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NMSU professor says election points up foibles of Electoral College

The standoff between Bush and Gore points up -- once again - - the foibles of the Electoral College system, New Mexico State University government professor Nancy Baker said.

There have been several presidential races in U.S. history in which candidates won, or did well in, the popular vote, but were defeated by electoral numbers, Baker said.

"In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote over Rutherford B. Hayes by 250,000 votes, only to lose the presidency by one electoral vote. In 1888, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote over Benjamin Harrison by over 90,000 votes, but lost by 65 votes in the electoral college," Baker said.

"In 1960 Richard Nixon had convincing evidence some of the popular votes cast for John Kennedy in Illinois were cast by dead people, but he didn't challenge the votes, because they wouldn't have made any difference in the electoral count," she added.

The irony of the U.S. system, Baker said, is that, while we pride ourselves on being among the oldest and longest-running modern democracies, we are really not a nation of one person, one vote.

When U.S. citizens vote in a presidential race, they actually are voting for the members of their state's slate of electors, Baker explained. Each state has as many electors as members of its Congressional delegation -- one elector for each representative and one for each senator.

Every state, regardless of its population, has two senators and at least one representative.

In most states the candidate winning the state's popular vote gets all its electors, but, although the Electoral College is established by the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution does not require electors to respect the popular vote, Baker said.

"The Constitution says nothing about 'winner take all.' Electors are not even obligated to vote for their party's candidate, because when the Electoral College was established there were no parties," she said.

"I think the Electoral College is anti-democratic. That was its original purpose -- to be anti-democratic," she said.

A product of the 1789 Constitutional convention, the Electoral College was established because our nation's founding fathers didn't trust the common people, Baker said.

"They feared that the people were unpredictable and that, without the Electoral College, they would elect a demagogue. So, the argument was to select paternalistic 'men of honor' who were above the passions of the moment," she said.

The result was a system with a number of unintended consequences, she added.

"The Electoral College exaggerates the margin of victory for the winner and dissuades the loser from questioning the result. Also, we've opened up the voting franchise dramatically since 1789 and that suspicion of the people is antiquated," she said.

Although it may be antiquated, the Electoral College would be difficult to abolish, she added.

"It benefits states with large populations and states with small populations, because they get at least three electors. Since a Constitutional amendment has to pass Congress by a two- thirds majority, then must be ratified by three-fourths of all states, you can see why it would be almost impossible," Baker said.

In a winner-take-all electoral system, third parties primarily play a spoiler role in elections, she added.

"Third-party candidacies always draw from the support of one of the two main parties. In this election, the Greens pulled disproportionately from the Democrats," she said.

"Ralph Nader made a very idealistic appeal to voters and I hope those who supported him are not going to be disillusioned, because he didn't make a very good showing and because, if Bush is elected, his agenda is the antithesis of the Green Party's agenda," she said.

Nevertheless, at certain times in U.S. history, third parties have played important roles, she added.

"Between 1856 and 1860, we saw the demise of one of the major parties of that time, the Whigs, to be replaced by the new Republican Party. In 1912, the Progressive Party candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt, who had been a Republican, undermined the candidacy of Republican William Howard Taft, putting Woodrow Wilson in the White House," she said.

Third parties have affected U. S. politics, even replaced established parties, when they championed newly important issues that cut deeply across existing party lines, Baker said.

"An example is the Republican stand against slavery in the 19th century. In 1912, the Progressive Party had an agenda that the Democrats later adopted in part -- issues such as anti-trust legislation, pure food and drugs, minimum wages, maximum hours and better working conditions," she said.

"If the two original parties don't adjust to newly important, cross-cutting, issues, they risk being replaced," she said.

Jack King
Nov. 9, 2000