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No Reason to Keep Electoral College Relic

Deborah Jacobs and Robert Jacobs // Published June 17, 2008 in ACLU of New Jersey
While the Republican and Democratic parties are busy tying up their candidates with pretty bows at their conventions this summer, many state legislatures will be reconsidering an election system that does not allow citizens to elect their president directly. Looking ahead to November, we should reflect on the discriminatory roots of the Electoral College and its irrelevance today.

Both of the original plans at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 proposed that Congress elect the president. But a president elected by Congress is beholden to Congress. Thus the convention's advocates for separation of powers, including James Madison, looked for a different solution.

In 1787, direct popular election was precluded for three reasons. First, there was the sheer physical difficulty of conducting a national popular vote in the 18th century. Second, there was no nominating system; the parties did not exist in 1787, and most of the framers hoped to avoid their emergence. Third, only "freeholders" -- adult, white male landowners -- were eligible to vote in those days. The framers feared that direct popular elections would encourage state governments to open the gates to "unsuitable" voters to maximize the states' influence in presidential politics. For many of the framers, to be landless was to be part of the mob.

So the convention created the Electoral College. Under this scheme, each state selects presidential electors equal in number to the state's congressional delegation: one for each representative and senator. To become president, a candidate must win a majority of the Electoral College's votes.

Unfortunately, this system does not allow citizens to elect the president directly. The Electoral College -- elitist in its roots -- violates the principle of equality. Votes should be equally weighted in a democracy: one person, one vote.

Although four presidents have been chosen against the will of the majority or plurality of American voters (in 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000), the Electoral College has until recently evaded serious scrutiny by the public.

But now, more than ever, this decentralized and unequal system fails to meet American needs. We have no good reason to maintain it. Today we have a party system and the resources needed to hold a national popular vote. We fought a Civil War and had a women's movement and a civil rights movement so no voter could be considered "unsuitable." No fewer than five constitutional amendments have been passed to make our elections more democratic. It's time to move forward again.

Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey have taken the first bold step toward a direct popular vote by enacting the "Agreement Among the States to Elect the President by National Popular Vote," a law that obviates the main evil of the Electoral College by awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The law takes effect only when passed by enough states to constitute a majority of the electoral votes and thereby elect a president (270 of 538). This bill has been introduced in 48 states, but it comes into operation only if enough states enact it by July 20 in the year of the election.

Under the present system -- plurality winner takes all in each state -- candidates have no incentive to campaign or attend to the concerns of states where they have strong leads or lag hopelessly behind. In 2004, candidates focused on battleground states, spending two-thirds of their money in just five states and 99 percent of their money in just 16. The proposed system would encourage truly national campaigning.

It would also ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes nationwide becomes president. A shift of 60,000 votes in key states would have elected John Kerry in 2004, even though President Bush was ahead by 3.5 million votes nationwide under the winner- take-all system.

All citizens should be entitled to vote for their own president. Under the Electoral College system, every vote may count, but not every vote counts equally. Direct elections are modern, fair and democratic, and they relieve us of a system historically rooted in prejudice.

Deborah Jacobs is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. Robert Jacobs, her father, is a retired political scientist at Central Washington University.