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Getting Rid of the Electoral College by Keeping It

By       Message Alexander Belenky     Permalink
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As the 2008 election nears, many Americans express concerns about the rules of presidential elections.

The Founding Fathers devised the Electoral College as an "intermediate, independent Congress" to be appointed every four years to choose a President.

Yet, this election mechanism has transformed into an outlandish mathematical scheme, weirdly aggregating American votes, not cast for presidential candidates but determining which of these candidates wins.

Citizens from each state and DC vote only for competing slates of presidential electors. Though each elector from the winning slate is supposed to favor the presidential candidate heading the slate, it's not a must, attesting to the deliberative nature of the Electoral College's initial design.

This makes the election outcome dangerously dependent on the voting behavior of electors and leaves the country with two puzzling alternatives.

First, if, constitutionally, electors can favor whomever they want, then after 220 years, 538 state and DC electors still can substitute their own will for that of almost 200 million American voters.

Second, if all the electors from each slate had to follow the will of the state, then the states (and DC) rather than a college of electors would elect a President, and the states would have different numbers of electoral votes, reflecting the state’s population size.

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But the Constitution allows the states to elect a President only in the House of Representatives, only according to the “one state, one vote” principle—guaranteeing the equal suffrage of states in electing a President in Congress (and in amending the Constitution)—and only if the Electoral College fails to elect a President.

The "winner-take-all" rule of awarding electoral votes makes many states "safe" for either major party candidate. This rule contributes to narrowing election campaigns to a "battleground minority" of the states and to keeping almost 45 percent of the electorate not interested in voting in presidential elections. A popular vote loser can win the Presidency by winning in a minority of the states, and a third-party candidate can affect the outcome without winning a single electoral vote.

Under the existing election rules, voting even for state electors isn’t constitutionally guaranteed to Americans, remaining, in fact, a privilege at any time revocable by the state legislature, as the Supreme Court reaffirmed in 2000.

Yet, the Electoral College was no more than part of a compromise, keeping states of free settlers together as a nation. The sense and the circumstances of the compromise suggest that the Founding Fathers might have expected new generations of Americans to propose a better election system or at least a better compromise in electing a President.

Today, appreciating the federal structure of the country, many voters consider themselves Americans first and citizens of their respective states second. This may signal that presidential election rules should better reflect this feeling than they currently do.

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A direct popular election of a President is often referred to as an alternative to the Electoral College. Despite both merits and deficiencies of this alternative, introducing this type of election both de jure—by a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College—and de facto— without amending the Constitution (National Popular Vote Plan)—seems unlikely.

Under any direct popular election, small states—with five electoral votes and fewer—and currently "battleground" medium-size states lose their Electoral College benefits while gaining nothing in exchange. These states are unlikely to support either proposal.

But these states may support introducing the nationwide popular vote in presidential elections in a manner allowing the states to gain more attention in presidential campaigns while preserving all they have under the Electoral College.

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Alexander S. Belenky is the author of the books "Extreme Outcomes of US Presidential Elections" (2003), "Winning the US Presidency: Rules of the Game and Playing by the Rules" (2004), and "How America Chooses Its Presidents" (2007). He is Guest (more...)

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