Politics & Policy

What to Think About the Electoral College

Talking Electoral College with Jonah Goldberg, John Pitney, and Peter Roff.

Compiled by Kathryn Jean Lopez, NR associate editor

Jonah Goldberg, editor, National Review Online

Conservatives are grumbling at the possibility that George W. Bush may win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College. Some unnamed sources in the Bush campaign hint that they would contest the election if this happened. As horrific as an unpopular Gore victory would be, conservatives should resist any such temptation. You cannot be any variety of constitutional originalist if you believe that the Electoral College can simply be thrown out because a few thousand more people vote for the losing presidential candidate. Second Amendment partisans, for example, would be at great pains to explain why “modern” circumstances shouldn’t render the right to bear arms obsolete.

Moreover, the Electoral College is wonderful on the merits. It is among the greatest bulwarks against all of the things most conservatives don’t like about modern American politics. If presidential elections were merely contests over the popular vote, candidates would not need to win over the moderate center. With the two-party system interred with the Electoral College (as it surely could not survive), a field of candidates would simply seek to amass enough racial, ethnic, or religious groups — through pandering and fear-mongering — to win an Us vs. Them campaign. Under the current system, candidates must win a majority of each state, which diminishes — but certainly doesn’t eliminate — the relative power of tribal politics. And lastly, since when is pure democracy so great? We live in a republic with a Constitution that derives its legitimacy not from some quadrennial plebiscite, but from generations of assent and the self-evident wisdom of those who wrote it. If you believe local communities should have the ability to resist the power of distant numerical majorities, you should not only embrace the Electoral College, you should argue that the assumptions that went into it be applied to more areas of public life, not fewer.

John J. Pitney Jr., associate professor of government, Claremont McKenna College

On Friday, I made a state-by-state prediction of the Electoral College count and came up with a score of 292 for Bush, 246 for Gore (see details here). A sharp-eyed student looked at the list and pointed out that if Pennsylvania moved from Bush to Gore, the count would be a 269-269 tie.

That outcome is a remote possibility, but a real one. If it happened, supporters of the popular-vote winner might call on his opponent’s electors to switch sides. But if all electors stayed true to their party, the election would go to the House. Federal law says that the formal counting of electoral votes will take place on January 6, so the decision would fall to the newly elected House, not the current one. But there’s a catch: Under the Constitution, the vote is by state delegation, with each state having one vote. Currently, Republicans have a slight majority of state delegations, but they could lose it even if they keep a majority of seats. Conversely, the Democrats could retake a majority in the House while the Republicans hold a majority of delegations.

Keep an eye on those House races.

Peter Roff, national political analyst, United Press International

“It is highly likely that the Electoral College vote will follow the popular vote. It is not a matter of the winning candidate running up huge majorities in the states; it is far more likely that the highly competitive states — particularly those of the upper Midwest — will go into the winner’s column by anywhere from a few thousand to 20 thousand votes. That’s not a landslide, but it’s enough to take the state in the College. I expect the final College numbers will show the race wasn’t really that close, as far as assembling a majority of the states is concerned.

Far more interesting, to me anyway, is the whole discussion of the split vote. From an academic standpoint, it’s mildly interesting. Does it really deserve to dominate the coverage of the latter days of the campaign? And without any attempt to inform or educate the public about why it might happen and what the historical basis for the Electoral College is, just the inference that it would be bad. I think a thorough discussion of what to do with Social Security or the role the U.S. military should play in keeping the world safe would have been far more meaningful.

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