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The Hidden Beauty of the System

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It gives the states a chance to be heard, but the electoral voting should be automatic

What the Electoral College needs is a neutron bomb--a weapon that leaves the structure standing but wipes out the people. While there are plausible arguments for preserving this 200-year-old system, the first step is to cleanse it of its most dangerous moving part: human beings.

Although today electors dwell in deserved obscurity, they still have to gather, usually in their state's capital, a month or so after Election Day and actually cast votes. They have carried out that task with admirably robotic precision: only nine have ever failed to vote as they pledged. But they could make mischief in circumstances such as the ones we face today, in which the winner of the popular vote may narrowly lose the electoral vote.

Consider what would happen if the electoral votes were automatically cast: the winner would be settled as soon as the popular votes were counted and certified. With humans involved, however, another huge cloud of uncertainty may envelop the process--especially if the margin of electoral victory is as thin as this year's. There might be public pressure on electors to cast their votes on behalf of the winner of the national popular vote. Imagine the din from radio talk shows, the threats and promises aimed at these electors. A few might withhold their votes unless their candidate agrees, say, to ban the RU 486 pill.

And then what? Instead of concentrating on the President-elect's appointments and agenda, we would see weeks of argument that he should not, in fact, be the new President. We would see the new Congress, whose first job is to certify or reject these votes, embroiled in furious partisan debate. We're talking about the de-legitimizing of the new President before he ever puts his hand on the Bible on Jan. 20. The spectacle of the most powerful country on earth enmeshed in a crisis-cum-farce would do us little good in world opinion--or in the financial markets.

Eliminating live electors was recommended by a 1992 panel commissioned by the Center for the Study of the Presidency. The panel also argued for an electoral-vote presidential run-off if no candidate gains an electoral majority. (In that event, under today's system, the House picks the President. Each state's delegation gets one vote, and a candidate needs a majority of the states to be elected.)

So why not go to the next step and simply elect the President by national popular vote? It seems logical enough, unless you think there is still something to this federalism business. We are, of course, a very different country than the one, riven by deep regional suspicions, that the Framers cobbled together in that Philadelphia summer. We are still not, however, one undifferentiated national mass. The consumers of California do not look on foreign trade in the same way Michigan's autoworkers do. People view guns in the suburbs of New Jersey very differently than they do in the towns of western Pennsylvania. The drive toward smoke-free environments in California has consequences for tobacco farmers in North Carolina.

A President needs to know how big and disparate this country is. In an election driven by nothing but the nationwide popular vote, would a campaign focus on America's geographic diversity? Or would it act like a company marketing a product and see the country as a collection of demographic subsets, definable by age, gender, education and income--and disconnected from neighborhoods, communities, the land? The state-by-state electoral contest is, in a sense, a compulsory tutorial that a purely popular-vote system would probably not provide. And if you think the Florida recount is a mess, imagine what would happen in a popular-vote system where the margin is as narrow as the Gore-Bush margin: accusations of voter fraud across the length of the country; demands for recounts, not in two or three states but in 50.

Maybe after this election the public won't accept a system that can make a loser out of the candidate who wins the most popular votes. But provided it knows the rules, it might. Defenders of the Electoral College point out that we didn't complain in the World Series of 1997 when the Cleveland Indians scored more total runs (44) than the Florida Marlins (37), yet lost the series, 4 games to 3. Whatever the outcome of the broader debate, there is one clear reform we need now: the electoral vote cannot be left to the whims of 538 decent, fallible human beings.

JEFF GREENFIELD is a senior analyst at CNN


Cover Date: November 20, 2000



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