November 7, 2000
Today, the U.S. public may vote for George W. Bush over Al Gore — perhaps by four or five million votes — in the contest for the presidency of the United States. On Dec. 18, when the 538 members of the Electoral College assemble in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia to perform their constitutional duty, they may override the public’s will and elect Al Gore president.
If this occurs, some U.S. experts predict a constitutional crisis. Most Americans don’t realize they are not voting in a national election to select their president; they are voting in 50 separate state elections, plus one for the District of Columbia, to select state-chosen electors who will then cast their votes for president. Though America is the greatest of all democracies, the public may discover that in the year 2000 — as at the founding of the republic — America’s leaders distrust the public too much to allow it to choose the president directly.
Should a constitutional crisis ensue, look to Al Gore and the Democratic party, the tainted winners, to lead the charge to abolish the electoral system in time for the 2004 election. Look to George Bush and the Republicans, who most Americans would see as victims of an unjust system, to fight to preserve the Electoral College system. And look to a constitutional crisis fought along an urban-rural divide.
Although it is more than a century since a presidential candidate won the popular vote but lost the presidency, this startling scenario does not belong to some distant past. It came within a whisker of occurring in the 1960 election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon and, based on voters’ intentions as they stood last week, this very fate could befall Mr. Bush today. As of Friday, while Gallup, Zogby and most other national polls showed George Bush ahead in the popular vote, the Hotline-National Journal Electoral College projection gave Mr. Bush only 248 firm electoral college votes of the 270 he needs to win, compared with 269 firm votes for Mr. Gore. Because Maine, one of only three states Hotline considers too close to call, splits its four Electoral College votes, Mr. Gore — if Hotline is correct — would likely have been over the top had the vote occurred last week.
Yet on Saturday, the day after the press reported this possibility, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s respected chief campaign strategist, indicated that the only outcome he feared more than Mr. Bush losing the Electoral College vote was losing the Electoral College itself. Under a direct form of democracy, he told CNN, politicians would spend less time in sparsely populated regions and more in the metropolitan areas, where the voters are. The effect on U.S. democracy, and the U.S. economy, could be profound.
Republicans draw great support from the rural areas: Two of their core constituencies, the Christian Coalition and the National Rifle Association, are particularly powerful there. With both parties forced to court the urban and suburban voters, more than the social agenda would shift.
The economic divide between rural and urban economies would sharpen. The highly subsidized U.S. farm economy, for example, runs at a great loss, with urban industries and urban residents making up the difference. Small-town America, unlike the big cities, also runs at a loss, with subsidies from urban areas needed to maintain water and sewage systems, and to provide electricity to rural areas. Pork barrel projects disproportionately crop up in the countryside.
A president answerable to one national electorate of mostly urban dwellers would be likelier to exercise his veto in rejecting rural pork. And he’d be likelier to side with urban voters, and against rural residents, over whether, for example, federal old-growth forests should be razed by logging communities, at a loss to the federal taxpayer, to maintain short-term jobs. America’s demographics would change. Without subsidies to rural areas, people would tend more to migrate to metropolitan areas, further strengthening the urban-rural divide, and further spurring the removal of the subsidies that so seriously distort the workings of a free market.
In the process, democracy in America would strengthen. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, because 30 to 35 U.S. states have been considered comfortably in either the Gore or Bush camps, the two presidential candidates have vigorously contested 15 to 20 states, and largely ignored the others. Mr. Gore has no incentive to campaign in Texas, where additional popular votes will earn him nothing at the Electoral College, and Mr. Bush similarly has no reason to court New Yorkers. The Electoral College system effectively disenfranchises the majority of the U.S. electorate, contributing to the low voter turnout — over half of the electorate may stay home — that elicits so much concern. That disenfranchisement only deepens on election night when, due to time zone differences, the presidential election is often decided before the first West Coast ballot is counted. Having a president elected by all the people, instead of by all the states, would make everyone’s vote count equally, helping to eliminate much cynicism and to engage much of the electorate.
For these and other reasons, the Electoral College — itself a compromise among the U.S. founding fathers — has been controversial throughout the country’s history. Over the past 200 years, more than 700 proposed constitutional amendments to reform or eliminate it have been introduced in Congress, more than for any other subject. The American Bar Association has characterized the Electoral College as "archaic" and "ambiguous," with 69% of lawyers, in a 1987 poll, favouring its abolition. The public has as well: In 1967, 58% of Americans wanted to be rid of it, in 1968, 81% and in 1981, 75%. Imagine the sentiment for abolition in the fall of 2000, if one candidate for president obtains a four million-vote margin and the other candidate moves into the White House.