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Five Electoral College myths

As the presidential race enters its final hours, the nation once again faces the possibility of electing a president who has lost the popular vote but won through the Electoral College, the unofficial name given to a complicated system authorized by the U.S. Constitution. • The Electoral College is, in effect, a formula through which each state is granted electors based on its total number of U.S. Senate and House seats, along with state laws that typically grant all their electors to one candidate. Four times, most recently in 2000, the winner of the popular vote has lost the presidency, thanks to the formula. • Defenders argue that the Electoral College still serves important purposes. It doesn't. Here are a few myths about the workings of the Electoral College.

Myth 1 The Electoral College serves purposes intended by the Constitution's framers.

The drafters of the Constitution in 1787 had two prominent reasons for an Electoral College — a distrust of direct democracy and the slave population. As for the first, framers touted a system in which property-owning citizens would vote for independent, thinking electors, who in turn would meet in their respective state capitals, debate and vote for a president. This attempt at indirect election was soon undermined, however, by the rise of political parties and state laws that award electors based on party pledges.

Electors today exercise no independent judgment; they are mere functionaries of the formula. A second reason for the system was to enable slave-holding states to get credit for their slaves (each of whom counted as three-fifths of a person in determining House seat allocations), even though the enslaved persons obviously had no popular vote.

Myth 2The Electoral College gives clout to big and populous states.

Because the Electoral College system doles out electors in state "chunks," it might make sense, at first blush, for candidates to concentrate on the most populous states. But ideology and history prove this to be wrong. The system encourages candidates to focus on "swing" states — places in which the outcome is still in doubt, regardless of size. This election, for example, we witness little campaigning in the most populous states, California and Texas, because they are not swing states.

Indeed, in the six closest presidential elections over the past century, the biggest state's vote has diverged from the college formula four times. If having candidates appeal to swing states gives them "clout," then clout was held in recent elections by Florida, Ohio and a handful of others.

Myth 3The Electoral College protects small states and rural voters.

This assertion is the heart of today's defense of the Electoral College. Because states with very small populations (which typically are more rural states) are awarded at least three electors, these states get a somewhat higher share of the electoral vote than they do of the popular vote. But the formula does not "protect" small states; unlike in the Senate, in which every state has equal clout, the dozen smallest states combined still have fewer electors than does California alone.

American presidential politics has never been about small versus big states; it has been about issues, such as slavery, war and the economy. States such as Rhode Island and Wyoming have no common interest simply because they are small in population.

Myth 4The Electoral College prevents a "regional" president.

The supposition here is that the Electoral College pushes candidates to appeal widely, not regionally. But the college system does the opposite. Because it does not help a candidate to lose a state by a slim margin any more than by a crushing defeat, candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they expect to lose.

Don't look for Romney in Maryland or Obama in Oklahoma. Indeed, the college formula enables a candidate to win without any support at all in some regions. The Republican Party had almost zero strength in the Southeast from 1880 through 1960, yet still won more than half of the presidential elections, because the South simply didn't matter to its electoral formula.

Myth 5The Electoral College bolsters the two- party system.

Because a third-party candidate is likely to have little support in the House of Representatives — which chooses the president if the college vote does not result in a majority — the college system makes it more difficult for third-party candidates, defenders argue. In fact, many of the framers assumed that a decision by the House would occur often, because they imagined that electors voting in separate states would often lead to fractured totals. But the rise of political parties made collecting electors nationwide quite easy. The House hasn't chosen the president since 1824. Meanwhile, third-party candidates can still affect the vote in swing states, as Ross Perot may have done in 1992.

If we chose our president through a popular vote — as we do governors and members of Congress — we would elect through a true expression of the people's desires, not through a haphazard, distorted formula with no good reason for retaining it.

Paul Boudreaux is a professor at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Five Electoral College myths 11/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 4, 2012 3:30am]
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