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Here’s Hoping for Chaos on Tuesday

Jack Rakove teaches history and political science at Stanford University and is the editor of "The Unfinished Election of 2000."

Part of me perversely hopes that Tuesday’s election is a replay of 2000.

Three years ago, I undertook a fool’s errand to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta to urge the National Commission on Federal Election Reform to recommend altering or even abolishing the electoral college. The former president, host and honorary chairman, received me graciously, but when Carter heard my message, he said: “It is a waste of time to talk about changing the electoral college.... I would predict that 200 years from now, we will still have the electoral college.”

The conventional wisdom that Carter voiced has an obvious source. Any effort to replace our state-based electoral system with a national popular vote would require a constitutional amendment, and its ratification could easily be blocked by a coalition of the 13 smallest states, which would naturally resist their presumed loss of political influence.

This is a formidable obstacle. But I also believe that Carter got the basic point backward. If we never talk about the electoral college, we will remain stuck with it for another two centuries. But if we discuss it, the arguments made in its defense can be exposed for the fallacies they are.

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Logic alone would never be sufficient. Compelling evidence of the need for change would also be needed. This requires hoping that the electoral college misfires another time, as it did in 2000, when it gave an electoral majority to George W. Bush and a popular plurality to Al Gore.

The conditions for chaos in Tuesday’s election already exist. Turnout will be decisive, and a good dozen states appear in play. It’s plausible for Sen. John Kerry to gain an electoral victory while President Bush carries the popular vote. Electoral numerologists also have scenarios for an electoral tie (269-269), which would throw the decision into the House of Representatives.

But my own preferred if perverse formula for chaos involves Colorado.

Appearing on that state’s ballot is Amendment 36, which would divide Colorado’s nine electoral votes proportionally, based on statewide results, and take effect immediately. So consider this wild scenario:

The amendment passes and the election turns on Colorado. Give Kerry 269 electors, Bush 260, allow Bush to carry the state’s popular vote, even while its confused citizens approve Amendment 36. Presto, we’re back in Florida. Kerry picks up four electors, surpasses the magic electoral number of 270, and Republicans immediately go to court. They argue that when the Constitution says that electors in each state are to be appointed “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct,” it means the “legislature” as an institution, not legislation enacted by popular referendum. Democrats reply that the people also act as a legislature when they approve a referendum, and that in 18th century usage, legislature meant the supreme law-giving power within a state, and not merely the people’s elected representatives. You make the call.

As the campaign comes to an end, public opinion and turnout may still move decisively in favor of one candidate, sparing the nation its second electoral debacle in a row. Yet whatever its fate and effect, Amendment 36 nicely exposes the problematic nature of our electoral college. It recognizes that one effect of the winner-take-all rule that has prevailed since the early 19th century is to disfranchise the minority within any state.

But we already knew that. Amendment 36 raises a more fundamental challenge. Its logic assumes that, as individual citizens, we have no interest in maximizing the electoral influence of our states. Carrying your state while losing the national election offers only poor psychological compensation for political frustration. It’s like Cub fans celebrating Ernie Banks or Andre Dawson winning the MVP award while playing for second-division, even last-place, teams. The award is nice in its way, but it’s the pennant we want.

Amendment 36 raises deeper questions. When we vote for president, do we think of ourselves as residents of a state whose interests we want to advance? Or do we define our interests and preferences in ways that have little to do with our residence in a state? If you moved tomorrow from solidly Democratic California to wildly Republican Utah, would your preferences in this year’s presidential election change? Do states, as states, even have coherent interests that exist independently of their voters’ preferences?

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Perhaps that is the case in small, one-party states like Utah and Idaho. But the more evenly the electorate of a state divides, the harder it is to define its collective interest in the outcome of a presidential election. Nothing better illustrates this fundamental political fact than the 2000 debacle in Florida.

Amid the mesmerizing spectacle of election workers rotating punch cards in search of the perfect chad, Americans neglected a far stranger irony. Why did Florida’s 25 electors depend on a statistically meaningless swing of a few hundred disputed ballots in a statewide electorate of 6 million?

If the last election established anything, it was that Florida voters divided into two perfectly equal halves. But the fiction of winner-take-all statewide voting insists that the state is really one unit, which will somehow gain political advantage or influence by being treated as such.

Amendment 36 encourages us to rethink the idea that a state-based system of presidential elections is a key element of our federal system, helping to maintain the balance of power between Washington and the states. This claim is routinely offered to rebut the arguments for a national popular vote. A look at Amendment 36 and its implications, however, exposes three fundamental flaws in our electoral college’s design and operation.

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First, the electoral system focuses political activity upon battleground states. If vast stretches of the Great Plains, the old cotton South, as well as populous California, Texas and New York effectively sit the campaign out, it is because the outcome in these states is foreordained. It is not that their voters are less engaged than those in Ohio or New Mexico, or that their interests are less important. It is simply that demography predetermines the outcome in much of the country. When presidential candidates visit Los Angeles or the Bay Area, Dallas or New York, it is money they seek, not votes. But when they repeatedly descend on Mankato as well as Minneapolis, Pottstown and Paoli as well as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Dubuque and Davenport as well as Des Moines, it is because Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Iowa are competitive states where turnout matters and campaigns have to pitch their appeal to the party faithful and free-floating independents. Rather than encouraging candidates to think and speak broadly, a state-based system encourages them to run provincial campaigns, talking jobs in the Rust Belt, prescription drug benefits in Florida and nuclear waste in Nevada.

Second, the idea that presidential elections have something to do with federalism because we vote only within our states is equally wrongheaded. Some elections do portend major changes in the distribution of power between the national government and the states: Franklin Roosevelt’s victories in 1932 and 1936, for example. But that is because those elections involved different visions of national and state power. The mere fact that we choose our presidents in a state-based system has no effect on the political decisions that determine whether the authority of the nation or the states waxes or wanes. Federalism is really about the uses of power, not how it is acquired.

Finally, the “senatorial bump” -- giving every state two additional electors -- inflicts a gross injury on the fundamental principle of one person, one vote. It might make sense to weigh votes differently (as measured in electors per capita or per voter) in every state if the size of the state in which we live determines our political loyalties as individual citizens. But, in fact, it does not. We vote on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, occupation, the kind of community in which we live and how we feel about the issues of the day. If you feel strongly about your right to bear arms, you’ll vote the same way whether you live “off the grid” in rural Idaho or the venison belt of Pennsylvania or Michigan, with its weekend hunters from factory towns and coal mines. If you’re a soybean farmer descended from German Lutheran immigrants of the 19th century, you’ll probably vote the same way whether you live on the right bank of the Mississippi in Illinois or the left bank in Iowa.

Having a single national election would have the great virtue of treating every vote equally, regardless of where cast. It would give the parties incentives to turn out their voters everywhere, in safe states as well as contested ones, rural America as well as the metropolitan areas. It would discourage seemingly marginal issues from receiving inordinate attention because they matter to small but strategically located segments of the electorate. It would make election to our one genuinely national political office the object of a truly national campaign.

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But talking about changing the electoral college is a waste of time -- until we start talking about it seriously. For that to happen, alas, Colorado has to do its duty, or Tuesday’s electors and voters have to produce another split decision. Here’s hoping.


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