. . Rather than going through the labors of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College system with a national tally for president, which has failed every time it has been attempted, they have come up with a plan for bypassing the required two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and the ratification by three-fourths of the states.
. . Instead, the advocates propose that states with sufficient electoral votes -- 270 of the 538 -- to comprise an electoral majority enter into an interstate compact, pledging to give their votes to the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes. That action could allow the legislatures of as few as 11 states to change the whole system of electing a president."
Sponsored by former independent presidential nominee John Anderson and former Senator Birch Bayh, it has been endorsed by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and, earlier this month, by the editorial page of The New York Times, which called the Electoral College ''an antidemocratic relic."
Broder opposes this endeavor, for reasons that I do not dispute.
Yes, had this system been in place, the national tragicomic farce that began unrolling in 2000 would not have happened. We would have been spared the spectacle of a divisively partisan president claiming "mandate" when his opponent actually got more votes.
Still, I am unimpressed with the argument that a plurality winner who has surpassed his rival by only a few hundred votes - or a few thousand - is thus profoundly and qualitatively endowed with special mandatory grace, especially when "plurality" still means that more people voted against him than voted for him.
"majority rule" is not the core element of democracy. Rather it is democracy’s most crass and simpleminded aspect, emphasizing the raw power of larger numbers to impose their will upon smaller numbers. An improvement over rule by bullying minorities of gentry and oligarchs, but not a perfect one.
Indeed, majority rule was held in low esteem - considered a necessary evil - by everyone from Pericles to the American Founders, who went out of their way to emphasize other, more important democratic traits, like balance of power, reciprocal accountability, openness, individual rights and the need for relentless and ongoing negotiation. -- especially with aggrieved minorities. The Electoral College was itself set up in order to add complexity and to modify the crude passions of majority rule.
The Anderson-Bayh proposal coarsely attempts to impose the will of just a dozen states upon the whole nation - not in picking a president, per se (since the plurality-winner is at least as righteous a pick as anybody else), but by imposing a principle of pure majoritarianism... nay pluralitarianism... upon the nation without sufficient discussion or deliberation.
In order to see how foolish this is, try on this thought experiment.
Imagine that a truly powerful run by a couple of third-party candidates were to divide the electorate into tiny fragments, as happened in 1912 and even more so in 1860. Should the winner of as few as 26% of the popular votes automatically become president, without even a chance for the nation to take a breath and think things over? In theory, that candidate might be the hated bottom-choice of the divided 74%. Yet, under pluralitarianism, she or he would become chief executive.
Other countries solve this problem by holding run-offs among the top two vote-getters, something that seemed impossibly onerous and time-consuming in George Washington’s time. But why not today? Or let’s get even more modern. Ideally, in an age of computers, we should be smart enough to use preferential ballots, as they do in Australia, a sophisticated and just system under which Americans would get to rank-order their choices and be guaranteed never, ever to get a president who is hated by a majority. (More on this elsewhere.)
Ah, but as has been widely pointed out, these solutions require Constitutional tinkering that is nearly impossible to achieve, when powerful forces benefit from the status quo. Are we thus doomed forever to worry about rule by some dismal crackpot, put into office by some minority electoral quirk?
What is weird is that the Founders actually thought about this problem. We generally think of the Electoral College as a reflex and automatic vote-allocation system that works according to strict allocation by winner-takes-all in every state. But, in fact, the electors themselves are not required, by the Constitution, to act as complete robots. The word "college" implies some level of collegial deliberation is possible, and might even have been expected, by the Framers. Indeed, within living memory, a few electors have broken from strict partisan discipline and cast their votes in unexpected ways.
Consider the 2000 election, in which the Bush-Cheney team entered office by the margin of just ONE electoral vote, over-riding the pluralitarian will of the people. The mind is tempted to ponder some parallel world in which just one of the Bush-Cheney electors might have taken a notion to help heal a divided nation with a gesture, offering something to the disgruntled majority of Americans who had clearly voted against George W. Bush...
... that imaginative and public-spirited elector might have done this by casting a deciding VICE presidential vote for Joe Lieberman. With a stroke, this delegate to a sovereign constitutional institution might have forced a different, possibly more accommodating tone upon an administration that has made "culture war" its guiding principle. Is that parallel America happier than this one, less divided, less bitter? Would that one elector’s gesture have made any real difference? No one can say. But one thing is for certain. The Electoral College would have never again been viewed the same way.
I have taken too long on this. But let me conclude by saying that Anderson-Bayh almost certainly mean well. They just haven’t thought things out. There are some other possible ways to tweak and improve the Electoral College system, WITHOUT either tinkering with the Constitution or imposing an end-run trick, that out gerrymanders the gerrymanderers.
I discuss this one such proposal at:
The kernel idea: we tend to assume that all states are required to divvy their electors according to a rule of "winner-takes-all." But familiar process this is, in fact, just another example of state-based gerrymandering. Two states use a different approach, more closely representing the will of their voters.
Is it possible that a simple lawsuit, demanding "one-person-one-vote"- if cogently presented, might persuade even this Supreme Court to banish winner-takes-all across the board? In a stroke, this would force the distribution of Electoral College votes to more closely reflect the popular vote. Imperfectly, but a step in the right direction. That is, if this Supreme Court actually values "one person, one vote."
For a more general look at gerrymandering, see:
Alas, in the near term, none of these matters will make much difference. We are in a situation that few of us would have imagined, only a decade ago. In a 21st Century that was supposed to be sophisticated and subtle, with educated citizens engaged in even-tempered, complicated, problem-solving discourse, we find ourselves instead waging Culture War across ideological battle lines that would have looked simpleminded even to Huey Long.
For more on politics, see: Politics for the 21st Century