The viral hit of the Internet over the weekend was a video of a 4-year-old Colorado girl who burst into tears when her Cruella de Vil mom tuned the car radio to NPR. “I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney,” she sobbed. Oh, honey, us too. But here’s some horrifying news: We might not be rid of them yet.
Romney’s big lead in red states, coupled with the tenuous advantage held by Bronco, errr, President Obama in several swing states, might produce the polar opposite of the mess we had in 2000, when Al Gore got the most popular votes but lost the presidency in the Electoral College.
And if you’re a Democrat gleefully thinking that turnabout is fair play, consider another entirely plausible possibility: Obama wins the popular vote in a squeaker, but the Electoral College finishes in a tie. That turns the election over to the House of Representatives, where the solid Republican majority guarantees a Romney victory.
And then we can finally unite in horror at the kicker to that one: The choice of a vice president would be in the hands of the Senate, where the Democratic majority would probably reelect Joe Biden. We’d stop whining about gridlock and worry about an American version of the Borgias.
None of these scenarios can be called likely. But the fact that we have to think about them at all is a serious indictment of the sloth of our elected representatives. For more than 200 years, we’ve been at the mercy of the U.S. Constitution’s most infamous asterisk, the Electoral College. Both parties have been victimized by its anti-democratic (with a small d) caprice, yet neither will get off its hands to do anything about it.
The Electoral College is partly the result of compromises at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a time when most people envisioned the new nation as a loose confederation of state governments, in which the small would need protection from the big. But the delegates were also quite explicit about their fears that most Americans were idiots in need of adult supervision. Virginia’s George Mason scoffed at the notion that “the people can have the requisite capacity to judge of the respective pretensions of the candidates.” Declared Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “The people are uninformed, and would be misled by a few designing men.”
Result: the Electoral College, in which each state gets a number of electors equal to that of its combined congressional delegation. Its defenders often argue that while it may have theoretical drawbacks, it’s worked well in practice. That is manifestly false. It only took four elections for the Electoral College to run off the track — a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. It took the House of Representatives 36 ballots and all manner of smelly deals before Jefferson got the job.
That resulted in passage of the Twelfth Amendment in hopes of streamlining the process. But problems have persisted on a distressingly regular basis. Three presidential candidates — Democrat Samuel Tilden against Republican Rutherford Hayes in 1876, Democrat Grover Cleveland against Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and Democrat Gore against Republican Bush — have won the popular vote but lost the election in the Electoral College. (And it came within a hair of happening in 1960, when Republican Richard Nixon lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy by a razor-thin margin of 110,00 votes at the ballot box but was clobbered in the Electoral College.)
In 1824, the Electoral College chose a vice president, John C. Calhoun, but couldn’t muster a majority of votes for any of the four presidential candidates. The House finally elected John Quincy Adams, even though Andrew Jackson had the most electoral votes. In 1836, electors had the reverse problem: They agreed on Martin Van Buren for president, but refused to vote for his vice presidential candidate Richard C. Johnson, who had a unfortunate habit of romancing his slaves and selling the ones who rejected him. (His support for federal money for an expedition to the center of the earth, which he believed hollow, probably didn’t help.) The election was turned over to the Senate, which chose Johnson anyway.
Name a problem, and the Electoral College has it. You wanna talk about political inequities? Wyoming gets one Electoral College vote for every 134,000 people, Florida one for every 479,000. You wanna talk about rogue electors? Nine times since 1948, an elector has ignored the popular vote in his state and voted for somebody else — most recently in 2004, when some madman from Minnesota voted for John Edwards for president instead of John Kerry.
Do we have to accidentally elect the National Enquirer Candidate of the Century to get this thing changed?