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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

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20 November 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 45

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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States Could Easily Reform the Electoral College

by Jerome F. Winzig

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, there's been a lot of talk about the importance of the national popular vote. Vice President Al Gore and his supporters have regularly cited Gore's current narrow lead in the popular vote as a moral justification for filing legal challenges to the election results in Florida. Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton and others are calling for a constitutional amendment that would allow for election of the president by direct popular vote.

However, the founders of the American republic created the Electoral College for the same reason that they assigned two Senators to each state, regardless of size. Both are essential mechanisms to ensure that all areas of the country have a fair voice in running the country. Elections based on popular vote alone could easily become divisive, with each party focusing on those high population areas where it is the strongest.

Furthermore, direct popular election would not have resolved the current crisis facing the nation. Three days after the last polls closed, CNN was reporting that Gore had a lead of just 222,880 votes out of 100 million votes cast, with perhaps 3-4 million votes still left to be counted. If direct popular election were in place this year, the winner would be no clearer. Furthermore, the 19,000 invalid punched-card ballots in Palm Beach County, Florida might still be a cause for concern, as might the 120,000 invalid punched-card ballots reported by NBC in Cook County, Illinois.

However, Maine and Nebraska have each implemented a simple state reform measure that makes the electoral college more equitable. In these two states, one electoral vote is assigned to the presidential winner in each congressional district. Then the two remaining electoral votes are assigned to the statewide winner. (In the electoral college, each state receives one vote for each of its congressional representatives plus one votes for each of its U.S. senators.)

This approach has five powerful advantages. It gives equal weight to each congressional district in the country. It provides a modest reward for candidates who win the statewide vote, instead of the current winner-take-all approach. It ensures that candidates continue to reach out to the entire nation. It has far less potential to throw the country into the kind of crisis it is currently enduring; the Palm Beach County dispute would only have affected the electoral vote for that district and the two statewide votes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would not require a constitutional amendment. Each state could implement this reform measure on its own, and the seven states with just one congressional district and the District of Columbia would not have to act at all. In Minnesota, state representative Marty Seifert has already drafted a bill that would allocate Minnesota's ten electoral votes in this fashion.

This simple reform would have avoided this year's crisis. The exact results cannot yet be determined, because news organizations generally do not track presidential returns by congressional district. However, according to KMSP-TV in Minneapolis, if we assumed -- for sake of argument -- that the voters in each congressional district voted for the same party that they did for their U.S. representative, then Bush would have received 221 district electoral votes while Gore would have received 212 electoral votes. Bush would have received an additional 58 votes for the 29 states he carried, while Gore would have received 36 votes for the 18 states he carried. In addition, Gore would have received three electoral votes for the District of Columbia.

Under this scenario, on November 10, 2000, Bush would already have won, with 279 electoral votes to Gore's 215, even with the six state-wide electoral votes for Florida, Oregon, and New Mexico not yet assigned. (These totals exclude the districts of the two independent U.S. representatives.)

Would this have been a fair result? Consider this. While the two candidates are virtually tied in the total popular vote (Gore leads by just two-tenths of one percent), Bush has a wider national base than Gore, having already carried 29 states to Gore's 18 plus the District of Columbia. One can travel from Canada to Mexico, from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, and from Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean without travelling through a state carried by Gore.

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