From these 51 battles, a war called the election
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
Let's get rid of the World Series.
Instead, let's say that the best baseball team is the one that scores the most total runs each year.
Let's get rid of the NFL football playoffs, too.
Let's say that the two teams that score the most touchdowns during the regular season will meet in the Super Bowl, no matter their win-loss record.
In that case, do you agree that it takes more than raw numbers to determine who ought to win?
Me too. That's why we use the Electoral College to choose our president. People who want to get rid of the college, and use a direct popular vote, are missing the point.
There is not really one election next Tuesday. There are 51 separate elections. Each state of the union, and the District of Columbia, will decide which candidate will get its votes in the Electoral College.
Almost all the states award their electoral votes "winner take all." If Bush beats Gore by just one popular vote in Florida, he will get all 25 of our state's votes in the Electoral College. Same for Gore, of course.
That's why it is such a big deal to "carry California" or "carry Michigan" and so forth. The key point is that to become president, a candidate has to win states, not just votes. He or she has to have run a national campaign, and built a national consensus.
It is not enough to get the most raw numbers, like the baseball team that scored the most runs during the year. We have to ask: What does Florida say? What does Minnesota say? What does New Mexico say?
The Electoral College forces candidates to care about more than just racking up the most votes in big states such as New York, California and Texas. It is harder for big states to get together and run roughshod over the rest, as they could in a direct popular election.
The college is deliberately biased toward smaller states. Each state gets at least three electoral votes, even if its population is tiny. Allow me to do something rare, which is to quote George Will: "So what? Do critics want to abolish the Senate as well?" In our federal system, states get a certain amount of say-so just by sitting at the table.
Because of the winner-take-all rule, the Electoral College also is biased in favor of a more decisive result. Candidates with just a small edge in popular vote can still rack up a huge win in the Electoral College.
Compare that to relying on a direct popular vote, or even a "proportional" system used in parliamentary nations, in which each party got electoral votes according to its percentage of the popular vote. American politics could be blasted to smithereens.
Complain about the Republicans and Democrats if you will, but they are relatively centrist, reasonable institutions -- imagine them having to strike a bargain with the Greens, or the Socialists for that matter, to form a government.
Critics love to fret that the Electoral College might produce a president who actually got fewer votes than somebody else. This has happened three times, the last in 1888, although as Will points out, each election was razor-close and a fluke. The Electoral College has never produced a president who was soundly thrashed in the popular vote.
Besides, even that would not be a disaster. Remember that 16 of our presidents won with less than 50 percent of the raw vote -- most Americans wanted somebody else. The last time was 1992, when Bill Clinton won with just 43 percent of the popular vote. The last before that was Richard Nixon in 1968.
The name of the joint is the "United States," with an emphasis on "states." The Electoral College is the meeting table of those states. It transforms the raw numbers of democracy into the firm decision of a republic. Smart guys thought it up; it has worked for two centuries; there is no reason to change it, and many reasons not to.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
local news desks