BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Why the Electoral College Lives On
It's an anachronism, but one that keeps rural states in the political loop

It is one of the most obscure colleges in America. It has no professors and very few cheerleaders. But it has complete control over who leads the most powerful nation in the world. It's the Electoral College, which reemerged from obscurity this November to play a pivotal role in the selection of the 43rd President.

For the first time since 1888, the Presidential candidate who appears to have the most popular votes, Vice-President Al Gore, may not get the keys to the White House. Excluding Oregon's 7 electoral votes, if Texas Governor George W. Bush maintains his narrow election-night lead in Florida, he will become President with 278 electoral votes, despite tallying fewer popular votes.

STRIKE THREE? The electoral fluke is reviving a century-old debate over whether the college should go to the scrap heap. Why have a rickety institution that has thrice made a popular-vote loser the President? Unabashedly elitist, the Electoral College was created by the founding fathers in 1787 as a counterbalance against too much democracy and to protect states from encroaching federal power.

Here's how it works: Each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to its total representation in the House and Senate. So a state like California, with 52 House members and 2 senators, gets 54 electoral votes. The problem? Small- and midsize states have a louder voice in selecting a President. For instance, the 22 smallest states together have less than California's population but nearly twice as many electoral votes. To win, a candidate must take 270 of the 538 electoral votes.

Critics condemn the system as an 18th century anachronism. Among its foes: investment banker Sanford R. Robertson, a partner in Francisco Partners, a San Francisco leveraged buyout firm. ''Just a few thousand votes can swing the Electoral College one way or another,'' he says. ''Maybe this is the event that could finally force its elimination.''

Indeed, there have been periodic crusades to abolish the college. But they failed to win much support from many states. And for good reason: If the Electoral College were abolished, candidates would have little incentive to visit less populated states. Nominees would concentrate on big cities and population states, mainly in the Northeast and California. ''Their time would be better spent in places like Brooklyn,'' says Senator Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). As a result, the college ''keeps us from having a regional Presidency,'' says Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.).

It also has strong backing from powerful interests such as farmers and gun-rights groups. Because of their concentration in such less populated, rural places, it magnifies their power in swing states like Iowa and Tennessee. What's more, both parties back the Electoral College. Because of the winner-take-all-aspect of almost every state's electoral votes, third parties don't stand a chance. In 1992, Ross Perot received 19% of the popular vote but did not get a single electoral vote.

TOUGH JOB. Even with this year's drama, backers of Electoral College repeal have their work cut out. They would have to get a constitutional amendment passed. And aside from obvious logistical problems, ''you would have to have a groundswell of popular support, like votes for women,'' says James A. Thurber, an American University political scientist. ''People must feel aggrieved. And I don't see that now.''

Of course, that could change if a split between the popular and electoral vote brings a crisis of legitimacy for the incoming Administration--or if the thousands of disputed Florida votes provide Bush his margin of victory. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) predicted on Nov. 8 that the 2000 results ''could generate and trigger a very good and healthy debate on how we view elections.'' Adds Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based think tank: ''The question is now whether the body politic can accept the wisdom of the founding fathers.'' Getting voters to make up their minds on that may be an even tougher fight than the election battle that has just ended.

By Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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