Ralph E. Shaffer  11/8/00


After flirting with disaster several times since 1948, the nation has 
finally encountered the electoral calamity that many experts have 
dreaded.  For the first time in over a century the Electoral College 
system has failed.  Though it is likely that we will muddle through, 
with Democrats reluctantly accepting a George Bush victory despite 
their party's popular vote plurality, the calls for reform or 
abolition of the Electoral College are louder than in recent years. 
But there will be no reform of our antiquated presidential election 

The change most commonly suggested is a simple one: direct popular 
election of the President.  But the obstacles to that reform are 
overwhelming; the devil is in the details.

Would popular election require that the winner have a majority, or 
only a plurality, of the popular vote?  If a majority, that would be 
almost impossible to achieve.  Popular election would surely increase 
the number and activity of minor parties, now discouraged by a process 
which effectively denies them electoral votes.  The result would be a 
badly split popular vote, far worse than that caused by Ross Perot in 

Because of the difficulty in gaining a majority, Sen. Birch Bayh 
proposed a constitutional amendment for a popular election several 
years ago, requiring a run-off if no candidate received 40% of the 
vote. But the country will not rest easy with a victor whose total is 

Consider the tragedy of the 1860 presidential election. Abraham 
Lincoln polled only 39.8% of the vote yet led his three challengers. 
That would have initiated a run-off under the Bayh proposal. But 
before that Republicans would have demanded not just a recount in 
Florida but throughout the nation to increase Lincoln's lead to 40%.  
And when, with previously uncounted ballots in Chicago, he got it, the 
Democrats would have initiated a second recount to cut him back to 

Had there been an 1860 run-off, Lincoln would have lost to Stephen 
Douglas, a moderate Democrat. Instead, Lincoln had a "constitutional 
majority."  He won more than half of the electoral votes and became 
President, precipitating Southern secession and Civil War.

Even if advocates of a direct popular vote can resolve this dilemma, 
amending the Constitution is no simple process. Any amendment opposed 
by more than one-fourth of the state legislatures will fail, and a 
direct election amendment will alienate all those small, western 
Republican states, whose influence would be considerably less in a 
popular vote than in the Electoral College system.  

Based on the 1990 census, California has 60 times as many people as 
Wyoming, yet has only 18 times as many electoral votes (55-3). Since 
each state's electoral vote is determined by adding its representation 
in the House (based on population) to its two senators (the same for 
each state) the importance of the smaller states is exaggerated.  

Furthermore, if no candidate gets a majority in the Electoral College, 
the President is chosen by the House, where each state, regardless of 
size, has but a single vote.  Wyoming, one vote.  California, one 
vote.  Small states have no interest in abolishing the Electoral 

Big states would also oppose change.  Currently each gives its entire 
electoral vote to the candidate who carries the state.  While any 
state could opt to divide its electoral vote in proportion to its 
popular vote, that would be political suicide.  It's the chance to win 
all of California's 54 votes or New York's 33 that makes those states 
a prize.

To those who enjoy raising this issue every four years, forget it.  
Every significant modification of the Electoral College is doomed to 
defeat until the system fails completely.  And when it does, we will 
have more to worry about than changing the Electoral College.  Ask 
Abraham Lincoln.
(Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona; 
he can be reached via email at reshaffer@csupomona.edu)