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Who’s afraid of the electoral college? with Gordon Lloyd (San Francisco Chronicle) September 23, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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A hundred year rain is starting to fall. No, we’re not talking about the storms pounding Florida. This is a more predictable rain of words starting to pour down on the electoral college since events in Florida, 2000, resulted in the first election in more than a hundred years where the winner of the popular presidential vote lost in the electoral college. Another close vote may be in the offing and the political operatives are running scared.

Not only are the presidential campaigns already lining up lawyers to challenge the outcome of the 2004 election, but pre-emptive attacks on the legitimacy of the electoral college are sweeping through newspapers across the land. One influential editorial page says it’s time to abolish the electoral college with its “arcane rules” because every vote no longer counts.

Not to be outdone, scholars in other major paper argue that the electoral college was deliberately created to enhance the institution of slavery and exclude women from the franchise. Storm alerts should be issued for such overheated rhetoric, revisionist history and alarmist scenarios.

The fact is the electoral college is in place and it would take a constitutional amendment to remove it. With three-fourths of the states enjoying stronger influence in the electoral process with the college than without it, that change is about as likely as abolishing hurricanes in Florida. So why don’t we work within the system now and then discuss changes to the electoral college after the election?

The real impact of all this fear and loathing of the electoral college is to confuse people about its purposes and processes, and to undermine public confidence in its results. It’s an old adage: If you don’t like the outcome, complain about the process, only now we do it pre-emptively, not just after the fact.

The critics of the electoral college are actually in political denial: They can’t accept the fact that we don’t have one presidential election in this country. We actually have 51 (we temporarily grant Washington, D.C., state status for the election.) When we Californians vote, we are telling the state how we think California should vote for a president of the United States, not a president of America.

The framers of our Constitution created the electoral college because there was a consensus at the founding that we were both a nation of people and a nation of states. It allows a balance between the needs of national uniformity and an appreciation for state and local diversity. Elections must occur on the same day, but states may allocate their electoral votes as they wish. More than 90 percent of the states have a winner-take-all system. Maine and Nebraska permit the allocation of their electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote, and Colorado is considering a similar reform.

The high-ground objection to the electoral college is that states are no longer a vital part of the American system. We could decide to become exclusively a nation of people and discard the role of state and local institutions in presidential elections. We could challenge the claim that the electoral college for over a hundred years has discouraged end runs, provided a geographic check and balance, assured that large cities and states do not dominate elections year in and year out, and that no region of the country is neglected. But we should discuss these claims after the heat of the campaign and do so within the context than an amendment is needed.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if both George W. Bush and John Kerry said they would not challenge the outcome of the electoral college, having agreed to abide by it when they entered the contest? But in an era of endless protests, appeals and challenges, that seems unlikely. As we learned in 2000, elections these days are not over even when they’re over.

This article appeared on Page B-9.

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