Public Flunks Electoral College System

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

More than 100 million Americans will take to the polls to cast their ballots for president. However, these votes do not directly decide the winner. Why? Ask the framers of the Constitution -- they rejected the idea of election by direct popular vote in 1787 in favor of the Electoral College, which has picked most of the presidents since George Washington. One of their biggest fears was that with a direct popular vote, the most populous states would always decide the presidency.

The Electoral College has been repeatedly scrutinized since its creation, most recently during the 2000 election, when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won more electoral votes and eventually became president. These events created some public dissatisfaction with the Electoral College process, particularly among Democrats. Recent Gallup polling shows that wariness over the process has lasted -- the American public would still like to change the election system. Still, the prospect of amending the Constitution in order to do so would present a significant challenge.

A Quick Civics Lesson

Each state is allocated a number of Electors, equal to the state's number of its senators (which is always two) and the number of its House representatives. Whichever presidential ticket wins the most popular votes in the state also wins all of that state's Electors. Maine and Nebraska are the two exceptions to this practice; in those states, two Electors are chosen by statewide popular vote and the remainder by the popular vote within each congressional district. Colorado residents are voting on a ballot proposal Tuesday to move from a winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes to a proportionate allocation based on each candidate's share of the vote.

Public Willing to Amend

A Gallup Poll conducted in the wake of the aforementioned 2000 election showed that a majority of Americans (61%) would support amending the Constitution so that the candidate receiving the most popular votes would win the election. Little more than a third (35%) preferred keeping the Electoral College system as it is. Gallup asked the question again last month* and found that nearly four years later, public opinion on this question is virtually the same.

The most recent results for this question about the Electoral College illustrate that support for an amendment is not necessarily bipartisan. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans are to support an amendment, probably because their candidate (Gore) won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote in 2000. Seventy-three percent of Democrats would prefer an amendment to abolish the Electoral College, compared with less than half (46%) of Republicans.

The data suggest that all partisans have a fairly long memory -- the current results by party are virtually identical to what they were four years ago.

Is an Amendment Realistic?

Despite public sentiment for amending the Constitution, some argue that such a revision of the electoral process would have significant drawbacks, particularly for the smaller states.

"The Electoral College was created for and serves the smaller states, and increases the impact those states can have in elections. Absent that system, candidates would simply court the larger states and population centers," says Larry Pope, a professor of constitutional law at Drake University Law School in Des Moines.

Pope cites Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Mexico -- just three of the many smaller population states that are key to this election -- as proof of the Electoral College's value in representing Americans. Pope also points out that a proposed constitutional amendment would face a tough road to ratification.

"In order for this to happen, not only would it [the amendment] have to be passed by Congress, but three-fourths of the states would have to ratify the amendment," he says. "Too many of the smaller states would be affected. So politically speaking, the chances are very slim."

* These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 11-14. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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