has been a year since the networks called the election for Al Gore,
then for George W. Bush, which caused Gore to concede to Bush, after
which the news of the closeness of the Florida vote caused Gore
to retract his concession. Armies of lawyers then descended upon
Florida and the nation was buried in a flurry of dimpled ballots
and falling chads. Almost immediately, a number of influential academics,
pundits, and political leaders seized the opportunity of confusion
in Florida to blame the Electoral College and urge us to throw it
out in favor of a simple national vote. Their cry for a more direct
democracy makes a nice bumper sticker for their Volvos, but would
it make good law?
A new study
released this week by the McConnell Center for Political Leadership
at the University of Louisville casts doubt on the wisdom of those
who would abolish our constitutional system of presidential elections
and shows that much of what we think we know about the Electoral
College is wrong. "
Electing the President in the 21st Century" is based on
survey responses of leading academic observers from across the nation.
It provides sober warnings for those who would urge the abandonment
of the system of presidential elections that has served the nation
well for more than two centuries. Among the misunderstandings corrected
by this study are several myths that have grown up around the Electoral
An Election based on a national popular vote would have spared us
the Florida debacle of hanging chads and dimpled ballots. Actually,
the Electoral College saved us from a much worse national nightmare.
The existence of the Electoral College that made the outcome of
the election hinge on the winner of Florida's 25 electors served
to focus the attention of the parties and the media in one state
(and, in fact a few counties in that state). Imagine the trauma
that would have befallen the nation in such a close election if
a simple plurality of the national vote determined the outcome of
the election? With just a few hundred thousand votes separating
the candidates, every vote in every precinct, in every state would
have been worthy of a recount and every recount in every county
subject to suit and countersuit. When would it ever have ended?
A direct national election would be more representative of the diversity
of the nation. Last November Al Gore was able to garner a half
a million more votes than was George W. Bush. On the surface it
would seem that Gore was able to appeal to a broader band of the
American electorate than was Bush. But, that masks an essential
underlying reality about the 2000 vote. Gore's votes came overwhelmingly
from densely populated urban areas. A look at the county-by-county
map of the United States following the 2000 vote shows only small
islands (mostly on the coasts) of Gore Blue amidst a wide sea of
Bush Red. In all, Bush won majorities in areas representing more
than 2.4 million square miles while Gore was able garner winning
margins in only 580,000. Vice President Gore could today fly from
Pittsburgh to Los Angeles without flying over a county he was able
to win. Without the Electoral College, all presidential candidates
would likely hunker down in densely populated areas and would ignore
smaller and more rural states. The Electoral College insures a more
diverse representation than would any of the alternatives being
promoted as "more democratic."
There is a national popular vote total and Al Gore won it.
Actually, our whole discussion of the popular versus the Electoral
College vote is ahistorical and misleading. According to our Constitution,
the states are given the power to select electors from their state.
Today all states allocate electoral votes through the process of
a popular election in their state. The majority does rule today
and democracy works in state-by-state elections. The national popular
vote total is the creation of political pundits and journalists
but legally exists nowhere else.
Without the Electoral College, Al Gore would be president today.
Maybe. It is true that Al Gore was able to win more votes than was
George W. Bush and Bush ultimately won the presidency because of
the constitutional allocation of electoral votes among the states.
However, again this myth falls apart upon further inspection. The
existence of the Electoral College fundamentally affected the way
both parties carried out their campaigns. If the election had been
based on a simple national popular vote, Gore and Bush would have
made fundamental strategic changes that would have changed the outcome
of the race in ways we cannot predict. Bush would like have hunkered
down in Texas to eek out every last vote while Gore would have spent
most of his time traveling the coast of California and the inner
city of New York to wrest every possible vote he could from his
core constituencies. States like West Virginia and New Mexico would
have largely been ignored in favor of the big media markets. Who
would have won this fundamentally changed race? No one can say.
The Electoral College is an outdated method of presidential selection
that serves no purpose today. Here the McConnell Center survey
could not be more clear. According to the vast majority of their
experts, the Electoral College has served important functions that
have helped form our democracy and strengthen our national community.
The Electoral College's requirement to assemble a broad national
coalition to win a majority of Electoral College votes has contributed
the foundation to our two-party system and moderated the more extreme
elements in our politics. Similarly, we have it to thank for the
lack of serious and extreme third parties in America, argued a number
of the scholars surveyed. The existence of the Electoral College
has helped resolve close elections in a decisive manner (such as
2000) and has often served to exaggerate the size of a presidential
win thereby adding legitimacy to the office and its holder. As this
study explains, the affects of the Electoral College are sewn deep
into our republic and we would attempt to remove them at our own
A direct national election would give us better presidents.
This last is not even a myth so much as it is an unspoken assumption
of those who would have us abandon our constitutional system of
elections in favor of a national plebiscite. Our Founding Fathers
established a system they believed would be most likely to give
us men with the "requisite qualifications," to quote Alexander
Hamilton, for high office. Those who would change that system have
a burden to carry in telling us how the abolition of the Electoral
College would give us better presidents. Until they can do that,
the movement to abolish the Electoral College should remain what
it has been, a nice bumper sticker for activists, but not a serious
public-policy proposition for America.