Electoral College Could Flunk Democracy

By Taylor, John | Insight on the News, November 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Electoral College Could Flunk Democracy


Taylor, John, Insight on the News


With most polls pointing toward a close presidential election on Nov. 7, it was being asked if it is likely the candidates with the greater popular vote could lose? Indeed they could, because even when one ticket wins "big" in certain states, narrow wins by the opposition in other states, under our winner-take-all system, could allow the party with the lesser popular vote to prevail in the Electoral College.

The Electoral College -- enshrined in the Constitution and, thus, almost impervious to change -- long has been criticized by those favoring democratic over republican principles. Also, because the allocation of electoral votes is based on data from the last census -- now 10 years old -- it cannot allow for recent population migrations. Even more serious, the winner-take-all provision effectively disenfranchises the "losing" party in every state. If Al Gore were to win California by a whisker in the popular vote, but he nevertheless would receive all of that state's 54 electoral votes. Statistical analysis by one scholar, Charles W. Bischoff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that in an election as close as the one between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, or that between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976, there is an even chance that the electoral count will contradict the popular vote. Indeed, this already has happened three times.

The first instance in which the popular vote was overturned was in 1824. None of the four presidential candidates from the fledgling parties of that day gained a majority in either the popular vote or the Electoral College. As a result, the issue was turned over to the House of Representatives. There, after much wheeling and dealing, the presidency was awarded to John Quincy Adams, despite the fact his popular vote was far below that of Andrew Jackson. Charges he had been elected by a "corrupt bargain" plagued Adams throughout his single term.

The second minority presidency resulted from an equally controversial election in 1876. At that time federal troops still occupied many of the former Confederate states, and in some of them the voting had been accompanied by bribery, intimidation and violence. On the day after the election, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes appeared to have defeated Democrat Samuel J. Tilden by a single vote in the Electoral College, even while losing the popular balloting by more than 250,000 votes.

But four states, all but one in the South, sent in competing sets of returns, and it was up to Congress to determine which were valid. After weeks of acrimonious debate, the two houses of Congress agreed on an electoral commission to settle the matter. Although supposedly bipartisan, the commission may have been secretly stacked in favor of the Republicans. …

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