TOPICS > Politics

Electoral College

December 18, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the Electoral College, and to Gwen Ifill.

GOV. JEB BUSH: As a Presidential elector, you have taken an oath that you will vote for the candidate of the party. The secretary of state’s office will now distribute the ballots for voting for President and Vice President of the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Shortly after noon today, electors for the state of Florida cast their official votes for President. Confirming the result of more than a month of court battles, Texas Governor George W. Bush got all 25, enough to become the 43rd President of the United States. The President-elect’s brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, presided over the vote.

GOV. JEB BUSH: Mr. McKay, will you please announce the votes?

MR. McKAY: There are 25 votes for George W. Bush for President of the United States, and 25 votes for Dick Cheney as Vice President of the United States. Mr. Governor.

GOV. JEB BUSH: Thank you very much. ( Applause )

GWEN IFILL: The party loyalists who make up the Electoral College gathered in Tallahassee, 49 other state capitals, and the District of Columbia today. Each elector cast one vote. When Americans cast votes for President on November 7, they were actually choosing electors. Some ballots mentioned the candidates by name; others stated, a vote for the candidate will actually be a vote for their electors. Election scholar Curtis Gans explains.

CURTIS GANS: You are voting for the candidate, but you are also voting for a number of electors who are pledged to the candidate, who were selected before the election by each party and approved by each candidate. These are the people who actually elect the President.

GWEN IFILL: The Constitution provides for electors to be apportioned across based on a state’s congressional representation. 100 of them represent two from each state, as with U.S. Senators, then there’s one elector for every member a state sends to the House of Representatives– 435 in all. Washington, D.C.– which is not a state– chooses three electors. To gain the White House, a candidate must win the popular vote in enough states to collect a majority, or 270 electoral votes.

SPOKESPERSON: The Honorable George W. Bush. ( Applause )

GWEN IFILL: When Bush finally declared victory on December 13, he was able to claim 271 electoral votes– just one more than the minimum needed. On January 6, a joint session of the new Congress will meet, and the President of the Senate– in this case, Vice President Al Gore– will oversee the final count.

GWEN IFILL: So, what is the future of the Electoral College? Democratic congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts thinks it should be abolished, and republican Senator Wayne Allard of Colorado thinks it still works. Congressman Delahunt, why should it be abolished?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, Gwen, I believe it’s an anachronism, and clearly it does not embrace that very fundamental American value of one person, one vote. The reality is in America today that in a Presidential election, the… each citizen’s vote does not count. The vote of an elector does count. And I think it’s time that we changed that system.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Allard, that sounds like a very powerful argument, the notion that every vote should count. Why should the Electoral College stay as it is?

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: Well, the Electoral College is a reflection of great compromise of our forefathers when they created the Senate and they created the House of Representatives. And this has served us very well for close to two centuries. And I think we ought to continue.

It certainly helps out those states that have a lower population. If we had a popular vote driving the election, our candidates would just be campaigning in large urban areas and would ignore most of the country.

GWEN IFILL: Well, you mention that the forefathers were the ones that came up with this idea in the Constitution. Is it outdated?

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: No, I don’t believe it’s outdated at all. I think the Constitution was there and has served us well in times of crisis and times of conflict. It served us well during this election, and we should respect the Constitution.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Delahunt, in order to change the Electoral College now, or to abolish it as you would like to see happen, you basically would have to amend the Constitution. Once you start tinkering with the Constitution, isn’t there a danger you’d do more harm than good?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, that danger always exists, Gwen, but I think it’s important to note that we’ve amended the Constitution to encourage and expand the suffrage, the right to vote. We did it with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution where finally slaves– now black Americans– have a right to vote. And with the 19th Amendment, we conferred the franchise on women.

And with the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, we eliminated the so-called poll tax, which, in fact, disenfranchised poor Americans. So this is nothing… what I would submit is that to amend the Constitution in this particular case, to abolish the Electoral Council, would, in effect, be the final step in the process of making the government of the United States more democratic.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, let’s continue on that point and talk about political reality for a moment. Congress tried to do this in 1969. It passed the House but died in the Senate. They tried to do it again in 1979. This time it didn’t get the votes it needed in the Senate. Why has that changed? Why is this the time?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, I would suggest it’s the time because we have an example in this particular election where, on January 20, Governor Bush, President-elect Bush will be sworn in as the next President of the United States and yet we will have the then-former Vice President of the United States who was a candidate having won the popular vote by more than 300,000.

