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Electoral College Still Making the Final Call

Constitution: Analysts see scenarios where popular-vote winner could lose the election.


Remember those grade-school democracy lessons about whoever gets the most votes wins?

As lyricist Ira Gershwin once wrote, "It ain't necessarily so."

Here in the waning days of the 2000 presidential campaign, political analysts are weighing scenarios under which Texas Gov. George W. Bush could rack up more votes nationwide than Vice President Al Gore but still lose the election.

It hasn't happened in more than a century. Still, it is possible.

"This has been a constitutional crisis waiting to happen," said Jeff Manza, a sociology professor and political analyst at Chicago's Northwestern University.

Under the electoral college system, established in the Constitution, none of us actually votes for a candidate for president. Instead, we're voting for slates of electors committed to supporting their political party's nominee.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 27, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Electoral college--In Thursday's Times, an article on the electoral college misidentified the losing candidate in the 1876 presidential election. He was Samuel J. Tilden.

The electors for the winning candidate assemble in the state capitals on Dec. 18, where ballots are cast for president and vice president and forwarded to the president of the Senate--in this case, Al Gore--where they are counted on Jan. 6.

Only about half the states legally require the electors to support the top vote-getter. In California, a wayward elector can be fined $1,000 and sent to prison for up to three years.

In Michigan--a battleground state that some analysts think could swing the election--a vote for Gore is actually a vote for David P. Taylor and 17 fellow Democratic loyalists.

Taylor, a lawyer, said he would have no misgivings about playing a role in a Gore electoral victory in defiance of the popular vote. But he said he could see where many voters would not be pleased.

"It might be difficult for the average person to accept that, but I don't think it's of revolutionary importance," said Taylor. "People should be aware of how it [electoral college] works and then if they say this isn't the way we should elect the president, changes might be made."

Such a split result has only happened twice.

In 1888, Grover Cleveland won 48.6% of the popular vote but lost in the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison, who received 47.8%. In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden Smith, who received 51% of the vote. But Hayes prevailed by a single electoral vote.

The system was designed by the framers of the Constitution who sought a compromise between those who advocated direct election of the president by the masses and those who wanted Congress to pick the president.

Under the system, each state is allotted electoral votes equal to the number of congressional districts in the state, plus one more for each of the two U.S. senators. The District of Columbia also has three electors.

In all states but Maine and Nebraska, whoever wins the popular vote gets all the electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska give two at-large electoral votes to the state winner but award the others based on whoever wins in each congressional district.

It takes 270 electoral votes (out of 538) to win. Gore has done well in a few big states, such as California and New York, while Bush has led polls in many states with smaller populations. Big margins of victory for Bush in those states combined with thin victories for Gore in big states could give Bush the most votes, even if Gore gets the most electors.

Not all analysts see the numbers going that way, though.

"It's conceivable, but I'm not going to bet my kids' Christmas presents on it," said Bob Beckel, a former campaign manager for Walter Mondale. "I really don't see it in the calculations."

Also improbable, experts say, is a tie. When no one candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the winner from among the three top electoral finalists. Each state gets one vote.

James Lengle, a government professor at Georgetown University, describes the electoral college as a vestige of the elitist approach of the framers of the Constitution, who sought to mitigate the voice of the masses through political institutions.

In the early days of the republic, the only portion of government elected by the people was the House of Representatives, with state legislatures appointing senators and the electoral college--selected either by popular vote or state legislatures--picking the president.

Over time, though, the nature of elections has changed. U.S. senators are now elected directly and some states--including California--allow initiatives. "But the electoral college," Lengle said, "is still one of the anachronistic holdovers from the framers' day, where the belief was that indirect democracy was preferable."

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