Sunday, October 31, 2004

The electoral college:
Will it decide
this one, too?

Our system of voting might
be controversial, but it's not
likely to be replaced anytime soon

The 2000 election brought a new public awareness of our seemingly arcane method of electing our president. Some were saying that we should get rid of the Electoral College and have the president chosen solely on the basis of the popular vote. Those calls faded. However, we are facing the possibility that the 2004 election will be decided in the Electoral College again and not by popular vote.

I had only basic knowledge about the Electoral College until 1988, when I decided that I wanted to be a Republican elector from Hawaii. This was primarily because I had been the state coordinator for the George H.W. Bush campaign, and I had hoped to actually cast a ballot for the prospective president. Even though Bush won the White House, I didn't get to vote because Bush's opponent, Walter Mondale, won the Hawaii vote. It was still a good learning experience because I really brushed up on all the nuts and bolts of how the system worked.

I knew the U.S. Constitution provided that each state would have electors equal to the number of members it has in the U.S. Congress. Hawaii has two senators and two members of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington. Therefore Hawaii has four electors. Of course, the number of representatives in each state may change each decade according to the size of each state's population as determined by the census.

Today there are 538 electors in the country. To win the presidency, one must be elected by a majority -- at least 270 -- electoral votes. After the election, the electors in each state meet in the state Capitol and cast their ballots.

In Hawaii, the electors representing the candidate who carried the state meet in the governor's office on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. They cast their ballots and send them to the president of the Senate, who on Jan. 6 opens them and reads the votes in the presence of both houses of Congress. The winner is sworn into office at noon Jan. 20.

Twenty-four states require that the electors vote for the candidate who receives the plurality of the state's votes, but the punishment for not doing so is not severe and it is rarely enforced.

Popular-vote victors have lost four times. They were Andrew Jackson (in 1824 to John Quincy Adams); Samuel Tilden (in 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes); Grover Cleveland (in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison) and, most recently, Al Gore.

The Constitution states that one must receive a majority of the electoral votes to become president. If one doesn't gain the majority, then the election goes to the U.S. House of Representatives, whose members select the next president from among the three leading candidates, with each state delegation getting only one vote.

In 48 of the 50 states, it is winner-take-all; in other words, all of a state's electoral votes must be cast for the popular-vote winner in that state. Two states, Maine and Nebraska, use the "district plan." In that system a candidate would get one electoral vote for each U.S. House district he carried and a bonus of 2 (representing the two senators) if he carried the entire state.

People wonder how this concept of an Electoral College came about. In the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the smaller states were reluctant to join the union because they didn't want to be dominated by the big states. The small states preferred a plan that called for a one-house national legislature with representatives selected by state legislatures. Each state would have one vote. The larger states preferred a plan that proposed that any national legislative body be based solely upon population.

The delegates finally compromised on a plan that created a bicameral legislature in which the lower house would represent population and the upper would have equal representation from each state. This "Great Compromise" saved the union and eventually became the philosophical and legal basis of the Electoral College.

Since the concept is part of the Constitution, I can safely predict that it won't be changed, principally because amending the Constitution is so difficult. An amendment must be passed by a two-thirds vote in Congress and then by each state. Since the electoral system favors small states, and the majority of states are considered "small" in terms of population, why would they vote to diminish their own influence?

James V. Hall is a former adjunct lecturer on the American Political System at Hawaii Pacific University.


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