'A Flaw in Our System'?
Thursday, November 2, 2000
WASHINGTON Next week, Americans will elect a new president to lead the nation. Or will they?
According to the U.S. Constitution, it is an elite group of electors and not the popular vote that decides who the next president will be. Today, there are 538 members of the Electoral College from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the number of electors from each state being equal to its total number of senators and representatives. A candidate needs 270 votes, or 50 percent plus one vote, to win.
But most states mandate that the winner of the state's popular vote will receive its entire allotment of electoral votes. This winner-take-all process means it is possible for a candidate to win narrowly in some states but lose the nationwide popular tally and still win the presidency.
Two Capitol Hill lawmakers want to change this constitutional provision. They are calling for an amendment that would abolish the Electoral College and return the decision to the public.
"It's time for the Electoral College to close down. It's time to put this constitutional dinosaur permanently in a museum," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters Wednesday.
"You can run from township clerk to U.S. Senate and the popular vote counts, but for the most powerful person in the whole world, the popular vote does not count. This is a flaw in our system," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill.
Roots of a Dilemma
The Electoral College was developed by the nation's founding fathers, who feared that because of the size and scope of the nation, voters would not have an opportunity to get to know the presidential candidates and therefore should appoint representatives to select a winner for them.
But with advances in transportation and communication, that reality has changed.
"In the old days ... there were a lot fewer states, and the people really had no access to the candidates and their ideas because there wasn't television and there wasn't the opportunity for them to fly from, you know, California to Illinois in one day and do five stops," LaHood said. "The old days of having an elite group of people decide who the president is is passe. The people know who the candidates are, they know what they stand for, they know where they're at on the issues."
Three times in American history, the popular vote and Electoral College vote have conflicted, although not since 1888 when Democrat Grover Cleveland lost the electoral vote to Republican Benjamin Harrison even though Cleveland had 100,000 more popular votes.
With the current presidential race running neck-and-neck, such a scenario has arisen as a possibility again, although some feel it's not likely to occur.
"It's theoretically possible, but I don't think it's quite probable," said Hal Bruno, senior political analyst for Politics.com. Bruno said it's more likely that there will be a "narrow popular vote with a decisive electoral vote gap," both favoring a single candidate.
Fear of a split vote, though, is not something the candidates share.
"We fully expect the popular vote and the Electoral College vote to be consistent," said Ray Sullivan, spokesman for the Bush campaign. "We're certainly tracking the Electoral College in the larger battleground states that will help make the difference."
Sullivan said the campaign is not spending time coming up with a game plan to contest a split vote.
Mike Frank, vice president of government affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said he thinks that even though the Electoral College could prevail over popular vote, the founding fathers would hate to see it go.
"The Electoral College goes back to the broad outlines under which the states decided to be a union," he said. "It's part of checks and balances. It's part of a long heritage."
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