Homecoming at the Electoral College

Here’s something to think about as we go down to the wire in this very close presidential election: George Bush and John Kerry are both paying far more attention to New Mexico than to our three largest states put together.

That’s right, they’re pouring millions of dollars into New Mexico, which has fewer people than Wayne County, and totally ignoring California, Texas, New York and, for that matter, Illinois, which together have nearly a third of the nation’s population.

Why is this? Naturally, because of the mysterious and funky Electoral College, which converts the presidential election into sort of a giant board game. Think of the states as numbered chips – Michigan, 17; Vermont, 3; Ohio, 20; etc.

The object of the game is to collect 270, or one more than half. Do it, and the game and the presidency are yours. Fail, and even if you get more popular votes, as poor old Al Gore did, you are a looooooser.

Political junkies get it, but don’t feel bad if you don’t. Most Americans know vaguely that they’re supposed to understand escrow and the Electoral College, but few of us really do. I can’t help you with escrow, which is really a plot by the Trilateral Commission and Century 21, but here’s the deal on the EC:

When you vote next month, you may think you’re voting for Kerry, say, but you really aren’t. You’re voting for a slate of mostly unknown people chosen by their party. The statewide vote totals you may see later that night are actually votes for the competing slates of electors. In every state except two, the rules are winner-take-all. (The two exceptions, Maine and Nebraska, recently started dividing their electoral votes by congressional district, but no one has noticed because the Democrats always have won all of Maine’s 4, and the Republicans all of Nebraska’s 5.)

So here’s what that means: If the Kerry slate wins California by one vote, he gets all 55 of that state’s Electoral College votes. If Bush wins Mississippi by more than 100,000 — which he will — he gets that state’s 6. This is how it happened that Gore “beat” Bush but lost to him.

Nationwide, 540,000 more people preferred the Democrat. But Gore lost by getting too many of his votes in the wrong places. Of course, Bush also really won because he was improperly installed by a partisan U.S. Supreme Court, but we’ll tell you about that when you’re older.

What this says to many people, including a lot of my fellow left-wing radical Hillary-loving liberals, is that we ought to get rid of the Electoral College and just elect the president by a straight popular vote.

That, however, would be a really bad idea.

Actually, I think it might lead to this nation’s falling apart. One of the big reasons this country is still in business is our wacky federal system, which gives benefits to small states as well as big ones. Consider: If presidents were elected solely by popular vote, do you think New Mexico would ever see a candidate? Do you think anyone from Wyoming would have much chance of being on a national ticket? What would happen is that nearly all the candidates would come from huge states, and they’d spend all their time campaigning, mostly on TV, in those states’ giant metropolitan areas.

And if there’s a problem with nuclear waste, why, hell, it would be easy to promise to dump it all in Montana, which has fewer voters than Oakland County.

The smaller states would feel frustrated and might be tempted by radical militia movements, etc., and there would be far less sense of national unity.

But there is one other problem with the Electoral College, which is that the electoral votes are actually cast by people, and whenever you involve people in a nice clean process, it can gum up the works.

Back when the country got started, the idea was that each state would pick its brightest people to try and decide who the president should be, since the Founding Fathers thought the average blacksmith might not have sufficient time to watch CNN (Colonial News Network) and be well-informed.

That system lasted about a week, and then the political parties took over. Nowadays, the electors tend to be, for want of a better word, party hacks — wives of congressmen, former legislators, mayors and fundraisers.

What’s sort of neat about this is that they get together in their state capitals sometime in December and cast their votes — the only ballots that really matter — in a baroque and charming pseudo-18th century ceremony.

What potentially is not so neat is that they don’t have to vote the way they promised to. They almost always do, but not quite. Four years ago, a seemingly addled woman from the District of Columbia refused to cast her vote at all in some kind of incoherent protest, depriving poor Al Gore of another electoral vote. That didn’t make a difference, but someday it might. (This year, a Bush elector from West Virginia says he may not vote.)

So should we abolish the electors and have their votes awarded automatically? That might make sense — except there’s one good reason to keep the electors as people. What if Bush is re-elected and a week later, Cheney, who has a notoriously bad heart, is called to be with the angels?

What would happen now is that President Bush could pick a vice-presidential candidate and ask the electors to vote for him or her instead. Without electors, the vice-president would be chosen by the Senate, which can only pick from the top two candidates. Cheney being room temperature, Bush could look forward to four years of working with Vice President John Edwards. Bet he’d love that.

In any event, nothing much is likely to change — unless the system goes haywire, and different candidates again win the popular and electoral vote. Changing the Electoral College would require amending the U.S. Constitution, and that is a long, complicated and difficult process that normally takes years.

But as the Prophet Leroy, or maybe Al Gore, said, you never know.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.