Saturday, September 27, 2003
Why did Al Gore agree with Jack Kennedy on the Electoral College?
The single best book I've ever read about politics is probably Master of the Senate, Robert A. Caro's third volume in an anticipated four-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, which I recommend without hesitation to anyone regardless of personal politics. However, I'm enjoying another recent biography that I'm about mid-way through — Robert Dallek's An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963.
One can't help but cross-reference anecdotes from this sort of biography against more current events, and this passage from Dallek's book retriggered a question that has lingered in my mind since the Presidential Election of 2000:
Jack certainly hoped that Profiles [in Courage, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book from 1956,] would identify him with uncompromising political responses to national dangers. He yearned for a challenge that would give him an opportunity to act like a political hero. The best he could find was a congressional proposal to reform the electoral system. Jack took up the cudgels against what he described as "one of the most far-reaching — and I believe mistaken — schemes ever proposed to alter the American constitutional system. No one knows with any certainty what will happen if our electoral system is totally revamped as proposed." Jack emphasized how well the existing electoral system had worked to ensure the influence of the popular vote, the two-party system, and "the large-State-small-State checks-and-balances system." The proposed amendment, which he feared could destabilize American politics at a time of grave foreign challenges, was nothing voters had demanded or even knew about. Although Jack gave a lengthy, authoritative Senate speech that contributed to the defeat of the amendment, his opposition hardly registered on the press or the public; reform of the electoral college was an invisible controversy.
JFK, of course, ended up winning the Presidency in 1960 by a rat's whisker in the national popular vote — 113,000 votes more than Nixon out of the 68 million ballots cast — but by a far more comfortable 303-219 margin in the Electoral College.
I've often wondered, however, why Al Gore and his supporters did not mount a more sustained attack on the Electoral College after the 2000 election, when Gore won the popular vote but lost in the electoral vote. I give Gore considerable credit for resisting this temptation. Indeed, I recall both that he expressed support for the Electoral College system as he was finally conceding defeat, and that he behaved impeccably in performing his own role under the Twelfth Amendment as President of the Senate in opening all the certificates from the various states to permit the counting of the electoral votes that made Dubya the new President.
Still, given the intense personal venom of the Angry Left at Dubya and everything connected with his election in 2000, I'm frankly surprised that MoveOn.org or some other sloganeering and rabble-rousing organization hasn't targeted the Electoral College. In this era of sound-bite politics, even moreso than when JFK was in the Senate, the reasons to support the Electoral College system of electing our Presidents are awfully complicated. By contrast, there is exactly one extremely simple (if simplistic) reason to abolish it — that is, it's anti-democratic (small d), at least in a macroscopic sense.
I certainly don't mean to rule out the possibility that Gore's support, like JFK's, was genuinely principled. But I'm curious: does anyone see any practical and pragmatic reasons why Gore and other liberals (with the exception of the Staten Island Democratic Association) haven't attacked the Electoral College system with great relish and vigor?
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Inertia. Most of what I've seen has to do with strategies towards getting over the top within the Electoral College; I've seen no one advocating throwing it out. So I come back to inertia.
I would say they are just being realistic. Chunking the Electoral College would obviously require a Constitutional Amendment - how could it possibly pass in the small-population states whose influence on a presidential election would be thereby reduced to irrelevance?
There is a fascinating discussion of the Electoral College online from an FEC honcho - written prior to 2000, so ignore his reassurances that nothing odd was likely to happen again! He makes a good point that the EC was not, contrary to conventional wisdom, designed as an undemocratic institution.
Think about this, though: as long as individual electors remain true to the popular vote, the only thing really screwed up due to the EC is the ability lose the election although winning the popular vote, like Gore. Yet this is NOT something built into the EC. There are a few states today which split their electoral vote proportionately (with an at-large vote or two perhaps). If each state did that, then the winner-take-all downside would be greatly reduced. And, in fact, that is how the EC was in the beginning. It was only after the establishment of parties in the early 1800s that state delegations started using a winner take all approach in order to consolidate party strength.
You could alleviate the greatest shortcoming of the EC, state by state, just by having each state go back to a proportionate allocation of their EC votes.
Unless my knowledge is out of date, no state allocates them proportionally, but Maine and Nebraska allocate one per congressional district and two at-large.
I used to support a requirement that states allocate electors proportionally, but after 2000, I'm less certain -- one nice effect of the "winner-take-all" rule was that the sideshow was limited to a single state.
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