Following almost every close presidential election, alarms sound to abolish the Electoral College, and the national salivations come forth on schedule. Dusty arguments are hauled out of storage, refitted, and gravely re-intoned by television newsreaders anxious to be seen on the side of trendy reform. The argument hasn’t changed much since Andrew Jackson’s partisans falsely claimed that the election of 1824 was stolen by eastern oligarchs. The central claim is that the current system is “undemocratic” because the electoral-vote winner may trail in the popular vote.
This is said to have happened on four occasions—1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. Despite “official” election returns from those years, however, no close student of the subject takes voting statistics at face value. In 1824, the presidency was not yet fully understood as a popularly elective office, and Jackson’s assertion that he “won” the popular vote was pure drivel. In the other three examples, methods of counting were so inconsistent and unreliable (as Florida in 2000 amply demonstrates) that no one can say with any confidence what the popular vote actually was. And that’s without taking into account outright fraud, which was far more extensive than anyone likes to admit. Suffice it to say that in a national election where the difference between the leading candidates has to be measured at the third decimal place, the popular-vote winner can hardly lay special claim to democratic legitimacy.
Curiously, most who think the current system undemocratic support the idea of direct election. Under the leading reform proposal, the candidate who leads with at least 40 percent of the vote is declared the winner; if no one passes 40 percent, a runoff between the top two would occur in early December. Apart from the ordeal of having to go through two elections, this means that one who is not the choice of 60 percent of the electorate can be elected president. I leave to the proponents to explain how that represents an improvement in democratic theory.
This disingenuousness on the level of principle also betrays fatal flaws on the practical level. Direct election will necessitate runoffs virtually every time, because once the states are severed from the electoral process, there will be no way to limit candidacies. Winner-take-all at the state level is the principal reason why we usually have only two, major parties under the electoral-vote system. Should that custom be abandoned, we will face a plethora of small parties of every description, each contending for a small portion of the national vote in an effort to obtain bargaining leverage between the first election and the runoff. We need to remember that our major parties are but loose coalitions of 50 state parties. They acquire such unity as they possess from the political necessity of having to capture a majority of electoral votes. If states are denied a constitutional role in presidential elections, the national parties will decompose, in all likelihood splintering into diverse ideological, geographical, perhaps even racial and religious factions. Many of these will be inclined to run candidates of their own and might be foolish if they didn’t.
No one can confidently predict what our politics would look like under such a system, but they would certainly be far less stable and far more prone to demagogic appeals. The natural tendency of this large and diverse nation is centrifugal. Holding it together is a complicated business involving deep-seated habits of mind and behavior that derive from our constitutional structure and, in particular, from the manner in which we select our chief executive. John F. Kennedy (an opponent of direct election) had it right when he compared our constitutional and political arrangements to the solar system. If you change one part, he said, you necessarily affect every other part.
Far from demonstrating the fragility of the current system, the recent Florida imbroglio showed its virtues. Pry the lid off almost any election, and you will find all sorts of electoral improprieties. In a presidential election where 100 million pieces of paper have to be collated and counted, ordinary human frailty will produce a certain margin of error. Under the electoral-vote system, those errors are sealed off at the state borders and rarely affect the national outcome.
Under direct election, you will get not one but many Floridas, and you will get them every time. The political future of the nation will rest in the hands of trial lawyers. I’ll stick with the Founding Fathers.