The impression given by many in the Gore camp is that their man won the popular vote but was denied the presidency by the anachronistic institution of the Electoral College, with its 51 separate state contests.
This impression is false. Gore’s claim on the presidency isn’t as legitimate as that. It’s more legitimate. Gore wasn’t blocked by the institution of the Electoral College. He was blocked by the undemocratic allocation of votes within the Electoral College.
The Electoral College, we all know now, was a compromise between those who favored direct election of the president and those who favored indirect election (by, say, state legislators). But it also reflected the broader, more Faustian constitutional bargain between big states and small states. The reward for the small states came in the form of an odd system for allocating electoral votes: Each state gets a “Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” Since every state, no matter how tiny, has two senators, the formula was skewed in favor of the least populous states. In effect, they got a two-vote electoral “bonus.” If the modern, egalitarian rule of “one person, one vote” were our guide, Wyoming would not have three electoral votes; it would have only one.
And if electoral votes were distributed to states according to their population, Gore would have won the 2000 election handily, even without Florida. This is easy to demonstrate, in rough fashion–just subtract the two “bonus” votes from each state’s total and add up the columns. Bush, if you give him Florida, will have won 30 states with a total of 211 electoral votes. Gore will have 21 states with a total of 225 electoral votes. It’s not even very close!
That means all this month’s learned debate about the virtues of the College–how it discourages splinter parties, how it forces candidates to campaign all over the country, and how it at least cabins recount madness in individual states–is somewhat beside the point. You could keep all those virtues, retain the College, and still remedy the wrong revealed by our current situation–if you simply eliminated the gratuitous “small-state bonus” and apportioned the electors fairly, by population.
That’s not going to happen, any more than abolition of the entire College is going to happen. Small states won’t permit it, and you can’t amend the Constitution without agreement of three-quarters of the states. Nor will the existence of the simple “reapportionment remedy” help Gore: His fate will be determined by the College as currently malapportioned.
Actually, it would probably only make our current predicament seem worse if it were widely acknowledged that Gore’s claim to majoritarian legitimacy is stronger than even his supporters allege. But that’s the case.