Bolster the Old System With Bonuses

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian and JFK confidant, is author, most recently, of "A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950," the first volume of his memoirs

For the fourth time in American history, the winner of the popular vote in a presidential election has been denied the presidency. The rejection of the candidate who the majority of voters preferred for the highest office in the land puts the republic in an intolerable predicament. It is intolerable because it is undemocratic. And it is intolerable because it imposes a fatal burden on the minority president.

All of our minority presidents--John Quincy Adams in 1825, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, Benjamin Harrison in 1889--had wretched and ineffectual administrations and only served a single term. As Andrew Jackson wisely said, “A president elected by a minority cannot enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties.”

The fact that the popular-vote loser has won the electoral college over the popular-vote winner will certainly revive the campaign to abolish the system and to replace it by the direct popular election of the president.


But direct elections raise troubling problems of their own. They would further weaken the already weak party system. They would provide a potent incentive to single-issue zealots to jump into presidential contests.

By accumulating votes from state to state, impossible under the electoral college system, splinter parties would have a new salience in the political process. We could expect an outpouring of such parties--green parties, senior citizen parties, anti-immigration parties, right-to-life parties, pro-choice parties and so on down the single-issue line. The encouragement of multiple parties would be a further blow to a party structure already enfeebled by passage into the electronic age.

Direct-election proposals recognize that ideological and/or personalist parties would drain votes away from the major parties. Consequently, most direct-election proposals provide that, if no candidate receives 40% of the vote, the two top candidates would fight it out in a run-off.

One national election is alarming enough; a double national election is a fate almost too grim to contemplate. And the winner in the first round may often be beaten in the second round, depending on the deals the two run-off candidates make in exchange for the support of splinter parties.

I would favor instead the retention and reform of the electoral college. For there is a simple and effective way to guard against the possibility that the popular-vote winner might be the electoral college loser. The solution is to award the popular-vote winner a bonus of two electoral votes per state plus the District of Columbia.

With an automatic 102 electoral votes, the popular-vote winner would almost certainly win the electoral college. The national bonus plan would balance the existing federal bonus--the two electoral votes conferred by the Constitution on each state--regardless of votes on a winner-take-all basis, and would preserve both the constitutional and practical role of the states in the presidential election process.

The plan, by encouraging parties to maximize their vote in states they have no hope of winning, would stimulate turnout, reinvigorate state parties, enhance voter equality and contribute to the vitality of federalism.

And to solve the problem of the “faithless elector"--the person sent to the electoral college to vote for one candidate who then votes for another--I suggest abolishing the individual elector while retaining the electoral vote and the unit rule, the practice of states agreeing in advance to cast all their votes for one candidate.

Both direct and popular elections and the national bonus plan would require constitutional amendments. Probably the opposition of small states would doom any amendment authorizing direct popular elections. The bonus plan, however, preserves a role for small states. It would be far more likely to be acceptable to Congress and to state legislatures.

The national bonus plan was first proposed in 1978 by the 20th Century Fund Task Force on Reform of the Presidential Election Process. The task force included Richard Rovere, Jules Witcover, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Stephen Hess, Patrick Caddell, Thomas Cronin, John Sears, this writer and other presidential scholars and political practitioners.

Thirty years ago, the national bonus plan was dismissed as an academic exercise. George W. Bush and Al Gore have made it an urgent necessity. We can no longer tolerate the possibility that the winner of the popular vote would be denied the presidency. The hour for the national bonus plan has truly come.