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Saving the Electoral College, with Gordon Lloyd (The Washington Times) November 18, 2004

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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There is one four-year college a number of people would like to close: the Electoral College. More than 700 proposals to reform or eliminate it have been introduced over the years, exceeding any other effort to change or remove part of the Constitution. Public opinion polls, including one just prior to the 2004 presidential election, consistently show a majority of Americans favor closing the College.

Despite all the prophecies of doom and gloom, however, the sky did not fall on Election Day and the Electoral College once again played a constructive role, albeit one that is not well-understood. The Electoral College does not need to be closed; it needs to be appreciated as an intermediary institution that distinguishes and preserves the United States as a federal republic, not a direct democracy.

You think you understand the Electoral College and its role? Did you know the term “Electoral College” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution? Were you aware there is no national meeting of the electors? In fact, the Electoral College, as it came to be called in the early 19th century, is not a national four-year college, but really 51 separate state colleges. If you did not pass this college test, there is more.

The elector system–the Constitution refers to electors, not a college–was established by the Founders as an important intermediary institution. It was not, as some have later claimed, an elitist move to override the popular vote, but rather a compromise to involve certain elements of direct democracy, aspects of the republican form of governance and a role for the states. Some thought Congress should choose the president, others thought the states, and still others preferred a straight popular vote.

As French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his classic text, “Democracy in America,” our society benefits greatly from a variety of these intermediary institutions that stand between the individual and the federal government. He lists several of these, including not only the press, the judiciary and civic associations, but also the Electoral College.

In that same spirit, as Alexander Hamilton said of the election of the president, an “intermediate body of electors” will “afford as little opportunity as possible for tumult and disorder.” The Founders also agreed on the importance of intermediary institutions by requiring a three-fourths vote of the states to ratify an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Specifically, the Electoral College provides greater geographic balance to selection of a president. Notice where the candidates spent their time the weekend prior to the election, and where the television networks were focused on election night: Pennsylvania, Florida, the upper Midwest, New Mexico, Nevada and even Hawaii. What a marvelous cross-section of America was a play in this close election. And where would the candidates have been without the Electoral College? In New York and Los Angeles, with their huge populations centers, and in states where they could easily increase their base. Can we really say that would have been a better campaign?

The College also helps aggregate votes more locally. Imagine the chaos if, in 2000, there were close votes and recall challenges in a dozen states, not just in Florida. Th popular argument that the Electoral College prevents every vote from counting conveniently ignores the fact that votes must be aggregated in some way. The Electoral College aggregates votes by state and, in some cases, by congressional district.

This aggregation of state voting also prevents minor-arty candidates from having a major impact on the outcome by garnering large numbers of regional votes. Ross Perot, for example, carried 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, but won no electoral votes.

In our haste toward direct democracy and national uniformity — ballot propositions, recall elections, term limits and the like — let us now destroy those intermediary institutions that strengthen and stabilize the federal republic.

What Daniel Webster said of his alma mater might well describe the Electoral College: “It is a small college. And yet there are those who love it.”

This op/ed appeared on Page A-19.

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