Let's not forget the Electoral College


WASHINGTON -- Mr. Campaign Reform -- Sen. John McCain -- joined the fight against punch-card ballots and their various evil chads and dimples the other day with yet another congressional hearing on how to prevent a repeat of November's Florida presidential election fiasco.

The focus once again was on voting equipment and how its shortcomings disenfranchised millions of voters and how voting irregularities of one kind or another deprived minorities of their right to cast ballots and have them counted.

Not a word was said, however, about the problem that is most conspicuously in need of fixing. That would be the Electoral College, which for the fourth time in the nation's history elected the man who was the not the choice of most American voters who actually cast ballots and had them counted.

That man the last time around, let me remind you again, was Al Gore, who received 539,947 popular votes more than George W. Bush. Instead, as we all know, Mr. Bush became president with one electoral vote to spare when he bagged Florida's 25 by the grace of a 5-4 Supreme Court majority.

The hearing of Mr. McCain's Senate committee was its second on election reform and one of at least five by congressional groups on the subject since November, not to mention scores of others in the states. According to Mr. McCain, 1,505 bills on election reform have been introduced in state legislatures. The National Conference of State Legislatures says 130 have already been passed, including sweeping reforms in Florida.

Florida's legislature, on the griddle after its own deplorable performance in trying to usurp the role of the state's voters in the presidential election, banned punch-card voting as well as enacting other worthwhile remedies.

Testifying before Mr. McCain's committee were the two leaders of the privately funded National Commission on Federal Election Reform, former House Republican leader Bob Michel and Bill Richardson, the Clinton administration's energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations. This prestigious group, whose honorary chairmen are former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, is also focusing on voting techniques and equipment as well as a range of other issues relating to the franchise, except the Electoral College.

I asked Mr. McCain why there was no mention of it at his hearing. I asked Mr. Michel and Mr. Richardson whether their group was taking a look at it for possible scrapping or reform. Mr. McCain said he believed Electoral College reform should be considered, but he had his hands full getting his committee to examine the voting machine problem in the hope of getting money out of Congress to help the states fix it.

Mr. Michel and Mr. Richardson said the matter had been discussed in their commission but had been dropped because, as Mr. Michel put it, "it was a non-starter." That meant nobody wanted to tackle a task that was bound to run into strong opposition in Congress, especially from the smaller states that get more electoral votes than their populations warrant.

Mr. Michel recalled that when he was a young member of the House from Illinois, he did propose an Electoral College reform whereby electoral votes would be allocated by congressional district in each state, with the popular-vote winner in a state receiving two bonus votes, one for each U.S. senator. But now, he said, "we'd better just do what we can, clean up our act [on voting mechanics], do what is possible."

Not everybody is ducking the glaring Electoral College problem.

Republican Jim Leach of Iowa is sponsoring a bill that would do away with the college and its physical electors. But it would keep the electoral vote of each state as a lure for campaigning presidential candidates and add a bonus of electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote -- enough to ensure his election in a tight race. The bill has been given a quiet burial in the House Judiciary Committee.

You don't have to be a Democratic "Sore Loserman" to see the justice of the candidate who gets the most votes being elected. The next time, the person who wins the popular vote, and is denied the presidency by this biggest mistake of the founding fathers, could be a Republican.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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