November 23, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: Now to the prize in this "down to the last vote" contest: Victory in the electoral college. The 2000 presidential election has raised new questions and demands form changes in this old institution. We start with some background from Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: There's a very real possibility Al Gore could win the popular vote nationwide but fall short in electoral votes and lose the election. Curtis Gans, with the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says that's happened before.
CURTIS GANS: That was true in 1824 when Andrew Jackson won more of the popular vote. That was true in the case of Samuel Tilden, who received more of the popular vote, I think in 1876 and it was true in 1888.
KWAME HOLMAN: And it could be true in the year 2000. That's because voters this year, as in every presidential election, actually chose "electors" not a candidate. Voters in Florida could read a printed reminder of that fact right on the ballot. A vote for the candidate will actually be a vote for their electors.
SPOKESMAN: These are the people who actually elect the president.
KWAME HOLMAN: On election day in Florida, for example, a group of pro-Bush electors competed against Gore electors. The eventual winner of Florida's popular vote will have his electors chosen as well ---- 25 electors, each representing one of the state's 25 electoral votes. Across the country, there is a total of 538 electors or electoral votes. Two electors from each state correspond to that state's U.S. Senate representation for a total of 100. Then there's one elector for every member a state sends to the House of Representatives: 435 in all. Washington DC, which is not a state, chooses three electors. To get to the White House, a candidate must win the popular vote in enough states to collect 270 electoral votes. With official vote counts still outstanding in Oregon, New Mexico and Florida, Al Gore has totaled 255 electoral votes, winning 19 states. George W. Bush has 246 electoral votes capturing 29 states. If all goes as planned, the winning candidate's electors will gather in 50 state capitals on December 18.
SPOKESMAN: They cast their votes in December and the votes are kept and unsealed in January, and then the President is officially elected.
KWAME HOLMAN: But the electoral system includes a few variations. First, no federal law requires an elector to vote for the party's candidate. And over the decades, a handful of electors has strayed. In 1976, for example, an elector pledged to Gerald Ford voted for Ronald Reagan, who had lost to Ford in the Republican primaries. In 1988, a Democratic elector flipped the ticket, choosing Michael Dukakis for Vice President and running mate Lloyd Bentsen for President. A second variation, exceptions to the state winner-take-all rule: In Maine and Nebraska, the winner in each congressional district wins that electoral vote. To some, the system seemed antiquated and indeed a serious effort to abolish the electoral college was mounted in 1969. But the system survived.
CURTIS GANS: We see in this election both the down sides and the up sides of the electoral college. The down side is obviously that we might end with a result in which the popular vote winner doesn't win the electoral votes. And the other down side is that most of the fire power in this campaign has been concentrated in 17 states: The ones that are contested. And the whole series of other ones that are not contested don't get any attention at all. On the other hand, on the up side, you have a situation in which in those states that are contested you are getting a lot of activity, you are going to the grass roots, you are taking into account regional and local concerns, you are mobilizing various interests. And none of that would happen if you moved to direct election because essentially what you would have would be a national media campaign in which the pluralism of America democracy would be ignored.
KWAME HOLMAN: Several members of Congress now say they're prepared to mount another challenge to the electoral college. But it's not something Al Gore wants to focus on right now.
RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner takes it from there. She taped this discussion last night.
MARGARET WARNER: A post election Gallup poll for CNN, and USA Today found that 61% of Americans think it's time to abolish the electoral college and elect presidents directly based on the popular vote. To debate the merits of that proposal, we're joined by four academics who have written widely on this subject: Charles Lipson, a political science professor at the University of Chicago; Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School; Gary Glenn, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University; and Judith Best, also a political science professor at the state university of New York at Cortland.
Professor Lipson, beginning with you you're an advocate of abolishing the electoral college. Why?
CHARLES LIPSON: Well, the basic reasons for having an electoral college were set out over 200 years ago and none of those reasons apply anymore. The basic reasons were that the founders, the men-- and they were men-- who wrote the Constitution-- wanted to put a kind of buffer between the people and the selection of a President. They wanted, on the one hand, a democracy but on the other hand some buffer from the tumult of the crowd. Also, some of the individual states were concerned that if you voted one person, one vote, the southern states, which had a lot of slaves, would have less weight. None of those reasons apply anymore. We can... we don't need a buffer between the individuals and the vote. Most of us think we're voting for a President. Our basic principle of a democracy is one person gets one vote, and in general I think that there are a number of specific problems that can crop up with the system: Unfaithful electors, the number of electors that each state gets is based on the last census, which in this case was a 1990 census. So some states have that have lost population, are over weighted. Others like....
