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Presidents should graduate from the Electoral College

By John T. Plecnik
web posted November 1, 2004

In 2000, then-Gov. George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Vice President Al Gore but won the Electoral College to become the forty-third president of the United States. Since that time, many have argued against the wisdom of retaining the Electoral College. Regardless of your politics, think twice before sacrificing the system. Even card-carrying members of the Al Gore fan club may have something to lose.

First off, the U.S. Constitution was and is meant to be a power sharing agreement between the state and federal governments. This balance has historically served as yet another mechanism to prevent the concentration of power in any single individual or group. Over time, the sovereignty of state governments has slowly eroded. The growing administrative state, an expansive judicial application of constitutional principles to state governments, and the popular election of U.S. senators via the Seventeenth Amendment have all tipped the balance in favor of the feds. Replacing the state-by-state Electoral College with a national election determined by the popular vote could be the proverbial last nail in the coffin of our federalist system.

Despite the virtue of checks and balances, perhaps the most convincing argument for retaining the Electoral College is the evils of its likely alternative. Our current system forces candidates to appeal to a broad base of voters. Polling 90 per cent in New York is roughly equivalent to winning a bare majority in Texas. Today, Bush and U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-M.A.) must venture out of friendly territory to win over moderates in the Midwest. If we were to instate a system of national majority rule based on the popular vote, our candidates would spend a lot more time preaching to the choir. Exciting another million Christian conservatives in Texas (or gay activists in Massachusetts) would suddenly cease to be superfluous. If anything, this would increase the partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Advocating more equal treatment of each voter has become a favorite talking point for proponents of the popular vote. While it is true that a state-by-state system tends to create temporary situations whereby residents of some states, like Florida or Ohio, become the undecided darlings of politics from year-to-year, the Electoral College actually protects voter equality in a more fundamental sense. Operating under a purely national system, politicians would flock to cities with the same vigor they pursue contributions from special interests. Reaching blocks of voters in population centers like New York, N.Y., and Charlotte, N.C., is much cheaper than seeking the support of sparser communities in smaller states. One could conceivably win a purely metropolitan presidential campaign in the nation's twenty largest cities. Incentivizing this strategy would have the practical effect of disenfranchising millions of suburban, rural, and small town voters.

Furthermore, in an electorate as divided, litigious, and suspicious as that of Twenty-First Century America, certain attendant benefits of the Electoral College have become uniquely valuable. By holding separate elections for each state, corruption in any single state is limited to tainting its own electoral vote count. Additionally, in close elections, the Electoral College can actually simplify recount processes. In the event of a successful legal challenge, it may only be necessary to recount the votes of one state, rather than those of an entire nation.

In sum, the Electoral College preserves federalism, promotes bipartisanship, protects equality, and provides a more workable system for our divided era. Besides, this time around, "W" would win either way. 

John T. Plecnik is a twenty-year-old law student at Duke University and Executive Editor of The Devil's Advocate. As Policy Advisor for the Duke Chapter, John authored the first-ever statewide platform for the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans.

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