This Election Day, voters have an additional worry besides touch-screen machines, missing absentee ballots and long lines: the effectiveness of the Electoral College.
In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote but won the electoral vote, making him president of the United States. Although this has often been portrayed as a freak accident, it has happened three other times in history, with John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888. And, because no changes have been made to the system in the past four years, it may happen again.
It’s time to reform the Electoral College.
The founding fathers created the Electoral College in the Constitution as a compromise between allowing Congress to appoint a president and permitting the ignorant masses to recklessly choose a head of state. This may have been appropriate and effective way back when, but it seems antiquated today.
The founders lived in a time when the media weren’t ubiquitous and when the candidates couldn’t hop on a plane several times a day to visit all the states in a matter of weeks, so they were concerned with an uninformed electorate choosing a president. Voters today, however, are generally savvy and informed enough to make their own decisions.
Supporters of the system say that, in addition to protecting voters from themselves, it ensures that small states are represented in the election. In effect, small states cast at least three electoral votes, regardless of their populations. However, without the College, the vote of a person in Rhode Island would count just as much as the vote of a person in California, and the overall population of the state would be irrelevant.
As it stands, the candidates spend most of their time campaigning in “strategic” states, which means that voters in places like New York and Texas rarely see their candidates (or their television ads, for that matter). Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Utah rightly feel that their votes don’t count, since the winner-take-all electoral vote system essentially discards the votes of those who voted for the losing presidential candidate in the state. Besides being undemocratic, the nature of this system makes voters in solid blue or red states lose interest in the election and thus increases the likelihood of abstention.
It’s ironic that we promote democratic elections around the world, but we do not have a popular vote system at home.
If abolishing the Electoral College by amending the Constitution seems too drastic (although a recent TIME poll indicates that 56 percent of respondents would support it), then a step forward would be following the example of Maine, Nebraska and perhaps Colorado to split the electoral votes.
Today, voters in Colorado will cast their ballots on Amendment 36, which would divide the state’s nine electoral votes proportionately to the popular vote received by each candidate. If it passes, the amendment would take effect tomorrow – that is, it would apply to this election, since members of the Electoral College do not cast their votes until December.
Perhaps by splitting the votes in each state, the total number of electoral votes for each candidate would eventually be the same as with the winner-take-all system. However, the people would feel represented by the electoral votes, and the chances of the president winning the electoral vote despite losing the popular vote would decrease.
Unfortunately, unless states follow Colorado’s example, it is unlikely that too-afraid-to-change legislators will do anything to reform the Electoral College. Politicians will only act until an election is once again decided by an arcane system or by the Supreme Court, or until the president is chosen by the House of Representatives and the vice president by the Senate, as would happen if the electoral votes are tied at 269 for each candidate (a Bush-Edwards ticket, anyone?), and by then, it will probably be too late.