Right on schedule, in the closing weeks of another close presidential election, there’s talk aplenty about a potential tie in the electoral vote count (269-269) or the possibility that the popular vote loser winds up in the White House anyway (a la George W. Bush, loser by 600,000 votes in 2000). What a farce. None of these nutty scenarios would even be feasible if we weren’t shackled to the archaic rules of the Electoral College.
Granted, it’s a bit of a parlor game to run the numbers this way. But weird outcomes have happened before, thanks to the Rube Goldberg contraption devised by the Founding Fathers. The latest buzz is all about the tie scenario, which arguably could happen if – according to current polling in the handful of swing states – President Obama wins Ohio, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin, while Mitt Romney racks up Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado. Or various other feasible combinations.
This is why the Electoral College flunks the test of credibility. If only we could sweep it away via constitutional amendment and simply elect our leaders the same way virtually all other democracies do it. The concept is really quite simple: the candidate with the most votes wins. End of story. No need to game out political crises that would make us look ridiculous.
I’ve been railing about this issue for years, in a nonpartisan fashion. Long after the 2004 election had come and gone, I lamented in a newspaper column that John Kerry came perilously close to beating President Bush in the Electoral College, despite losing the nationwide popular tally by 3.5 million. A switch of just 59,388 votes in pivotal Ohio would have put Kerry in the White House. To me, that seemed just as preposterous as Bush’s 2000 ascent despite losing the nationwide vote to Al Gore.
It’s bad enough that a president who loses the popular vote is often tagged by his opponents as illegitimate (Rutherford B. Hayes was frequently called “His Fraudulency”). Even worse is how the Electoral College disenfranchises millions of voters. Democrats who live in red states like Alabama, and Republicans who live in blue states like Massachusetts, essentially cast meaningless votes. Indeed, all voters in roughly 40 states are largely ignored by the candidates during the campaign season; the undecided voter in Ohio or Colorado is a far more valued human subspecies than a committed voter in red-state Kansas or blue-state Delaware.
Or look at it this way: The system was devised by the Founders, as a compromise, to boost rural states at the expense of the big states.The result, more than two centuries later, is that voters in the big states get screwed. This is obvious if we simply compare Pennsylvania and Wyoming. The latter has 568,000 people and gets three electoral votes (one House member and two senators); Pennsylvania has 12.7 million people and gets 20 electoral votes (18 House members and two senators). If you run the math, you discover that in Wyoming there are 189,000 people for each elector – but in Pennsylvania, there are 637,000 people for each elector.
The first principle of democracy is that all votes should be equal, and the Supreme Court has even endorsed the principle of one person, one vote. The Electoral College violates the letter and spirit of both.
And without it, we would be spared the possibility of deadlocks and crises and scenarios nearly as nutty as this one.
In fact, the absurdity of our system came up in conversation last night, here in Paris. I gave a talk on the presidential race, and during Q & A, a Frenchwoman – who was rightfully flummoxed by the Electoral College – asked in bewilderment: “Why doesn’t the Democratic voter in Texas, and the Republican voter in California, rise up and complain about this system you have? Why doesn’t anybody want to change it?”
And I basically replied: Welcome to America.
Quote of the week, courtesy of Richard Mourdock, the tea-partying Republican senatorial candidate in Indiana: He said during a debate that when women are impregnated by their rapists, it’s God’s will.
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Is it any wonder why his Democratic opponent is still so competitive?
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1