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    Electoral College keeps check on big bully states

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    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000

    A few days before the election, when it seemed George W. Bush might win the popular vote but Al Gore the electoral vote, I wrote to defend the Electoral College.

    Now that the opposite appears possible, with Gore winning the popular vote and Bush winning in the Electoral College (if he holds Florida), it is a good time to make the case again.

    The argument for getting rid of the Electoral College is tempting. It seems perfectly obvious to its advocates. Why shouldn't the president be the candidate who gets the most votes in the national election, period?

    But there is no "national" election. There are 51 separate elections, one in each state and the District of Columbia. Texans might want Bush, or Californians might like Gore, but their votes do not determine the outcome of our own vote here in our own state.

    A few readers say they are tired of sports metaphors, but I perversely persist. Let's say that the New York Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox by 10 runs, and are scheduled to play the Baltimore Orioles next. They cannot use their "leftover" runs. They must play and win each game on its own merits.

    Likewise, if Bush wins big in Alabama, he does not get to haul those extra Alabama votes down here to Florida.

    Why not throw all the states into the same big pot of direct election?

    The answer is that the Electoral College emphasizes the role of the states, and requires candidates to build up a true consensus in a sufficient number of states around the nation.

    Otherwise, a candidate could simply rack up enough votes in a few big states to run roughshod over the rest. This prospect might seem remote today, but who knows what issues will arise?

    The Electoral College keeps small states at the table. Even the smallest gets at least three votes (it has two senators, and at least one U.S. House member). The Founders intended for each state to have a certain amount of say-so. If this is unfair, well, so is the U.S. Senate itself, because each state gets two senators no matter its population.

    The name of our nation is "The United States." It is a republic based on a federal scheme. The states are partners with, and shareholders in, the central government. It still means something to be from Florida, or Kentucky, or New Hampshire, or Montana.

    There are many criticisms of the Electoral College. Some critics attack it because it was created by men who owned slaves, and did not let women vote, and who wanted to strengthen the hand of the South against the North. That is true but irrelevant today, because all people have the right to vote. Meanwhile, the other benefits remain.

    A better criticism is that electors are able to switch their votes from the candidate who won a state's popular election. Not only is this not going to happen as a practical matter, but the loophole can be plugged without abandoning the entire system.

    Switching to a direct national election would require the states to give up control of their own ballots to a central federal authority. All 51 ballots would have to be identical, for a fair vote.

    We would have to figure out the rules -- wouldn't we have to hold two elections, the second a national runoff between the top two candidates? Or should we just let the top vote-getter win, even if he got only 30 or 40 percent of the total vote and a crowded field split the rest? Will this not lead to many new Ralph Naders, splitting the electorate into smaller and smaller pieces, and splintering the nation?

    Finally, if you think this recount in Florida has been a pain, consider having to recount the entire nation. Many Americans are saying we need a new system. But no system could hide the fact that we are equally, irreconcilably divided. That is the real problem. If half the people in a house want one thing, and the rest want another, that still is not necessarily grounds for tearing down the house.

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