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Posted July 16, 2008
The Brilliance of the Electoral College
Globe Columnist

OVER THE LAST two centuries, constitutional amendments to abolish or alter the Electoral College have been proposed in Congress more than 700 times. None has ever come close to being adopted - an indication, perhaps, of the existing system's enduring value. The most recent such proposal, introduced by US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, would eliminate the Electoral College in favor of direct popular election of the president. "If the principle of one-person-one-vote is to mean anything," Nelson declares, "the candidate who wins a majority of the votes should win the presidency." 

Actually, in no more than four of the nation's 54 presidential elections since 1789 has the electoral vote winner not been the candidate who won the popular vote - and in each case, the margin separating the candidates has been minuscule (In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote by about 500,000 votes -- just one-half of 1 percent of the more than 105 million votes cast.). If one-person-one-vote democracy is truly Nelson's highest civic value - he told the St. Petersburg Times that it is "the essential, fundamental principle" - his highest priority should be to abolish not the Electoral College, but the United States Senate.

After all, states are represented in the Electoral College roughly in proportion to their population: Each state has as many electors as it has members of Congress - from just three for the smallest states to 55 for California. But in the Senate, all states are equal, which means all voters are not. California, with 14.2 million registered voters, is entitled to the same number of senators as Wyoming, which has 265,000 voters. That makes the vote of a Wyoming resident 53 times as influential as the vote of a Californian. Shouldn't so flagrant a violation of the one-person-one-vote standard be intolerable?

Such concerns didn't trouble the framers of the Constitution, who did not believe that political contests should be decided by majority rule. They rejected "pure democracy," as James Madison explained in Federalist No. 10. They knew that with "nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual," blind majoritarianism can become as great a menace to liberty as any king or dictator. The term "tyranny of the majority" was coined for good reason.

That is why the framers went to such lengths to prevent popular majorities from too easily getting their way. They didn't concentrate unlimited power in any single institution, or in the hands of voters. They divided authority among the three branches of the federal government, and subdivided the legislative branch into two chambers. They reserved certain powers to the states. Time and again, the system they devised rejects simple majority rule. It takes only 51 senators (sometimes only 41) to block legislation that hundreds of lawmakers may support. The president can veto a bill passed by both houses of Congress - and it takes two-thirds of both the House and Senate to override his veto.

The Electoral College (like the Senate) was designed to preserve the role of the states in governing a nation whose name - the United States of America - reflects its fundamental federal nature. We are a nation of states, not of autonomous citizens, and those states have distinct identities and interests, which the framers were at pains to protect. Too many Americans today forget - or never learned - that the states created the central government; it wasn't the other way around. The federal principle is at least as important to American governance as the one-man-one-vote principle, and the Electoral College brilliantly marries them: Democratic elections take place within each state to determine that state's vote for president in the Electoral College.

To Senator Nelson's credit, he is trying to abolish the Electoral College properly: via constitutional amendment. Not so the backers of the so-called National Popular Vote compact, a scheme to evade the Constitution by persuading a bloc of states to pledge their electors to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, regardless of the outcome of the vote in each state.

Neither effort is likely to succeed where 700 earlier efforts have failed. And a good thing too, for the Electoral College remains the best system for picking a chief executive suited to a nation like ours: a geographically large, ideologically diverse, socially complex federal republic. No political process is foolproof, but this one has survived 220 years and 54 peaceful presidential elections. "If the manner of it be not perfect," wrote Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 68, "it is at least excellent."

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com.

Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company 2008 NY Times Co.

Reprinted from The Boston Globe of Wednesday, July 16, 2008.
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