Keep the Electoral College, a great leveler for smaller states


The last time anybody gave the Electoral College a second thought was in 2000, when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in a nail-biter.

Even though Gore led in the popular vote by half a million, Bush prevailed in 30 of 50 states and earned 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 266. Since Donald Trump has the Electoral College to thank for his win over Hillary Clinton, who won the popular vote, our national methodology is getting more attention again.

▪ Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., dropped a bill Tuesday to start the process to ditch the college and switch to a system that would rely on the popular vote.

▪ A new book, “Faithless Elector,” by a University of Washington graduate, James McCrone, develops a plot around a dark scenario in which a number of the 538 electors turn up dead before they can cast their votes in a very close election.

▪ In real life the electors — a number that corresponds to the complement of senators and representatives in Congress from each state — are often pressured by outside forces to vote for someone other than the person who represents the majority of votes in each state. The Statesman’s Bill Dentzer this week outlined how this is playing out in Idaho.

Though the merits of the Electoral College have been debated at various times in its 228 years of existence, no one has succeeded in any challenge to remove it (a long and difficult path) and switch to the national popular vote.

Sen. Boxer is hoping to dump the college in response to her friend Clinton’s loss to Trump last week. Trump won by virtue of earning 290 electoral votes (so far) to Clinton’s 228. But as of this writing, Clinton is leading in the national popular vote by around a million votes out of more than 130 million cast, according to vote trackers. There have been only five times in our history when a president has been elected without the benefit of the popular vote — in addition to the recent examples, John Quincy Adams won in 1824 but Andrew Jackson had the most votes; Rutherford B. Hayes won in 1876 but Samuel Tilden had the most votes; and Benjamin Harrison won in 1888 but Grover Cleveland had the most votes.

People who don’t appreciate the Electoral College — and that included Trump until he won the presidency — are crying foul. Proponents for change argue that denying the popular vote is unjust and un-American.

I disagree. This process evolved the way the Framers intended. They reckoned electing a president deserved a special process, and they took into consideration the “electors” (at the time) might be better informed than the general population.

One could argue today — what with modern communications — that all citizens have the potential to be equally informed and that argument has faded. But the college provides a more level playing field. If we abandon it and only consider the popular vote, we would be going counter to the constitutional provision and reasoning behind it — to preserve relevancy for small, low-population states such as Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, for example. Boxer’s California has 35 million people compared to Idaho’s 1.6 million. That’s the reason we created two chambers in Congress: the House, which reflects population, and the Senate, a leveling chamber that allows two per state.

The Electoral College is something we should preserve. I came to this conclusion after research and rereading a commentary piece from Judge Stephen S. Trott , who occupies a federal judgeship in the 9th District and lives in Boise. We published his excellent explainer on Aug. 14. The Electoral College brought us Bush, Trump and, yes, Abraham Lincoln, who garnered only 39 percent of the popular vote.

Is the system perfect? No. Tamper-proof? Well, the new book spins a yarn that would throw a monkey wrench into the system — but it is fiction, not history. Can the college be tweaked? An argument worth discussing is whether to apportion electoral votes based on the popular vote within a state (Nebraska and Maine do this), rather than the present winner-take-all method. That’s an issue states could take up individually.

Robert Ehlert: 208-377-6437, @IDS_HelloIdaho