Trash the Compact

Trash the 'Compact'
An attempt to circumvent the Electoral College is really an urban power grab.
BY PETE DU PONT, Monday, August 28, 2006

For more than 200 years America has chosen its presidents as the Constitution provides: through the Electoral College. Traditionally, each state has cast its electoral votes--equal to its total representation in Congress--for the candidate who receives the most votes statewide.

But last week the California Senate passed legislation to award the state's Electoral College votes to the candidate who has received the most popular votes nationally--whether Californians chose him or not. A similar bill passed the Assembly on May 30, so it will soon be up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign or veto the bill. Such a bill also passed the Colorado Senate in April, part of a national effort to change the way we choose our presidents. The mandate doesn't take effect until enough other states sign on to provide a majority of electoral votes. If it were in effect in 2004, George W. Bush would have taken California's 55 electoral votes, even though John Kerry carried the state by a margin of nearly 10%.

It is an odd idea, an "interstate compact" switching the Electoral College votes of member states from their state's vote winner to the national vote winner. And the direct election of presidents would be a political, electoral, and constitutional mistake that would radically change America's election system.

First, the direct election of presidents would lead to geographically narrower campaigns, for election efforts would be largely urban. In 2000 Al Gore won 677 counties and George Bush 2,434, but Mr. Gore received more total votes. Circumvent the Electoral College and move to a direct national vote, and those 677 largely urban counties would become the focus of presidential campaigns.

Rural states like Maine, with its 740,000 votes in 2004, wouldn't matter much compared with New York's 7.4 million or California's 12.4 million votes. Rural states' issues wouldn't matter much either; big-city populations and urban issues would become the focus of presidential campaigns. America would be holding urban elections, and that would change the character of campaigns and presidents.

Second, in any direct national election there would be significant election-fraud concerns. In the 2000 Bush-Gore race, Mr. Gore's 540,000-vote margin amounted to 3.1 votes in each of the country's 175,000 precincts.

"Finding" three votes per precinct in urban areas is not a difficult thing, or as former presidential scholar and Kennedy advisor Theodore White testified before the Congress in 1970, "There is an almost unprecedented chaos that comes in the system where the change of one or two votes per precinct can switch the national election of the United States."

Washington state's 2004 governor's race was decided by just 129 votes. A judge found 1,678 illegal votes were cast, and it turned out that 1,200 more votes were counted in Seattle's King County than the number of people recorded as voting. This affected just Washington state, but in a direct national election where everything hangs on a small number of urban districts, such manipulations could easily decide presidencies.

Third, direct election would lead to a multicandidate, multiparty system instead of the two-party system we have. Many candidates would run on narrow issues: anti-immigration, pro-gun, environment, national security, antiwar, socialist or labor candidates, for they would have a microphone for their issues. Then there would be political power seekers--Al Sharpton or Michael Moore--and Hollywood pols like Barbra Streisand or Warren Beatty. Even Paris Hilton could advance her career through a presidential campaign.

For such candidates to run under the present system is very difficult, for they have to win state by state electoral votes. But if all you need is national fame and fortune to win popular votes, many candidates would run and presidential campaigns would become unfocused, confused, and about political advocacy instead of presidential substance.

Finally, direct election would also lead to weaker presidents. There are no run-offs in the Interstate Compact--that would require either a constitutional amendment or the agreement of all 50 states and the District of Columbia--so the highest percentage winner, no matter how small (perhaps 25% or 30% in a six- or eight-candidate field) would become president. Such a winner would not have an Electoral College majority and therefore not be seen as a legitimate president.

So rather that trying to eviscerate the Electoral College, we should be embracing it. It was put in the Constitution to allow states to choose presidents, for we are a republic based on the separation of powers, not a direct democracy. And the Electoral College--just like the Senate--was intended to protect the residents of small states. As James Madison said, the Electoral College included the will of the nation--every congressional district gets an electoral vote--and "the will of the states in their distinct and independent capacities" since every state gets two additional electors.

And might not the direct-election Interstate Compact lead to other similar efforts? California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein says the Electoral College violates "one person, one vote," and so we should have direct election of the president. But the equal allocation of two senators to each state also violates "one person, one vote." Montana, with 900,000 people, gets two senators and so does California with 34 million, so Feinstein's logic would say that California should have 12 senators, and Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont should share just one among them.

Might not "one person, one vote" allow a national vote to amend the Constitution instead of requiring approval by three-quarters of the states? To restrict freedom of speech, or expand searches and seizures, or modify any of the Bill of Rights?

One wonders if the direct election of presidents is really the beginning of an effort to bring national government under the control of large and liberal states. Common Cause, a Washington-based lobbying group that describes itself as "promoting open, honest and accountable government," argues "how neatly it fits with American tradition." But it doesn't. It contradicts our constitutional republic's state and federal government sharing of powers.

Choosing presidents is one of our states' powers, and we should not remove it to begin a centralized national American government.

Mr. du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is chairman of the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis. His column appears once a month.