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Debate over wisdom of electoral vote continues

November 4, 2012

By SID SALTER

During these final days of the 2012 presidential campaign, the debate continues without ceasing over first the wisdom and reliability of the electoral vote versus the popular vote as a means to choose America’s president.

For many Americans, there is a disconnect between their intrinsic belief that the candidate who wins a majority or plurality of the popular vote should win the election and the reality that we elect presidents in this nation through the electoral vote, not the popular vote

The conventional wisdom on the electoral vote is that it ensures that a U.S. president has sufficient popular support spread drawn from a distribution that is geographically diverse enough to enable the chief executive to be effective in governing. A growing number of people disagree.

Opponents of the electoral vote argue that the system favors rural, less populated states like Mississippi over more urban, heavily populated states like California or Florida. They argue that a Mississippian’s vote carries more electoral weight on a proportional basis than a Californian’s vote.

Then there’s the “swing state” argument against the electoral vote. In theory, a candidate would win the presidential election by carrying just 11 states that comprise a winning 271 electoral votes: California (55 votes), Florida (27), Texas (34), New York (31), Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Georgia (15), New Jersey (15), and North Carolina (15). Should that occur, it would be possible for a president with a significant minority of the popular vote to be elected.

Finally, there’s the argument against the electoral vote that holds that third party candidates have virtually no chance of winning in the current “winner take all” system.

Proponents argue that as a federal coalition of states, the Electoral College’s protection of the voice of rural, less populated states is not a detriment but an advantage. Proponents also argue that the “swing state” argument is bogus in that such a development has never taken place. Even in the contested 2000 election, the so-called “swing states” only gave the winning Bush-Cheney ticket 111 electoral votes.

Proponents meet the “third party” argument by maintaining that a strong two-party system ensures stability for the national government through the maintenance of a loyal opposition. Clearly, the rise of the Tea Party on the right and entities like the Green Party on the left indicate eroding support for that argument from both sides of the political spectrum.

There have been serious attempts to abolish the Electoral College system, but the country at this juncture appears not to be ready to make that fundamental change. Looking over the last few presidential elections, one can find evidence to support the notion that the present system is worth keeping.

In 2008, Barack Obama had an almost 10 million vote lead in the popular vote and got a landslide 365 electoral votes. In 2004, George W. Bush had a 3 million vote lead in the popular vote and 286 electoral votes. In 2000, one of the closest elections in American history, Bush lost the popular vote by some 500,000 votes but won the electoral vote over Democrat Al Gore with 271 electoral votes to Gore’s 265.

In 1996, Bill Clinton won a 379 vote electoral landslide but only garnered a plurality of the popular vote over Republican Bob Dole and independent Ross Perot. In 1992, Clinton took 370 electoral votes with a 43 percent plurality of the vote against Republican George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.

Bush the Elder won a whopping 426 electoral votes and a 53.4 percent popular vote majority in 1988 while Ronald Reagan grabbed 525 electoral votes and a 58.8 percent popular vote win over Walter Mondale in 1984.

Still, in 2008, presidential candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their campaign appearances and advertising spending in just six states and 98 percent in just 15 states — surprise, surprise — the ones with the most electoral votes.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.

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