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WALTER MEARS: Oft-Criticized Electoral College Does Its Duty Again

December 17, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Creaky, crazy, outdated and pointless, the critics said as the Electoral College went briefly into operation to affirm the obvious. President Clinton won.

But the electoral system is more than a leftover antiquity. It shapes the strategy of modern presidential campaigns. It buttresses the two-party system. And it tends to inflate the victory margin of the winner.

Clinton’s 49.2 percent of the popular vote became about 70 percent of the electoral vote. By carrying 31 states and the District of Columbia he got 379 electoral votes. Bob Dole won 159, in 19 states. Ross Perot had none, since he was stateless with 8.5 percent of the popular vote, as he had been with more than twice that share in the 1992 election.

That frustrates third party candidates, since votes that don’t win states don’t really count. It widens major party victory margins. It magnifies the power of the biggest states. And all of it invites proposals for change in the name of reform.

To which defenders reply that the system works. While electoral votes won for three presidents who trailed in the popular vote count, that hasn’t happened since 1888. It remains a remote, mathematical possibility, but in every election since, the electoral vote has affirmed the popular vote.

And at times, it has made a narrower margin into a landslide, as when Ronald Reagan got more than 90 percent of the electoral vote with only 51 percent of the popular vote in 1980.

While that may distort the numbers, political scientist Walter Berns wrote in a study published by the American Enterprise Institute that the system has helped avoid crises over presidential elections by declaring a clear winner even in the closest of popular vote outcomes.

That’s because the electoral vote does not reflect shares of the popular vote; it is state winner take all, although Maine and Nebraska award electoral votes by congressional district.

The congressional district system is one of the proposals advanced in the name of reform. States could make that change themselves, but the major ones won’t, since the current system strengthens their hands in national campaigns. Margins don’t matter. A narrow victory in a major state pays off with all its electoral votes, and that steers strategy.

The electoral vote system has drawn more proposed constitutional amendments than any other single subject.

The alternative most often proposed is to abolish the elector system in favor of direct, popular vote election of presidents. That’s the one that’s come closest; a popular vote amendment passed the House in 1969, but was blocked by a Senate filibuster the next year.

That followed George Wallace’s 1968 attempt to deadlock the Electoral College with his third party campaign. He carried five southern states and got 46 electoral votes, but Richard Nixon won a majority anyhow.

Advocates of changing the system pointed to the deadlock that could have happened had a handful of votes, as few as 60,000, gone against Nixon in the most closely divided states. Still, all but the landslide elections are subject to that kind of calculations. Switch about 600,000 votes to Dole in the right states and he could have had an electoral majority while losing the popular vote.

Those are hypothetical exercises. The real one was on Monday. The Electoral College, which never actually convenes, elected Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to their second terms. The electors, chosen by their political parties to represent their tickets in the Nov. 5 election, met in state capitals to cast their votes, sign six copies and send them off to be ritually counted and announced to Congress by Gore on Jan. 9.

``It’s a historical artifact that has provided stability,″ said Sam Coppersmith, the Democratic state chairman in Arizona, where Clinton won and the electors were Democrats for the first time in 48 years.

``I don’t think anybody disagrees that it’s an outdated and antiquated process,″ Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, a Republican, said after his state’s electors cast their lost-cause votes for Dole. ``It’s anachronistic, but it certainly does work.″

But the advocates of change were on the case. ``It’s a crazy, crazy system,″ Secretary of State Ken Hechler of West Virginia said. He said the Electoral College was outdated, outmoded and should be eliminated.

Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said he will propose a Constitutional amendment to switch to popular vote elections. ``It seems antiquated, arcane and just nonsense to continue the system,″ he said.

But there is no real impetus for change. And come Dec. 18, 2000, the Electoral College is sure to be back for its next one-day stand, to elect Clinton’s successor.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ Walter R. Mears, vice president and columnist for The Associated Press, has reported on Washington and national politics for more than 30 years.

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