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Witcover: Time to ditch the Electoral College?

The Electoral College is an outmoded denial of the revered American concept that every eligible citizen's vote counts.

WASHINGTON -- For the second time in the last four presidential elections, the candidate who won the popular vote has been denied the Oval Office for failing achieve an Electoral College majority. Hillary Clinton lost in this fashion earlier this month, as Al Gore did in 2000.

A mild outcry was heard when Mr. Gore won half a million popular votes more than George W. Bush, but nothing came of it. Mr. Gore swallowed his disappointment and even eventually made a joke of it, saying in introducing himself: "I used to be the next president of the United States."

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Now, in the wake of Ms. Clinton's Electoral College loss to Donald Trump, the prospect of an utter political outsider with no governing or foreign policy experience taking charge has inspired a petition to free up electors to ignore their state's preference and become "faithless." A few have done so in the past.

Under this scheme, some electors would switch their votes from Mr. Trump to Ms. Clinton, denying him the electoral majority of 270 and giving her the 40 or so electoral votes she lacked on Election Day. But not even the fear and loathing of Mr. Trump will pull it off.

Nevertheless, widespread public doubts about Mr. Trump's ability to govern, and particularly about his early transition choices for high-ranking positions in his administration, may well give some impetus to eventually getting rid of the Electoral College. It was created to satisfy small states that feared they would have little voice in the decision. But it is an outmoded denial of the revered American concept that every eligible citizen's vote counts.

Of the last five elections, twice the popular-vote winners have lost the Electoral College vote. Of 57 other presidential elections, that has happened only three other times.

The first was in 1824. Andrew Johnson won 37,000 more ballots than John Quincy Adams. But the election was sent to the House when no one in a four-man field including Henry Clay won a majority in the Electoral College.

Jackson accused Adams of buying Clay's votes by making him his secretary of state, writing a friend: "So you see the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the 30 pieces of silver. Was there ever witnessed such a bare-faced corruption in any other country before?" Four years later Jackson got his revenge, beating Adams in both the popular and electoral votes.

It was another 52 years before a popular-vote winner was denied the Oval Office. New York Gov. Samuel Tilden fell one electoral vote short, and Gov. Rutherford B. Hayes prevailed when a joint House-Senate Commission gave him all 20 disputed votes.

In 1888, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by 95,000 but ran 55 electoral votes behind Indiana Sen. Benjamin Harrison, amid more allegations of vote buying. When Harrison thanked Providence for his victory, Republican Party boss Matthew Quay observed: "Providence hadn't had a damn thing to do with it." Harrison, Quay said, would never know how many men "were compelled to approach the gates of the penitentiary to make him president."

In 1960, six unpledged Alabama electors plotted with other Dixie electors to deny John Kennedy, who they said "avowedly would integrate our schools, do away with literacy tests for voting" and "otherwise undermine everything we hold dear in the South." Their scheme fell through.

In 1968, as third-party candidate George Wallace threatened to cut into Republican Richard Nixon's electoral vote in the South, Nixon proposed to Democrat Hubert Humphrey that they agree the popular-vote winner be declared president. Humphrey, seeing what Nixon was up to, refused. Nixon won that vote by only 0.7 percent but got 32 more electoral votes than he needed.

As for the Electoral College, the late Democratic Sen. John Pastore of Rhode Island may have put it best: "I would do away with it completely. I would not care where the candidates came from. ... They are all Americans. We are all one country. I say let us vote for the best man. It is as simple as that. ... Everything else is a gimmick."

(Jules Witcover's latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power," published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.)

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