John Diaz / San Francisco Chronicle – 2011-05-24 01:09:55
The Electoral College Should Be Scrapped
John Diaz / San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO (May 22, 2011) * The Electoral College system never seemed fair to me. The possibility that someone other than the candidate with the most votes could end up president of the United States seemed undemocratic on its face — and all the more indefensible considering that one of the very reasons for its creation was the framers’ wariness about delegating such a critical decision to the unwashed masses.
Other rationales for this indirect election of the president included the protection of all states’ active participation at a time when travel and communications restraints made a truly national campaign impractical.
The system was an anachronism even before the 2000 election. Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency to George W. Bush after an excruciating recount battle for Florida’s 25 electoral votes ended up in the US Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in Bush’s favor.
Today, the Electoral College system has reduced our presidential elections to battles in a dozen or so states that get the lion’s share of attention: the candidates’ visits, the TV spots, the policy pledges that pander to provincial obsessions in Ohio, Pennsylvania or Florida.
California may have the golden cache of 55 electoral votes, but its role will remain reduced to a fundraising stop as long as it is presumed to be solidly Democratic.
Frustration with the Electoral College led the California Assembly to vote 51-21 last week to join a growing national movement to effectively bypass the system in favor of electing the president by popular vote.
Here’s how AB459, co-authored by Democrat Jerry Hill of San Mateo and Republican Brian Nestande of Palm Desert (Riverside County), would work:
* California would join a compact of states that would agree to award all their electoral votes to the presidential ticket that received the most popular votes nationwide.
* The compact would take effect once states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes — the threshold for victory — have signed up.
Because the Constitution allows states to set their own guidelines for selecting electors, advocates of the National Popular Vote movement are confident that their attempt to bypass the Electoral College system is legally sound.
“It’s not the Constitution that’s the problem,” Hill said, “It’s the winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College that is the problem.”
All but two states (Nebraska and Maine are the exceptions) award all of their electoral votes to the presidential ticket that carries the state, no matter the margin. This tends to magnify the stakes in the relatively few battleground states.
So why not just scrap the Electoral College system altogether? One obvious reason is pragmatic: A constitutional amendment would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, and ratification by 38 states — a daunting threshold, especially considering that some states enjoy outsize influence under the status quo.
An interstate compact “is the right way to do it,” Hill insisted. He suggested a constitutional amendment on the popular vote “may be the next step” if Americans like this experiment in semi-direct democracy.
Still, there is something unsettling about Americans making a pact to effectively bypass a system that remains etched in the US Constitution. The framers were honorable men, but they were not infallible. We amended that great document to correct their era’s thinking on slavery and suffrage. The Electoral College itself was tweaked in the 12th Amendment; now it should be abolished.
The interstate compact is no substitute for a constitutional fix.
Imagine the challenge of a civics teacher trying to explain to students how this nation elects its president by popular vote, but only if 270 electors agree. And imagine the outrage if voters in a state that overwhelmingly went for one candidate see their electors cast their votes for someone else in a tight race.
Let’s do it the straightforward way: The presidential ticket with the most votes wins. Put it in the Constitution.
A History of the Electoral College
1787 Constitutional convention rejects direct election of president by popular vote; instead, it adopts plan for electors to be apportioned among states in reflection of their representation in Congress, with great deference to states on how they choose electors. Electors were to vote for two candidates. That principle is embedded in Article II, Section I of the US Constitution.
1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr (who were, in fact, running mates) receive the same number of electoral votes, sending the decision (as per the Constitution) to the US House of Representatives, with each state receiving one vote, irrespective of population. On the 36th ballot, Jefferson is elected president, and Burr vice president.
1804 The Jefferson-Burr debacle prompted the 12th Amendment, which established distinct elections for president and vice president.
1824 Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams by more than 38,000 votes. Neither had a majority of the Electoral College, so the decision went to the House of Representatives — which chose Adams.
1888 Grover Cleveland ran strong in Southern states and had 95,000 more votes than Benjamin Harrison — but Harrison prevailed in electoral votes and was elected president. Supporters of the Electoral College system viewed this election as evidence of its successful check and balance: The candidate with the most wide-ranging appeal won over a candidate with an intense but narrow regional base.
2000 Republican George W. Bush is elected president despite receiving 500,000 fewer votes than Democrat Al Gore. The election comes down to Florida’s 25 electoral votes. In a decisive ruling, the US Supreme Court votes 5-4 to effectively stop the recounts, thus delivering Bush the presidency.
John Diaz is The Chronicle’s editorial page editor. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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