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Commentary: Electoral College, Hail To Thee

News: Analysis & Commentary: COMMENTARY: ELECTION '96


The Electoral College is hard to love or even like. Twice in the 1800s, the maddeningly arcane system denied victory to Presidential candidates who had won the popular vote. In 1960, Richard M. Nixon was trounced in the Electoral College even as he nearly won the popular vote. No wonder good-government types brand it an undemocratic anachronism.

But the world's most disliked college turns out to have an unlikely cheerleader. Alan Natapoff, by day a physicist who studies astronauts' performance at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Man-Vehicle Laboratory, claims to have proven mathematically that the Electoral College is a good deal for voters.

STOP SIGN. Natapoff has toiled on this problem for 25 years, with only flashes of national attention. Now, at last, he's being published in a scholarly journal, Public Choice. He hopes to alert Congress to what would be lost by junking the Electoral College by constitutional amendment, as almost happened in 1969. Without his stop sign, he says, politicians "might drive right off the cliff without knowing it."

A few words for those who snoozed through civics. The U.S. Constitution doesn't require popular elections for the Presidency; the Electoral College chooses the President. The states choose the electors, with each state given votes equal to its number of senators and representatives. All but Maine assign all their electors to the winner of the state's popular vote.

Natapoff concedes that the Electoral College can occasionally snatch victory from a candidate who wins the largest number of popular votes. But he says that's not so bad. After all, he notes, baseball works the same way. The objective in the playoffs is to win most of the games, not to score more runs in the overall series. A team can cop a couple of blowouts and still drop the series.

Natapoff's bedrock argument is that close elections are more democratic, because in close elections, candidates must appeal for every last vote--thus amplifying each voter's influence. By Natapoff's math, close elections are more likely in the current system of state-by-state, winner-take-all elections. The smaller the voter base, the greater the chance that a trailing candidate could score a fluke win--just as a weaker baseball team has a better chance of winning a five-game series than a seven-game series.

Voters in states that are up for grabs, therefore, get to be wooed. Candidates might not scrap so hard for every vote if Presidents were chosen by nationwide popular ballot, Natapoff argues. That's because the U.S. as a whole is so populous that by the law of averages, even a 3% or 4% margin is predictably safe from fluke outcomes.

MISCHIEF. The U.S. system is hardly flawless. If no candidate wins an Electoral College majority, the choice goes to the House of Representatives, creating opportunities for mischief. Also, voters tend to be ignored if they live in states that aren't closely contested. Natapoff would remedy that by awarding electoral votes to states on the basis of their voter turnout, not congressional representation. That would give the leading candidate an incentive to appeal to every voter, regardless of party, at least to turn out.

On the whole, though, the Electoral College works. It pushes candidates to reach beyond their core constituencies to many regions and interest groups. Says Natapoff: "The point is not to endorse the person who gets the most votes, but to be sure that the person who is elected has the consent of the whole country." How odd that it took a physicist to hammer that argument home.By Peter Coy

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