Electoral College Can Still Misfire


H. Ross Perot's withdrawal from the presidential raceoccasioned a sudden hush in the speculation about Electoral College backfire. Gone is the talk about the election being thrown into a politically splintered and confused House of Representatives -- the specter Mr. Perot himself raised as he exited the contest.

Absent too is the fanciful press speculation about a stalemate so prolonged that the next chief executive might be the vice president chosen by the Senate.

But we'd best not be fooled. The Electoral College system, a jury-rigged political contrivance invented by exhausted delegates at the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, is still with us. The moment any election gets really close -- within a percentage point or two in the popular vote -- the Electoral College is ready to erupt in a variety of distasteful ways.

Even without an independent or third-party candidate running, each election presents the danger that the Electoral College may deny the presidency to the popular vote winner, the people's choice.

Assume this year's election is close, with Bill Clinton winning by one million to two million popular votes based on big majorities in New York, California, New England, the South and the Pacific Northwest -- with Florida, Texas, Illinois and Ohio carried narrowly by President Bush. If Mr. Bush also carried the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, he could win the electoral vote despite the popular vote.

Mr. Bush would face a devilishly difficult second term as opponents and the media constantly remind everyone he was repudiated in the popular vote. Conversely, who'd be pleased if Mr. Clinton were to lose the popular vote to Mr. Bush but still eke out an electoral vote majority and then try to claim a mandate?

These scenarios are more than fanciful. Three times in the last century the Electoral College backfired by inaugurating the popular vote loser. Five times since -- in 1916, 1948, 1960, 1968 and 1976 -- we've come perilously close.

In 1976, although Jimmy Carter took the popular vote by 1,683,040 votes, a switch of 9,244 votes from Mr. Carter to Gerald Ford in Ohio and Hawaii (eight one-thousandths of the 50-state popular vote) would have given Mr. Ford an Electoral College majority.

In elections as close as the John Kennedy-Richard Nixon race of 1960, or the Nixon-Hubert Humphrey contest of 1968, the chances are only 50-50 that the Electoral College system will pick the popular vote winner. In a contest as close as Carter-Ford, there's one chance in three of a misfire.

Over the next months, we'll hear a great deal about Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton carrying key states. But the only import of such victories is to win the Electoral College, even if the national popular vote choice is stymied in the process.

In close elections, the fallout of the electoral vote is chancy. State-by-state popular vote pluralities, often minuscule, swinging immense blocks of electoral votes.

And if the electoral vote is very close, there's also the danger a handful of "electors" might be cajoled, pressured or bribed into bolting to another candidate. In seven of the last 11 elections, one or more electors have voted for someone other than the presidential candidate on whose slate they ran.

There are a number of politicians and political commentators who continue to see some hidden magic in this system. They claim it protects diversity and balances in the federal system, or protects us from the "primitive majoritarianism" of a direct vote for president.

The idea of maintaining the Electoral College as a shield between the American people and direct choice of their president is a weird way to protect states, federalism, or any other recognizable value of representative government.

Indeed, the more one believes in grass-roots democracy, local self-government, state-level innovations, the more one ought to be for a direct vote as a way to undergird Americans' belief in government as an instrument of their own will and choosing.

In 1969 the House of Representatives voted 338-70 for a direct vote amendment to the Constitution. A Senate filibuster killed the proposal. Now Sens. David Pryor (D-Ark.) and David Boren (D-Okla.) are again pressing for the idea.

But the direct vote needs a colorful, forceful national advocate, someone who could mobilize a nationwide constituency for this desperately overdue reform.

H. Ross Perot: If you're looking for a next challenge, this could be it.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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