...And Its Musty Old Quirks
It feels antiquated now that the presidency is more important and the states less so
We may need a Constitutional amendment to avoid another mess
like Tuesday's, but it's unfair to blame the architects of the
U.S. Constitution. They simply put the framework of an Electoral
College into being, specifying that each state would choose an
elector for each of its U.S. Senators and members of Congress.
The rest was left to Congress and the states, and when the
national party systems took shape in the 1820s, the states began
to have voters choose party slates of electors when they voted
for President. Most electoral-vote results became
winner-take-all outcomes, which they remain.
Therein lies the problem, that presidential elections wound up
with two measurements: one, with no legal standing, was the
national total of popular votes; the second involved the voters'
choice of electors from each state. Most of the time, the
popular-vote winner also got a majority of the Electoral College.
Back in the late 19th century, when Rutherford Hayes and Benjamin
Harrison each won the electoral vote and the White House, despite
having lost the popular vote, few voters got excited. States were
more important then than now, and Presidents were less important.
Those were laissez-faire years, when government didn't do much,
and even most college history majors can't remember who was
President during which term.
This year's result, by contrast, is a mess because Presidents and
democratic principles count for more. If his narrow lead holds up
in Florida, George W. Bush will have such a thin majority in the
Electoral College that Gore's nationwide popular-vote lead of
more than 200,000 will seem the more decisive verdict. The
dubious integrity of Florida's ballot tabulations will only add
to the aura of illegitimacy.
Whether it's Bush or Gore, the man who wins the White House will
face a leadership dilemma. New Presidents who have won less than
50% of the vote--John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Bill
Clinton in 1992--have started out under pressure to conciliate
rather than undertake bold partisan ambitions. Bush, as a
President tainted by his lack of a popular-vote margin, could be
even more inhibited.
This is why we can expect pressure for reform--specifically a
renewed demand to abandon the Electoral College in favor of
direct, popular-vote election of the President, which would
require a constitutional amendment. This is what got attention
but then failed on Capitol Hill after George Wallace's
third-party strength in 1968 almost blocked an Electoral College
This option has obvious weaknesses. The Democrats, especially
because of Gore's likely popular-vote victory, are the party
ideologically most disposed toward reform. However,
conservatives, almost by nature, cling to old institutions and
cherish constitutional artifacts. Many Republicans also believe
that their party has an advantage in the Electoral College
because it overrepresents the small, rural and G.O.P.-inclined
jurisdictions. This isn't true anymore--now that Republican
presidential support is overconcentrated in the South--but it used
to be in the 1970s and '80s, and old beliefs die hard.
Republicans are likely to beat back any constitutional amendment.
But in lieu of a constitutional amendment, congressional
legislation may be able to do the job. Article II of the
Constitution says that "Congress may determine the time of
choosing the Electors and the day on which they shall give their
votes." Proponents of reform say that Congress could pass a law
requiring that electors be chosen on Election Day and also give
their votes on Election Day. That would leave the states with no
avenue but to consider each individual voter to be a fraction of
These complications could push the choice back to a
constitutional amendment to elect Presidents by popular vote
alone. But by majority--or would a plurality be enough?
After last Tuesday's wake-up call, we cannot accept politicians'
assurances that the current electoral system has managed for over
a century, that 2000 was a fluke and that maybe we'll be lucky
for another 100 years. Partisan rancor, the divided outcome and
the disputed Florida are more than enough proof that the
viability and legitimacy of the 21st century presidency require
either constitutional or legislative reform.
KEVIN PHILLIPS' most recent book, The Cousins' Wars, was a
runner-up for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for history