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So Long, Electoral College. It Has Not Been Good To Know You

Jul 29, 2009
A reader asked what instantly enters my head when I hear the words "Electoral College."

Instant answer: "The Blivet Trick."

Which calls for an explanation . . .

Background: the Electoral College, not the popular vote, elects the United States president. The college is based on congressional districts plus senators. Thus, New Mexico, which has three congressional districts and two senators, has five Electoral College votes.

Since every state automatically has 2 senators, the political battle is over congressional districts. They are based on population -- warm bodies counted by the census every 10 years.

Roughly, if your state increases by 650,000 people, that number will get you a new congressional district -- and one more electoral college vote. That number keeps going up because the population keeps growing and the number of congressional districts is fixed at 435.

I have designed many electoral districts, from cities on up. Hands down, the worst knock-down-drag-out fights occur over congressional districts. School districts run a close second. With either of them, you are in mean-as-snakes territory.

In the 1700s, the Founding Fathers could not agree on how to elect the president. The sticking point was that rich planters in the South looked around and saw they were short on population. "Real" population, that is.

There were plenty of slaves -- in 1790, they were 39% of the population of Virginia, 43% of South Carolina* -- but slaves did not count for electoral purposes because they could not vote. They could not vote because they were viewed as subhuman.

If only there was a way slaves could be counted as humans but not "really," the planters' dilemma would be solved.

Which resulted in this "compromise": a slave would count as three-fifths of a human being. That way, the South could puff up its population count, get more congressional districts, and consequently have more electoral college votes -- all that without giving slaves the right to vote.

The deal was cut, the impasse broken, the constitution passed. But there was a terrible price to pay. The politicians forced America to live in an "as if" world -- to act AS IF the 3/5 formula were correct, made sense.

I have often wondered when The Great Compromise, which high school teaches us to revere, turns into the compromise of greatness.

Three-fifths human? Screwball nonsense. A classic, vintage, textbook case of "The Blivet Trick."

Nebraska and Maine exepted, the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College allows someone who loses the popular vote for president to be elected anyway, by winning the Electoral College vote. That outcome took place three times: Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000.

What is far more important, however, is that at least 20 other presidential elections were so close that the popular vote loser could have easily won the White House.

For example, in 2004, George Bush beat John Kerry by 3 million votes. Bush won 286 Electoral College votes to 251 for Kerry. 270 are needed to win. If Kerry had won Ohio with its 20 Electoral College votes, Bush would have won the national popular vote, but lost the Electoral College vote and the presidency.

Talk about an interesting development: the tool that put Bush in office, the Electoral College, would have taken him out. Only one irony can top that one . . .

By the way, Bush beat Kerry in Ohio by 118,599 votes. Had 60,000 people switched to Kerry, well, you can be sure Kerry thinks about them from time to time. If you ever watch the University of Florida Gators, the college national champion football team, play at home, look at their stadium. It seats 88,000 people.

And Obama? The tale of the tape: Obama trounced McCain by close to 10 million popular votes, and 365 to 173 Electoral College votes. That margin was simply too big for McCain to overcome, right?


I will show you how a shift of fewer than 600,000 votes in the "right" places would have made McCain the winner.

McCain fell short of the presidency by 97 Electoral College votes. Here is one way among others he could have acquired them.

Step 1. Find a group of states with a minimum of 97 Electoral College votes:

Florida 27
Ohio 20
North Carolina 15
Virginia 13
Indiana 11
Iowa 7
New Mexico 5

Total: 98

Step 2. Note Obama's margin of victory in popular votes over McCain in those states:

Florida 236,450
Ohio 258,897
North Carolina 14,177
Virginia 234,527
Indiana 28,391
Iowa 146,561
New Mexico 125,590

Total: 1,044,593

Step 3. If one half plus one of the voters in Obama's margins in those states had switched to McCain, we would be looking at President McCain today. Here are the additional votes McCain needed:

Florida 118,226
Ohio 129,449
North Carolina 7,089
Virginia 117,264
Indiana 14,196
Iowa 73,281
New Mexico 62,796

Total: 522,301. That was the magic number of switch voters required to defeat Obama. More people live in Wyoming.

In popular votes, Obama was out of reach for McCain. In Electoral College votes, Obama could have been had. Please note that George Bush carried all 7 states cited above in 2004, so in giving them to McCain the above calculation is not demanding the impossible.

The last major vestige of slavery in our constitution, the Electoral College is a spectacle that should have been shut down years ago. It is the dead hand of the dead past.

In raw political terms, President Obama would do well to take the lead and get rid of the Electoral College -- before it gets rid of him. The latter outcome in 2012 would be the greatest irony in the history of American politics.

By now, you get the idea. "The Blivet Trick" is trying to shove 10 pounds of horse manure into a 5-pound bag. Ken Lay of Enron ("Our liquidity is fine. In fact, it's better than fine. It's strong."); Bernard Madoff ("In today's regulatory environment, it's virtually impossible to violate rules."); Herbert Hoover ("Prosperity Is Just Around The Corner"), defenders of the electoral college; slave owners -- all performed "The Blivet Trick" day in day out. They were stuck with it.

That is what happens when you live in an "as if" world.


About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion."

For his website, go to Thomas Belvedere.
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