Hoover Daily Report

Three Cheers for the Electoral College

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

The prospect of another close presidential election has some people demanding that the nation's Electoral College be reformed. It's one reason to hope that whichever party prevails this November does so decisively, to discourage any change in how America chooses its leaders.

At present, 270 electoral votes are required to win the presidency—each state's electoral count is the same as its congressional delegation (California, for example, with 53 House members and 2 senators, has 55 electoral votes). All but two states—Maine and Nebraska—award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis that does not take into account margin of victory. Thus there is room for controversy, such as that which occurred four years ago when George W. Bush earned 271 electoral votes to Al Gore's 266, despite Mr. Gore's winning the popular vote. It was the third time since the Civil War that the presidency has been decided by such a split verdict.

But does the outcome four years ago—and the outside chance that the pattern could repeat itself this fall—merit a change to the Constitution? The answer is a resounding no, when one considers many of the alternatives. Those include

1. Popular vote. Scrap the Electoral College: whichever candidate gets the most votes gets the top office.

2. Popular bonus. Retain the current system, but give the winner of the popular vote extra electoral votes as a reward for carrying a state's popular vote.

3. Congressional districts. Instead of winner-take-all, award electoral votes per congressional district (this is the system in effect in Maine and Nebraska).

4. Proportional allocation. Divide each state's electoral votes according to the popular vote (such a change is on the ballot in Colorado this November).

Unfortunately, America's smaller states stand to lose if any of these reforms take place. Candidates would spend more time in larger states where there are a greater number of votes and, potentially, greater rewards. Big states, with their large media markets, would dominate the fall campaign. That would make for a tactical and stylistic change: presidential elections based more on mass marketing in urban areas than on retail political skills in rural communities. Ironically, that's the polar opposite of how the two parties choose their nominees: sizing up candidates as they go door to door in small towns in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Over the past 200 years, some 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College. Instead, lawmakers should recognize the realities of these times: in the past three presidential elections, no candidate achieved 50 percent of the vote. Although he did lose the popular vote by 0.5 percent of the national total, Mr. Bush nevertheless carried 30 of the 50 states, 228 of the 435 congressional districts, and 2,480 counties to Mr. Gore's 674.

In this regard, the Electoral College narrowly chose a winner based on his performance as the candidate with broader national appeal. Come to think of it, it is a national election, not a regional choice.