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you right there because you've already laid out a couple of reasons and go to Professor Glenn. Take head on that argument that, one, it's really outlived its original purpose and, two, that it violates the sort of American principle of one man, one vote.
GARY GLENN: My first response is that it has not outlived its original purposes especially the purpose of protecting sparsely populated states from being steamrollered by numerical national majorities. That is a constitutional principle of our system of government, not "one man, one vote" by itself. We count the popular vote in the electoral college and we count it by state, just the same way we count the popular vote for the House of Representatives and for the Senate. We don't have any constitutional offices at the national level that are elected by a mere popular majority, irrespective of geography.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you for a second just to explain. So you are saying that it protects the smaller states because, in effect, they get more weight, that is, because they get these two automatic ones for their Senators plus then one apportioned by population?
GARY GLENN: Yes. They get more weight in the same way that they get more weight in the House of Representatives where every state, regardless of population is guaranteed one vote, one congressman, and they get more weight in the Senate where every state, regardless of population, gets two Senators.
MARGARET WARNER: Lani Guinier, you want to abolish the electoral college. Make your case.
LANI GUINIER: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is the premise for the electoral college was not based on protecting rural states, per se, it was based on protecting the ability of southern plantation owners to get a vote not only for themselves but for their property. And so the southern plantation owners got one vote for themselves and then they got three-fifths of a person, so they got to vote for all of their slaves with this two-fifths discount. And I think that that is an illegitimate source that we have to confront when we talk about the electoral college. That's number one. Number two, the issue of abolishing the electoral college doesn't necessarily mean that the only alternative is direct election with a simple majority rule. Several people have talked about something called instant run-off voting, which would give people the opportunity to rank-order their preferences for presidential candidates and, therefore, if some of the rural states or some of the less populated states wanted to prefer a particular candidate and organize around that person, they could do so without necessarily, quote, wasting their votes.
MARGARET WARNER: What would be the advantage of that? What's wrong with a system now that essentially channels a lot of votes to one of the two major parties?
LANI GUINIER: Well, the problem with the present system is that it encourages the major parties to essentially avoid developing local political organizations and just go over the heads of political organizations directly to the voters through television, and that essentially transforms an election into the selling of a product rather than mobilizing voters at the local level. So the assumption that it is the electoral college that is protecting local interests, I think, is false.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Best, how do you come down on this question?
JUDITH BEST: Well, I support the electoral vote system, not the electors but the electoral vote system because it produces the right winner. And the right winner is the candidate who can govern this vast and diverse country because he has formed a broad cross-sectional, federal coalition. He has won the popular vote in enough states. And I agree that the federal principle is the fulcrum of our entire constitutional system. The Constitution itself was ratified state by state, but more than that, the federal principle in presidential elections makes the President sensitive to state and local issues. So, it supports the balance between national and local issues, but more than that, it also supports the separation of powers. If, for example, as the main thrust of the reform movement seems to be and has been, direct popular election, non-federal election, if the President were elected by a national plebiscite, then you tip the balance of power between the President in Congress dangerously towards the President who can then claim to be the only authentic voice of the will of the people. I'd explain it to people this way: Baseball fans understand that the World Series, the right winner in the World Series is the winner of four out of seven games, not the one that scores the most runs overall. And likewise, the right winner in the presidential elections is the man who can govern because he builds a very broad coalition and gains the consensus of the minority because this system gives them the opportunity to be a part of the majority in many states and many, many minorities.
LANI GUINIER: Could I just respond to one thing that Professor Best is saying. -
MARGARET WARNER: Yes.
LANI GUINIER: I think her baseball analogy is very apt for her point of view, but it is a flawed premise if we're talking about democracy. That is, this is not about identifying the winner of a game. This is about trying to encourage people to participate in the decisions that affect all of us. So I think the focus should be on how do we get more voters invested in the political process, how do we count their votes, how do we assure that more people participate and not simply how do we choose between one of two-- in my view-- flawed candidates? So I don't think the focus should be just on the winners but also on the participants, on the voters, on the citizens who are the governors in a democracy.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor Lipson is trying to get in here. We haven't heard from him for a while. Go ahead, sir.
