Antique Voting Process : Electoral College: The Lesser Evil

Times Staff Writer

Every four years, Americans drag out their antique machinery for electing a President, vow to repair or replace it before disaster comes, hold their breath while it creaks forth a new leader, sigh in relief that it still works and then pack it away and forget it.

This peculiar American institution is the Electoral College. Critics look on it as a seedbed for calamity. They have called it “an abortive organism” and “a hoary and outworn relic of the stagecoach era.” The Electoral College has many defenders, but they rarely praise its virtues. They merely warn that anything else might prove worse.

“The Electoral College is not pretty,” says William R. Keech, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who has taken part in a study of the institution for the Twentieth Century Fund. “It has no clear rationale. But, by and large, it does its job well. . . . If there were a perfect alternative, I would be for it. But there is no perfect alternative.”


Moderate Lead in Vote

Intensifying current interest in the Electoral College are the latest public opinion polls, which reflect a moderate lead for Republican George Bush over Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the popular vote but a massive lead for Bush in the Electoral College.

At the least, these polls suggest that the Electoral College favors the Republicans because of their “lock” on small states, which have a disproportionate number of electoral votes.

And they evoke unpleasant memories of the presidential election of exactly 100 years ago, the last time the winner actually lost the popular vote. Democrat Grover Cleveland won more popular votes than Republican Benjamin Harrison but lost the election in the Electoral College.

To A. James Reichley, a Brookings Institution specialist on American elections, that was a long time ago. “The Electoral College,” he says, “hasn’t presented a real problem for 100 years. . . . People don’t like it very much, but it’s not an urgent problem.”

1888 Election Cited

But Keech says another election like 1888’s would revive a host of dormant proposals to change the Electoral College. “All you need is for something to happen,” he says, “and desk drawers will open and these will fly out.”

Until then, Americans will not vote directly for President. Instead, they will vote for “electors”--often not named on ballots--for the presidential candidates. These electors make up the Electoral College, a body that never meets together.

The number of electors in each state is equal to the total number of its members of Congress--senators and members of the House of Representatives. Each state’s House delegation is proportional to its population. But each state, no matter how small, has two senators, and so small states have proportionately more electors than large ones.

And there is a further, more serious source of distortion. In 49 states and the District of Columbia, which has three electors, the winning presidential candidate takes all the electoral votes, whether he wins the popular vote by a landslide or a single vote. Maine, the one exception, chooses two of its electors according to the statewide vote and the other two according to the vote in its two congressional districts.

The winner-takes-all tradition favors the candidate who manages to capture the big cities that dominate the large, industrial states with their huge blocks of electoral votes.

The electors, chosen by state political parties according to procedures that vary from state to state, are often little-known party officials or fund-raisers. In California, for example, each Democratic congressional candidate selects an elector, and the Republicans appoint a list of prominent party members, including state legislative leaders and past and present Senate candidates.

After the election, the victorious electors meet in their state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December--Dec. 19 this year--to cast their official ballots. The ballots are forwarded to Washington, where the vice president opens and counts them on Jan. 6 in the presence of the members of the Senate and the House.

Will Proclaim President

Thus on next Jan. 6, Vice President Bush will have the duty to proclaim either himself or his opponent as President-elect of the United States.

If no candidate has a majority, the House, with each state delegation casting a single vote, chooses a President from the three leading candidates. That has not happened since 1824, when the House chose John Quincy Adams even though he lagged behind Andrew Jackson in both the popular vote and the electoral vote.

The strange American system is rooted in the conviction of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that the American voters were too ignorant to select a President on their own. When the convention delegates created the Electoral College, they assumed that the electors would deliberate and choose the most qualified man. In 1789, the first 69 electors unanimously selected George Washington as the first President of the United States.

The development of political parties, however, soon put an end to any idea that the electors would actually deliberate and make a free choice. The electors--whether Federalist, Whig, Democratic or Republican--began to vote automatically for the presidential candidate of their party.

But there never has been any constitutional requirement that they actually cast the ballot that way. From time to time, “faithless electors,” as they are known, ignore the popular will of their states and vote their conscience or whim.

