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Monday, July 28, 2014

Boldly Going Nowhere

Thursday, November 4, 2004

A Camel Named Electoral College

There's an old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

The framers of the Constitution were forced to compromise when it came time to define the presidential election process. Some legislators wanted the president to be elected by a purely popular vote of the people, and others, not trusting the people to make the correct decision, wanted Congress to elect the president. So, as politicians often do, they compromised and created the Electoral College. In essence, they created a camel.

According to Article III, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the populace doesn't really vote for a candidate, it votes for an elector. Each elector is nominated by a state political party (usually a committee).

The number of electors for each state is equal to the number of U.S. Senators (two per state) and U.S. Congressmen (based upon state population) representing each state. Once the electors have been determined, each elector then casts the "official" vote for a candidate. Most of the time the electors cast their votes for the candidate who received the most votes in their state, but they're not legally bound to do so.

There are 538 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 to win the election. If no candidate receives 270 votes, the president is elected by the House of Representatives whereby each state is allowed only one vote, which means that Rhode Island and California have just one vote each. This is one ugly camel.

There have been four elections in which the candidate who had the most popular votes didn't win the election.

1) In 1824, Andrew Jackson had 38,000 more popular votes than John Quincy Adams but neither had a majority in the Electoral College. The House of Representatives elected Adams.

2) In 1896, Samuel Tilden beat Rutherford B. Hayes by 264,000 votes but Hayes carried five out of the six smallest states to win the Electoral College outcome by one vote.

3) In 1888, Grover Cleveland beat Benjamin Harrison by 95,713 votes but won the Electoral College by 65 votes to win the presidency.

4) In 2000, Al Gore received over 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush but Bush had a total of 271 electoral votes to Gore's 266.

Basically, the Electoral College is a weighted system designed to give heavily populated states more power in elections yet allowing small states to swing an election, thereby giving them a certain amount of clout as well.

Whether this concept works well is subject to debate. In a recent survey, over two-thirds of Americans wanted to do away with the system and rely strictly on a popular vote. However, that might be easier said than done. Amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress.

Unfortunately, many federal lawmakers are reluctant to tamper with the Constitution because they're afraid it will open a whole new can of worms. They're worried that making any changes to the Constitution would open the door for additional changes and don't want to mess with it.

Eliminating the Electoral College would also allow the emergence of additional political alternatives, eroding the influence of the two major political parties. Winning the presidency by popular vote would require a majority (50 percent plus 1) of the vote. Thus many candidates could run for the office and become potential spoilers.

The two major candidates would possibly be forced to give some concessions to minority parties to gain their support. But as is true with human nature, especially with politicians, those in power don't want to give up their power.

The Electoral College is a camel bequeathed to us by our founding fathers. The framers of the Constitution were very wise men, but this is a new era of communications and technology. What worked in 1776 may not be the most desirable option in 2004. It's time for government to catch up with the rest of us.

If we really need a camel, we can always ship one in from Baghdad.