And I think that sets up an example of why we…why we should at least prospectively consider the tension that exists in terms of the mandate given a President when he fails… when he or she fails to secure a plurality or a majority of… or a plurality, rather, of the popular vote.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, do you see that point, that perhaps people are now questioning the veracity of this election because the popular vote was so different from the Electoral College vote? Does that raise a problem or a red flag in any way for you?

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: Well, this is not anything new in history. We knew what the rules were going into the election. I think what’s the important thing is we stuck with those rules throughout the election.

The example that was just pointed out about the attempt to amend the Constitution passed the House but a majority of it failed in the Senate is — just reinforces my point that the House was made up to represent the more populated areas. The Senate represents the more rural and less populated states. And as a practical point, I don’t see the Senators from the smaller states as far as population is concerned voting to decrease their influence.

And when it goes to the state legislatures, which requires three-quarters of the state legislatures to amend the Constitution, I don’t see that number of states that are small states wanting to vote to decrease their influence in a national election. This is a… this is a system that has served us well. We should continue with it. Every individual will continue to have his right to vote. What we do is we localize the election so it’s ran in each state specifically.

I would hate to think of a national election board, or I’d hate to think where we have this ran through a national bureaucracy. It’s a manageable situation. It was managed in the state of Florida. And we go to a nationwide recount, for example, I don’t see us coming to any real ready conclusion. If we can localize it to each state, then each state has its rules and it’s a more manageable problem when you run into situations like we had in this election.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Delahunt, Senator Allard makes an interesting point, which if it were a national popular vote as close as this one and we were conducting 50 recounts, the same thing we just went through in Florida, wouldn’t that be even more chaotic?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: Well, Gwen, I’m not suggesting in any way to change the rules. I’m not saying that there should be a national bureaucracy. Nobody is proposing that particular concept. Obviously, recounts would be called in those states where the parties felt that there was a particular issue. And the argument that only… in these… in those cases where you have… where you have electors that are faithless– and that obviously has not occurred that frequently in our history– you might very well have an outcome that is unacceptable to the people.

GWEN IFILL: What about the smaller states as Senator Allard was saying? Is the system as it now stands biased towards them, where if you abolish the Electoral College, would that be a bias against them?

REP. BILL DELAHUNT: I don’t think it would be a biased against them. I honestly believe that, you know, today in the modern era, campaigns are focused on demographics, on constituencies. Issues are national in nature. We don’t have the kind of tensions between the states that we had in the beginnings of the republic. I mean, today we talk about issues that impact the elderly, for example, whether they live in Massachusetts or whether they live in Colorado.

We have terms like “soccer moms.” Now, soccer moms, I’m sure reside in Denver as well as in Boston, Massachusetts. So that today we have the advantage of instant communication. We live in a different world, and it’s time that this particular anachronism in terms of our electoral system be eliminated and abolished.

GWEN IFILL: Senator, the idea of a direct vote sounds so appealing to so many people. If they’re voting direct for dog catchers and for mayors and for governors, why not for the President of the United States?

SEN. WAYNE ALLARD: Well, the comment that I would make again is that you’re dealing with a smaller electorate when you run for dog catcher or when you’re running for the state legislature or even governor in the state. Certainly our modern technology has given us plenty of opportunities as far as giving everybody an opportunity to vote. But it’s not infallible. And we saw that in this election. And I would just continue to make the point again that we’d be much better served to leave the state legislatures in control to make the rules.

I predict that the Congress will be more than willing to provide money for upgrading the election systems in this election, which was a big part of the problem. I think state legislators will be willing to vote for that type of expenditure.

I think that when county clerks and recorders go to their county commissioners and ask them for more money to upgrade their departments, I predict that they’re very likely to have an affirmative answer in light of what happened in this election.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Allard and Congressman Delahunt, thank you both very much.