The Electoral College's Last Vote?

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West Virginia's presidential electors unanimously cast their votes for Bush

It's all over but the counting.

No, no, don't worry, we're not reopening the case in Florida. We're thinking instead of those 538 electoral college voters who on Monday headed to their state capitals to cast their official ballots for Al Gore and George W. Bush. And if all goes as planned — and nearly everyone seems to think it will — Bush will go to bed as the proud custodian of 271 electoral votes, one more than needed to nab the presidency. Congress will count the votes on January 6 and then, at long last, it will all be official.

Rumblings among the electorate
But while Bush will take home the prize, not everyone is happy about the way he won it. Newspaper editorial boards, pundits and politicians alike are wringing their hands over the confusion this election has wrought — and some go so far as to call for an end to the electoral college system altogether. The process, some argue, is outdated and counterintuitive.

Why maintain, they argue, a strategy that denies the people their popularly elected president? (In this case, that would be Al Gore, who won November's election by about 330,000 votes but lost in the electoral count 271-267). The quick answer to that question? Habit and vested interests.

A guard against big-city rule?
Initially designed to protect the interests of smaller states and to overcome the geographical and communication obstacles inherent in the newly established republic, the electoral college, its opponents contend, is also a vestige of a paradoxically imperialistic philosophy toward democracy. The founders, it seems, did not trust the people to elect a candidate directly; the intellectual challenges of understanding a campaign might be beyond their ken. Instead, the people could vote for electors, who would travel, ostensibly on the voters' behalf, to cast their votes for the chosen candidate. It also was set up — for the same reason that each state has two U.S. senators — to ensure that large states didn't ride roughshod over their smaller brethren.

So what's keeping this process in place today? Some of its defenders consider the electoral college a safeguard against citified control over the election process. If we abandon the current system, the argument goes, and popular vote gains preeminence, the inhabitants of the nation's four or five most populated states might decide presidential elections on their own. And while residents of said states might not have a problem with such an outcome, folks out in North Dakota and Montana might see things a bit differently. Citizens of sparsely populated areas (and the congresspersons who represent them) have grown fond of the electoral system, which affords them a disproportionately loud voice in the voting process. Wyoming, for example, casts the minimum three electoral votes; one for each senator and one for their sole representative — whereas New York is assigned 33 votes; one for each senator and one for each representative. The problem in that calculation lies in the fact that the population of New York State is more than 36 times the population of Wyoming — so why doesn't the Empire State cast 108 electoral votes? That's exactly the question many of those representing thinly populated states don't want you to ask.

Waiting for change? Don't hold your breath
For all the grousing about the current situation, and the tumult it so memorably precipitated over the weeks following the election, most constitutional scholars agree that sweeping changes are unlikely. We're a nation fond of tradition — particularly our own — and while we're probably ready for some serious overhaul to the ballots themselves (perhaps in the form of federalized voting standards — no more chads!) it won't be easy to convince the political establishment to vanquish a voting methodology as old as the country itself.