Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Electoral College updated

Arkansas did not create the muddled Electoral College way of choosing a president of the United States — it was only a remote territory in 1804 — but it has a chance to be part of the remedy. If the legislature joins the National Popular Vote Compact, it will move the country smartly toward the popular election of the president.

Had the 2008 presidential election turned out differently, there might be a hue and cry now to change the Electoral College as there is each time it produces a perverse result. The last time was 2000, when Al Gore received 600,000 more votes than George W. Bush, but Bush was elected president. It almost happened in 2004, when Bush won by a whopping 3.5 million votes but was within 60,000 votes in Ohio of losing the presidency to John Kerry. Three other times, in 1824, 1876 and 1888, the loser in the presidential balloting be-came president. It may be only coincidence, but history judged the four second-place presidents to be among the country’s worst.

The electoral system undermines majority rule in two ways. Every state gets two extra electors in addition to the distribution of electors based upon each state’s population, which gives voters in states like Alaska, Wyoming, Vermont and Delaware an outsized vote in the college. And all the states except Maine and Nebraska award all their electoral votes to the candidate with a plurality in the state, no matter if the margin in the state is a single vote. Thus, John Kerry, although he was a big-time loser, came within a hair of the presidency.

Amending the Constitu-tion to reform the system is virtually impossible. Each party tends to ponder how a change might affect it immediately, which shifts with every election. The stars were aligned in 1968, when both parties, President Nixon, a big majority in Congress and most of the states wanted to go to direct election, but it was blocked by a filibuster by a few Southern senators who worried that Dixie’s power might somehow be impaired by popular election.

If the legislature enacts the compact (it is HB 1339 by three Democrats and a Republican), Arkansas’ six electoral votes would be pledged to vote for whichever candidate receives the largest popular vote in each election. That would happen only after states totaling 270 electoral votes —a majority — adopted the compact. So far, four states with 50 electoral votes have adopted it. Many states are considering it this year. Two years ago, Governor Beebe supported and the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved it. The session adjourned before the Senate could vote.

Under the present system, the entire presidential campaign is conducted in the dozen states where the parties are competitive. Arkansas and the entire South except three Atlantic states are flyover country, inconsequential in the election and in the policy formulations of the candidates. Democracy is a much better way. —Ernie Dumas