Florida Saved the Electoral College

"If Al Gore became President after more people voted for George W. Bush, the Electoral College would be history." Those words were written in this space last fall, a week before the Nov. 7 election. As it happens, the premise turned out to be backward. Bush became President after more people voted for Gore. But the logic of the argument remains the same. The will of the voters was thwarted.

So is the Electoral College about to become history? Apparently not. There's no wave of public outrage over an "undemocratic" and antiquated institution. Sure, people have found many things to complain about following last year's presidential election. But by and large, the Electoral College is not one of them. Why not? One word: Florida. Florida saved the Electoral College.

Public anger has been directed at the undemocratic procedures in Florida, not at the Electoral College itself. The final count showed Gore winning the national popular vote by a substantial margin—nearly 540,000 votes. But the figure most Americans are likely to be familiar with is Bush's disputed margin in Florida—537 votes.

A Gore lead of more than half a million votes nationwide is no small matter. That is more than four times the size of John F. Kennedy's victory margin in 1960 over Richard Nixon. It is nearly as big as Nixon's margin over Hubert Humphrey in 1968. In percentage terms, a national lead of more than half a percent (0.516 percent) is not trivial. But a Bush lead in Florida of less than one one-hundredths of a percent (0.009 percent) is trivial. It's the latter figure that's the focus of voter anger.

In fact, media-sponsored hand recounts in Florida have already produced startling anomalies. The Washington Post has reported that spoiled ballots in eight Florida counties—including some carried by Bush—were far more likely to include Gore votes than Bush votes. Spoiled ballots have no legal or constitutional standing. But they do create a political irony: It is likely that more voters went to the polls in Florida intending to vote for Al Gore than for George W. Bush.

That intent may have been reflected in the network exit polls. Voters leaving their polling places told interviewers that they had just voted for Gore, not realizing that, in fact, they had cast invalid ballots. The initial exit polls showing Gore carrying Florida may have reflected the voters' true intentions.

Reform efforts are focused on balloting procedures. But very little has been heard about revamping the Electoral College. Only one Senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has called for abolishing the Electoral College. Americans believe in playing by the rules, and the Electoral College represents the rules of the game in presidential politics. Florida, on the other hand, appears to have violated the rules. The state's voting procedures distorted the voters' intentions. Hence, the outrage.

The Electoral College also distorts voters' intentions, but in a less conspicuous way. For instance, Bush won almost half of the vote in Wisconsin. But because Gore carried Wisconsin by 5,708 votes, Bush's 1.2 million voters got nothing in return despite their large numbers. Every one of Wisconsin's 11 electoral votes went to Gore.

The Electoral College also allows third-party candidates to create distortions. Much has been made of the fact that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader cost Gore the election. Nader's 97,419 votes in Florida would almost certainly have gone mostly for Gore if Nader had not run. Nader also cost Gore New Hampshire. Nader's vote in New Hampshire (22,156) was almost three times the size of Bush's margin over Gore in the Granite State (7,282). If tiny New Hampshire had voted for Gore, the Electoral College vote would have ended up 271 to 267 for Gore instead of 271 to 267 for Bush.

Even though Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan did miserably in the election—less than one-half of 1 percent of the national vote—the Electoral College enabled him to distort the results as well. Buchanan may have cost Bush four states—Iowa, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin. In those states, Gore's margin over Bush was smaller than the Buchanan vote.

Bush does have a good counterargument to charges that he won unfairly: If the rules of the game had been different, he would have played a different game. He would have run harder in, say, New York, a state that Gore won by 25 percentage points. The Electoral College made it a waste of time for Bush to campaign in New York, where he had no chance of winning. But if every vote counted the same all over the country, Bush would have paid attention to a state with such a big payoff. The Electoral College gives states clout and turns state leaders into power brokers. With little public pressure to change, states are unlikely to support a constitutional amendment that would abolish the Electoral College and diminish their influence in presidential politics.

What if Bush had won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College? Then the situation would have been entirely different. Outraged Republicans would have called Gore an illegitimate President. Republicans, who were more desperate to win, would have balked at Gore's becoming President because of a "quirk" in the rules. If Gore had become President after more people voted for Bush, chances are the Electoral College would be on its way to becoming history.