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Opinion » Editorial

Our Medieval Electoral College


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Where's the moat?A Wikipedia search for the origins of the Electoral College yields the following interesting factoid:

"Germanic law stated that the German king led only with the support of his nobles. Thus, Pelayo needed to be elected by his Visigothic nobles before becoming king of Asturias, and so did Pepin the Short by Frankish nobles in order to become the first Carolingian king. While most other Germanic nations went to a strictly hereditary system by the first millennium, the Holy Roman Empire could not, and the King of the Romans, who would become Holy Roman Emperor or at least Emperor-elect, was selected by the college of prince-electors from the late Middle Ages until 1806 (the last election actually took place in 1792)."

The Visigoths, Pelayo, Pepin the Short and the Holy Roman Empire all lie moldering in the dust, but the electoral college - a living fossil from the Middle Ages - survives in 21st century America.

The United States is the only democracy in the modern world that elects its chief executives indirectly through an Electoral College instead of by a vote of the legislature (as they do in Britain, Canada and other parliamentary systems) or direct popular vote.

This peculiar institution was written into our Constitution because the lower-population states (mostly in the South) feared being dominated by the big-population states (mostly in the North). As a compromise, the Founders decided to give each state a number of electoral votes equal to its total of senators (every state has two) and members of the House (which are apportioned by population).

The unfairness of this system is obvious: Tiny states - which tend to be rural and Republican - are over-represented in the EC at the expense of more populous states. So Wyoming has three electoral votes, while Oregon, with almost eight times the population, has only seven. Thanks to this bizarre arrangement, it's possible for a presidential candidate to win by small margins in small states, lose the big states, and win in the EC while losing the popular vote.

This has happened three times in American history, most recently in 2000, when George W. Bush (with a little help from hanging chads and the US Supreme Court) was able to patch together an electoral victory despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore by more than half a million.

Many proposals for reforming the Electoral College have been advanced over the decades. The most radical is eliminating the EC and electing presidents by direct popular vote. Other ideas include allocating the electoral votes of each state proportionally between the candidates or having a system in which a "bonus" number of electoral votes is given to a candidate for winning the popular vote.

We don't have a particular alternative to recommend at this point; obviously a lot of research and debate needs to happen. But we're convinced, like many other Americans, that the Electoral College as it stands is obsolete and dangerous. America needs to give this medieval relic THE BOOT.

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