process can work fairly quickly when there's a will, Specter said, pointing to the 21st amendment, which repealed Prohibition.

Specter was moved by Tuesday's election. The 1970 effort was inspired by George Wallace's third-party candidacy. Wallace had hoped to win enough electoral votes to prevent anyone else from winning a majority. He then planned to bargain with one of the major-party candidates, Richard Nixon or Hubert Humphrey, offering his electoral votes in return for concessions to his anti-civil rights views.

The college has ardent defenders who say it forces candidates to win votes in several parts of the country. Piling up landslides in just a few states will not produce an electoral victory.

Proponents say the electoral system also tends to discourage third parties - and thus an unhealthy splintering of the nation's politics.

Ornstein said that for all its complexity, the Electoral College tends to produce more authoritative, less contentious outcomes than a popular-vote system. In part, that's because electoral-vote margins tend to be wider than the popular vote edge, conferring added legitimacy on the winner.

Ornstein said that if the current recount in Florida requires a "squadron of lawyers," it would be much worse under a popular-vote system that could result in a national recount. That, he said, would summon forth a "D Day-size army" of lawyers.

Stephen Seplow's e-mail address is

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