The manipulators are ready to tilt the next election

By J. McKay
Published September 19th 2007 in Seattle Times
Little more than a year to go, and the American system for electing a president is still the laughingstock of the democratic world. There is no hope for a permanent fix in time for the 2008 election, leaving the door open for another theft of the popular vote by onemachination or another.

In 2000, the Republicans were too clever and too fast for the Democrats in the Florida balloting, and had their Supreme Court majority in reserve. More Americans voted for Al Gore than George W. Bush, but we all know who went to the White House.

Will it happen again in 2008?

The election manipulators are already at work.

Most highly publicized is the effort of the California Republican Party to change the way the state's 55 Electoral College votes are apportioned. Instead of all 55 going to the statewide popular-vote winner, 53 would be awarded on the basis of votes in each of the state's congressional districts, with two going to the statewide winner. That could pick up 20 electors for Republicans, assuming Democrats win the state but Republicans carry 20 of the state's districts.

Democrats are up to the same game in North Carolina, where they could pick up a few electors — but not enough to offset their losses in California.

At present, only Maine and Nebraska, too small to determine a national election, select electors by congressional district.

This may be a better way to select a president than the present winner-take-all system — but only if all 50 states do the same thing.

If all 50 states used congressional districts, the system would slightly favor Republicans, because small states get exactly the same number of electors for their two senators as the big states. The Electoral College is permanently tilted to small states which, presently at least, lean Republican.

The other "reform" is a move under consideration by several states to require their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of how their state votes. Only Maryland has passed such a law, but it is under consideration elsewhere — it will operate only if states making up a majority of the Electoral College pass similar laws to create an interstate compact, a recognized legal entity.

The Constitution, Article II amended in 1804, doesn't tell states how to select electors. Originally, "wise men" — white property owners — were named electors; more recently, electors represent the winning popular vote. States determine how electors are selected, and could adopt the congressional-district system or the interstate compact; but they cannot abolish the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is undemocratic and obsolete, written in a much different time by men eager to maintain a rural character for the country and check urban voters who might be more radical.

The Senate was also set up that way — members were originally appointed by state legislatures, men of property and probity sent to the Senate to balance the popularly elected House.

The Electoral College gives no voice to a 49.5 percent losing vote; a Republican in Washington or a Democrat in Idaho might as well stay home.

The idea of a president being elected by a minority of voters is increasingly untenable. We need to amend the Constitution itself, but amendment is held hostage by senators from small states who won't vote to send an amendment to the states, and by small-state legislators who won't vote to ratify. Some 700 such efforts in Congress have come to naught.

Despite the overwhelming unpopularity of the Bush administration, a well-financed and clever Republican marketing campaign could sell California voters on changing the state's electoral system, twisting the Electoral College to Republican advantage, regardless of the national popular vote. But the California "reform" is wrong unless all 50 states have the same system.

Such an outcome might convince the cautious Democratic majority in Congress to send a constitutional amendment to the states. But if we get a repeat of 2000, the fury of disillusioned voters would not be easily addressed.

The interstate compact is not ideal, but it might be the only way to respect the choice of the people in 2008. Washington's Legislature should consider joining Maryland.

At best, it is a halfway house until the Constitution can be amended to honor the reality of the 21st century. At worst, it could bring a very nasty challenge for the Supreme Court, forced to balance the words of the Constitution, the rights of the people and the always-present hand of partisan politics. Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com