It’s a little late to help Al Gore, but the loyal Democrats of Massachusetts are still trying to reverse the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The Bay State’s legislature ratified a bill today mandating that, in the future, all of their votes in the electoral college will go to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote — no matter whom the citizens of Massachusetts preferred. The catch to this scheme is that it will not go into effect until the total of electoral votes from states that have passed similar laws reaches 270 — the number of votes needed to win the presidency.
While the Electoral College has always had its critics, grousing over the arcane system devised by the Founders was never loud enough to reach the point where an alternative might be seriously considered — at least not until the hanging chads of Florida in 2000. The razor-thin outcome of that state’s voting embittered Democrats, many of whom cling to the fiction that the 2000 election was “stolen.” It wasn’t — but the anomalous result, whereby the winner of the most electoral votes did not also win the popular vote, was seen, not unreasonably, as somehow unfair. Though resistance from small states would make a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College virtually impossible, a scenario whereby enough states embrace the plan that Massachusetts has just passed — which would abolish the College for all intents and purposes — is a realistic option. At this moment, five generally Democratic states — Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington — in addition to Massachusetts have ratified such laws. That gives advocates of the idea 73 electoral votes. That’s a long way from 270 but it is not a stretch to imagine that the addition of a few large Blue States to that total would put the Electoral College on the verge of extinction.
It is understandable that most contemporary Americans view with dismay the Founders’ desire to put the selection of the president in the hands of notables rather than those of the people. But the virtues of the College are not limited to the pull of tradition, though that should not be underestimated. Critics of the current system point out that the realities of Electoral College mathematics push presidential candidates to concentrate their energies on states whose votes are up for grabs while they ignore those that are safely in the pockets of either party. But its abolition will more or less render all small states and non-urban areas no-go zones for the candidates. An election in which only the national popular vote counts might limit the campaigns to the two coasts and a few big cities in between them, with most of the country being truly relegated to the status of “flyover” territory. Will that be an improvement?
Even more to the point, we should remember that the real reason this “reform” is being championed by some legislators is the fact that the Democrats were the losers in 2000. Had the outcome been the reverse — and prior to the last weekend before the voting that year, when revelations about Bush’s DUI came out, an outcome in which Bush won the popular vote and Gore the Electoral College was widely seen as the more likely result — would Democrats be so eager to junk the system? And will Boston Democrats really be happy if their electoral votes wind up going to a Republican that was swamped in Massachusetts but won elsewhere?
Imperfect though it is, the Electoral College is an embodiment of the Founders’ belief in both federalism and the idea that the country ought not to be dominated by the largest states. The partisan rancor that has divided this country in the 10 years since Bush v. Gore is a poor reason to scrap a venerable institution.