Pro-Life Stance Appealing

Most recently, Mike Padden, a Republican elector from the state of Washington, which went for Gerald R. Ford in 1976, voted instead for Ronald Reagan. Padden, now 41 and a state legislator from Spokane, said he voted for Reagan, who had been defeated by Ford for the Republican nomination, “out of solidarity with his strong position on pro-life.”

‘Ahead of My Time’

“I was four years ahead of my time,” Padden said. “I met Reagan some years later, and he said to me, ‘Boy, we sure gave ‘em a go in ’76. It came so close.’ ” The final vote in the Electoral College was Jimmy Carter, 297; Ford, 240, and Reagan, 1.

Padden’s switch prompted the Washington Legislature to pass a law imposing a $1,000 fine on any elector failing to vote for the official party candidate. But Padden insists that the law, which he believes is unconstitutional, would not have prevented his switch in 1976. “If I felt the law was unconstitutional,” he said, “I would have done the same.”

Four years earlier, Roger L. MacBride, a Republican elector from Virginia, which was carried by Richard M. Nixon in 1972, voted instead for the Libertarian Party candidate, John Hospers, in the Electoral College.

MacBride, now 59, was a lawyer in Albemarle County in Virginia when he decided to vote for Hospers rather than Nixon, who had buried Democrat George S. McGovern in Virginia and 48 other states.

Loathed Both Candidates

“Where I lived,” said MacBride recently, “people loathed Mr. Nixon, and they loathed Mr. McGovern even more. I thought it was time to send a message to the White House.” The message, according to MacBride, was that Nixon’s victory reflected objections to McGovern more than support for Nixon.

“Since he had won by a landslide,” MacBride said, “and since I knew my vote wasn’t going to cause a constitutional crisis, I figured I would go out and do it.”

MacBride, no ordinary elector, had written a book on the Electoral College years before, and Virginia Republicans were happy to make him an elector in 1972. “They figured why don’t they pick someone who knows something about this instead of some party hack,” MacBride said.

They were soon sorry. After his shocking electoral vote, MacBride said, “I was read out of the party. People who knew me for years passed me on the street without speaking. But they never took me off the fund-raising list.”

Never did the Electoral College generate more confusion than in 1876, when Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won 51% of the popular vote but lost by one electoral vote after Republicans challenged what they described as corrupt returns from Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina.

Vowed to End Reconstruction

On a straight party vote, a congressionally appointed commission awarded all the challenged electoral votes to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. Southern Democrats agreed not to challenge the decision after Hayes promised to end Reconstruction. He was not proclaimed the President-elect until two days before he took the oath of office.

Some political scientists believe John F. Kennedy was a minority President in 1960. The confusion stemmed from Alabama, where the presidential ballot listed only the electors and not the presidential candidates.

Votes Went to Kennedy

The Democratic electors won, and all the popular votes they garnered were given to Kennedy. But only five of the Democratic electors were pledged to vote for Kennedy in the Electoral College, and the other six ultimately voted for Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.

Consequently, some political scientists insist that in the popular vote, Kennedy should be credited with only five of every 11 Democratic votes from Alabama. That would not have changed Kennedy’s substantial Electoral College victory, but it would have turned Kennedy’s 115,000-vote margin over Nixon in the national popular vote into a 58,000-vote loss.

To critics of the Electoral College system, its most worrisome aspect is the provision that sends elections to the House of Representatives when the Electoral College fails to give any candidate a majority.

18% of Population

Under that provision, every state, whether as large as California or as lightly populated as Wyoming, has a single vote. The delegations of the 26 smallest states, representing only 18% of the population, could elect the President.

Both Presidents Nixon and Carter endorsed a constitutional amendment that would have abolished the Electoral College in favor of direct popular election. Under the proposal, if no candidate won 40% of the vote, there would be a runoff between the two leading candidates.

The House approved the amendment in 1969, but it has died several times in the Senate, opposed by senators from small states that did not want to give up their advantage in the Electoral College.

In any case, political scientist Keech says, there is no guarantee that direct elections, especially if they attracted many candidates, would guarantee fulfillment of the national will. A liberal might be elected with 41% of the vote, for example, if two conservatives divided the other 59%.

“Direct elections,” Keech said, “can be arbitrary and capricious as well.”