CHARLES LIPSON: It seems to me that the real problem here is that the bedrock principle of our country is one person, one vote. I grew up in a period in which rural districts were substantially over represented. Happily we've done away with that kind of an approach. And I think that most of the original rules for the electoral college that, if a group of wise people got together, that they could have the flexibility to choose their own person, none of that makes any sense anymore. I do think that the Constitution is hard to modify. That's a good thing. We shouldn't do it easily. But I think this is a case where the clear principle of one person, one vote should prevail, and any candidate who hopes to win will have to put together a wide coalition. He or she will have to go into the states and mobilize voters for turnout, if for nothing else. So I'm not taken by a lot of these other counterviews.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get....
GARY GLENN: Margaret, can I respond?
MARGARET WARNER: This is Professor Glenn, I hope.
GARY GLENN: Yes, it is.
MARGARET WARNER: Please take on, if you will, say whatever you'd like to say but take on this argument we've heard....
GARY GLENN: I want to do the one man, one vote.
MARGARET WARNER: And the participation argument too.
GARY GLENN: If American democracy is one person, one vote then the House of Representatives is undemocratic because it's not elected on one person, one vote nor is the Senate of the United States elected on one person, one vote. They both are elected on one person, one vote within an electoral district that exists within a state.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. What about -
GARY GLENN: And the President is elected in exactly the same way. So we have one person, one vote for electing the President, contrary to what Professor Lipson says, but we count the votes by state, not as an aggregate national total.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But let me ask you to address -- let me just ask Professor Glenn to address this other question though that I think viewers may be more interested in than the one person, one vote even which has to do with participation and how much people feel that they're even being campaigned to or included in the process if they live in one of these states that is just considered a sure win for one candidate or the other. What's wrong with that argument?
GARY GLENN: Well, first of all, I don't know of any evidence supporting it. And I would ask Professor Lipson this question: Without the electoral college, would there be any presidential campaigning from the Mississippi River to California? Those are large, sparsely populated areas and there would be less reason than there now is with the electoral college for candidates to campaign in those areas. As a matter of fact, this year the hotly contested areas were largely states in... that are in the Midwest and the near West and so they got a great deal of attention.
CHARLES LIPSON: But that's the current system.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Guinier, I'll get right to you. Just, Professor Lipson, quickly on that point.
CHARLES LIPSON: That's the current system. It seems to me that Denver and Houston and Dallas and a lot of cities-- Salt Lake perhaps-- would be seriously contested. So I just don't see that as a serious impediment to having a true nationwide campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Best.
JUDITH BEST: I'd like to suggest that it's incorrect to say that a vote doesn't count in Texas because Texas was not a battleground state. Of course, it counts unless there's fraud. And it has an impact. It has an impact on the popular vote, which is recorded. It has an effect on whether a president has a mandate or not -- how high the mandate will be. It has an effect on the subsequent governing aspect. So I don't think it's fair to say that it doesn't count. I think further that it's untrue that candidates would campaign all across the country. I think that they would then focus on the populous eastern megalopolis, Boston to Washington. They would focus on California; they would focus on major media markets. And then the people in small states would never see a candidate.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Lani Guinier.
LANI GUINIER: First of all, there are people in a number of small states that never saw a presidential candidate this year even with the electoral college vote. But secondly, it's not just whether your vote counts but whether your vote counts equally. An electoral college vote in Wyoming was worth 71,000 voters. In Florida, one electoral college vote was worth 238,000 voters. So that is a huge disparity that not only violates one person, one vote, but also violates the principle of democracy that everyone should vote for a candidate who ultimately can represent their interests. So this is not just about, as I said earlier, picking a winner. This is about trying to figure out a system of elections that is responsive to the intent of each voter who casts a ballot. I think the problem with the way we're framing the discussion tonight is that we're assuming that you either have the electoral college or you have direct presidential elections, and that's it. There are many other alternatives. If you look around the world, most other democracies have much higher levels of voter turnout. They don't use the electoral college for sure. And they have modified direct election for President, and that's where the instant run-off vote becomes appealing.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry. We have to leave it there. But we'll return to it. Thanks so much.
RAY SUAREZ: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, a genetic recall, and the National Book Award winner.