On November 2, the oddities of our presidential electoral system produced another near miss. Although George W. Bush received 3.5 million more votes than did John Kerry, a shift of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have given Kerry enough votes in the electoral college to make him president. Had that occurred, Bush would have had a unique place in our political history, as the only man to become president in a popular election that he lost and then to lose the presidency in an election in which he received more votes than his opponent.
As George C. Edwards tells us in Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America, such near misses have been remarkably frequent. He shows that on sixteen occasions before 2004 a shift of 75,000 votes or less in key states would have given the presidency to the candidate who finished second in the popular vote; six times, a switch of less than 10,000 votes would have done the trick. After four other well-known elections (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000), a candidate took office as president despite his failure to win the popular vote. When presidential elections are close—as they seem to be about half the time—there is always a serious chance that the candidate who wins the most votes will not end up in the White House.
That, of course, is an important reason why many Americans have long favored getting rid of the electoral college or changing its most objectionable features, such as the “unit rule,” which gives all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of that state’s popular vote.1 Elections, after all, are mechanisms for determining the preferences of the people. But the electoral system called for in the US Constitution assembles those preferences in such a way that the will of the majority can be thwarted.2 Not surprisingly, then, more than five hundred constitutional amendments to change the system have been introduced into Congress since 1816, and they have been supported by diverse political leaders, including Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter—each of whom was a candidate in a disputed or “near miss” election.
The electoral college is, in fact, our most unpopular political institution. For more than fifty years, public opinion polls have indicated that between two thirds and three quarters of the American people favored replacing the electoral college with direct, national elections: “There is little question,” reported the Gallup organization in 2001, “that the American public would prefer to dismantle the Electoral College system.” In 1976, even Wisconsin’s presidential electors made clear their unhappiness with the electoral college; after casting their state’s ballots for president, they passed a resolution calling for the abolition of the institution in which they had just participated.
George Edwards, the editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly and Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University, shares their sentiments. His book methodically presents the case for eliminating the electoral college and replacing it with national popular elections. With excellent…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.