Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?

October 28, 2004
Rob Meyer

At the onset, Kennedy School professor Alex Keyssar made his position clear: “As a policy person and an historian, I think it’s high time we got rid of the Electoral College.”
Keyssar was speaking at a brown bag discussion that focused on a topic looming large with less than a week before the U.S. presidential elections. Keyssar, who has studied the history of the Electoral College, said it has withstood more than 500 amendments to change the process, dating back to 1816.
“The question we should be asking is, why do we still have the Electoral College?” he said.
Keyssar, for one, is amazed it’s still around. He believes the Electoral College system doesn’t reflect the country’s sense of social equality. Under the system, each state casts electoral votes equivalent to their number of Congressional House members plus one for each of their two senators.
“The Electoral College does not conform to our modern interpretation of democracy, which is one person, one vote,” he said.
Currently, most arguments for why it’s necessary have focused on the rights of small states versus large states, he says. Historically, however, that wasn’t always the prevailing argument.
“The critical ingredient is race,” Keyssar said. “From 1800 to the late 1960s, the critical opposition to a popular vote always came from the South. It’s simple arithmetic. If there were a popular vote, your weight would be determined by the number of votes you cast. Slaves didn’t vote.”
By the late 1960s, the push to abolish the Electoral College gained steam, Keyssar said, with wide support from major established institutions like the American Bar Association and the League of Women Voters, as well as from Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
“But amending the Constitution is tough to do in the United States,” he said. The amendment passed in the House but was stalled for more than a year in the Senate by Southern segregationist senators like James Eastland and Strom Thurmond and was defeated.
Today, the opposition to a popular vote system has less to do with race and more to do with the unknown, Keyssar said.
“In any state where either political party feels like it has a secure position, it’s easier to stick to the Electoral College and winner-take-all system. You know you can deliver your state,” he said. “There’s always a resistance to change among people who know the rules and how to play the game. If we went to a popular vote, those rules would change. We can’t foresee all of the changes and that makes people queasy. The problem today is overcoming a short-sighted partisanship.”
Looking toward next week’s election, Keyssar predicted that the biggest outcry for revamping the Electoral College wouldn’t come if John Kerry wins the popular vote but not the electoral vote, as most people have speculated, but if the reverse happens.
“The best chance of reform is going to come if George Bush wins the popular vote but loses the electoral vote,” he says. “Then there will be pressure from both sides. Each will say we’ve both had this happen to us.”

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