The Republican Electoral College Near-Death Experience

Bryan Wildenthal bryanw at
Fri Nov 5 22:17:36 PST 2004

Why is it that many rightwing Republicans are more focused this week on clamoring for Senator Arlen Specter's head because he warned Bush not to go for an anti-Roe Supreme Court appointment (and then ludicrously claimed not to have issued such a warning)?

You would think instead that Republicans would be clamoring to abolish the Electoral College, which came VERY, VERY close in this election to foisting on the country President John F. Kerry (the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, some have said), despite his loss of the popular vote by more than a 3.5-million-vote margin.

Democrats earned ample reason, one would think, to hate the EC in 2000, when it foisted on the country a rightwing president who was rejected by exactly the same narrow but decisive 51-48 popular majority (adding up the progressive Gore + Nader vote, with Gore alone outpolling Bush by half a million) that Republicans now claim as a mandate for Bush and goddess knows what rightwing mischief now in store for all of us.

I always found it odd that my fellow Democrats spent years complaining bitterly about the Florida recount, while utterly losing sight of the big picture -- that the country is saddled with an outrageously antiquated, dangerously unpredictable, monstrously un-democratic, and (always potentially, and in three cases actually) perversely anti-majoritorian presidential "election" system.

As many on this list know, I drafted a proposed constitutional amendment in early 2001 to abolish the electoral college and replace it with a system something like what even many Third-World nations manage just fine, namely a democratic popular vote election to choose the national leader. What a concept! I sent it to my Senators and Congresswoman (all Democrats). It got either a polite acknowledgment letter or was completely ignored. I am unaware of any significant Democratic political effort put into abolishing the electoral college, even though this outrageous and archaic device, in my view (and I think of many of my fellow Democrats), drastically altered the course of American and world history for the worse, by giving us President George W. Bush instead of President Gore.

There are at least three different scenarios, each VERY plausible, by which Kerry came VERY close to yanking victory from the jaws of popular-vote defeat by Bush this last Tuesday. If Kerry had gained just 137,000 more votes (possibly fewer, depending on provisional vote counts still to come), in just one state, Ohio, he would have beaten Bush 272-266 in the EC. Give Bush Ohio, and say Kerry eaked out 141,000 more votes in Iowa, New Mexico, and Colorado. Kerry steals it 273-265. Give Bush Ohio AND Iowa and say Kerry eaked out 149,000 more votes in New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada. Kerry steals it 271-267 (exactly mirroring Bush's 2000 steal). Change only 45,000 votes -- ONE-TWENTIETH OF ONE PERCENT -- 0.05% -- of the total cast -- in Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada, and Kerry would have sent it to the House, 269-269. Granted, the House (as we now know it will be constituted in January) would have elected Bush, but that depended on a safety net that might not have been there. The popular vote would have been irrelevant -- it and $4.50 cents would have gotten Bush a cup of Starbucks. Bush's handsome 3.5-million-plus margin would hardly have been dented by any of these vote shifts, and yet that's FOUR different ways Kerry could have screwed him in the EC.

These are not far-fetched scenarios, like the one in 1976 that would have required shifting a few votes in Ohio and a much larger proportional shift in Hawaii (and I think one other state) to swing it to Ford instead of Carter.  Hawaii was not that close in percentage terms. It would have been a highly unlikely upset for Ford to carry Hawaii. Each of the Kerry scenarios I have sketched out could EASILY have happened. Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and Nevada each went to Bush by 2-point or smaller margins. Kerry led in many late polls in all four, especially the latter three. Kerry won some states that Bush had led in many late polls (Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire). Colorado went to Bush 52-47, but as was widely reported, the economy was very bad there and several pre-election polls showed Kerry leading in Colorado in the final weeks. A Kerry victory in all five of those states could easily have happened, even without any major change in the national popular vote picture -- and Kerry VERY easily could have won just one, or three, here or there, enough to swing it.

Can you imagine the howls of Republican frustration? (Probably equal to the howls from my fellow Democrats now contemplating what could so easily have been.) I don't think the Republicans would have been deterred by the delicious irony of Bush being hoisted by the same petard that gave him four undeserved years in the White House in the first place. I think we would have heard a great deal from rightwingers about the evil and anti-democratic (small-d!) Electoral College, and how it must be a tool of Satan to give the White House to some Massachusetts ultraliberal rejected by a 3.5-million-vote nationwide majority.

Republicans should be having cold sweats and heebie-jeebies over their near-death Electoral College experience! They should be marching in the streets! Many of them spent much of this year demanding an utterly unnecessary (not to mention mean-spirited) constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Yet they have no apparent or reported interest in an amendment to abolish an archaic institution that nearly robbed them of what many of them surely regard as a God-given victory of tremendous importance?

So why have we heard no demands from EC reform or abolition, from either the Democrats in 2000 or Republicans in 2004? Do we worship the anachronistic forms of the past so blindly? This all provides some insight, I think, into how the country could be so asleep at the switch, and have such a short attention span and lack of interest in basic facts, as to elect Bush in the first place (notice I didn't say re-elect).


Bryan Wildenthal
Thomas Jefferson School of Law

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