Practically anything could happen in today's election. Some projections suggest Mitt Romney will win the popular vote, while Barack Obama will keep the White House by winning the Electoral College. If this happens, please let it be the spark that sets fire to that anachronistic institution.
In 2000, Al Gore won the popular vote, but George W. Bush took the Electoral College. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote while John Kerry came within an eyelash of taking the Electoral College. If either Romney or Obama takes the White House today while losing the popular vote, please let this catalyze change.
The system of having the president chosen by electors was designed partly to protect slavery. Slave states worried that the populous North would elect an abolitionist president. The Electoral College, combined with denying slaves the vote but counting them as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating electors, helped preserve an abomination for another seven decades.
Some of the Framers opposed slavery but favored the Electoral College, because they did not trust average people. The Constitution was written to have average people represented in the House, via direct election; the landed gentry represented in the Senate, with senators chosen by state legislatures it was assumed the well-off would control; and presidents chosen by councils of electors isolated from what Thomas Jefferson called "the passions" of the illiterate masses.
Maybe that was the right call in 1789. But then, average people were uneducated. Today literacy is universal, and nearly everyone has some education. Direct election of senators was adopted in 1913, with ratification of the 17th Amendment. A century later, there's still no direct election of the president. The United States preaches one-person, one-vote to the world, yet here at home, uses a system that makes a voter in Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania much more important than a voter in California, Texas or New York.
In current application, the Electoral College over-represents some states, under-represents others, and discourages voter turnout in California, Texas and New York, the nation's most populous states. Sunday, Obama made his seventh campaign appearance in New Hampshire, population 1.3 million -- the president has made no campaign appearances in Texas, population 26 million. Hundreds of votes in California, Texas or New York can mean less than a single vote in Wisconsin. This is what the United States wants to tell the world is a democratic ideal?
Because of the anachronistic Electoral College, issues that matter in battleground states -- coal use in Ohio and Pennsylvania, anti-Castro sentiment in Florida -- get more attention during elections than issues involving much larger numbers of people, such as the quality of public education in California and Texas. And the attention doesn't even help battleground states. In the past three presidential election cycles, both parties have treated Ohio as the center of the known universe. Yet Ohio remains a troubled state, with industrial decline and government corruption.
A destructive dynamic exists between the Electoral College and modern techniques of targeted lobbying and ZIP code analysis of voter tendencies. The better campaign consultants become at manipulating votes, the more the Electoral College becomes a tool for special interests, favoring them versus the overall national interest.
The Electoral College locks the country into a two-party system in which true alternative voices are not heard. If a third-party candidate cannot take all the electors of a state, that candidate cannot be anything but a spoiler. This forces third parties into a negative role, draining the creativity from national politics.
The problem could in theory be solved if every state legislature switched to awarding electors proportionate to votes, rather than winner-take-all. Currently, only Nebraska and Maine use this enlightened approach. The trouble is that if many states began enacting proportional-elector laws, each four years as the presidential endgame became clear, Republican-controlled or Democratic-controlled states would change their laws to put their candidates over the top. That's the fatal flaw of this otherwise worthy initiative.
The solution is a constitutional amendment establishing direct popular election of the president. This is needed to bring the United States into the 20th century, to say nothing of the 21st century. We can't lecture the world about representative democracy when we still don't have it here. Yes, popular vote would make big cities more important than rural states -- but big cities are more important than rural states, and at any rate, the composition of the Senate adjusts for small-state concerns. There's just no reason to keep the antiquated Electoral College. The only ones who benefit from keeping the system the way it is are campaign consultants, lawyers and corrupt politicians.
If there were direct election of the president, nonsense like the 2000 Florida recount-of-the-recount-of-the-recount would not happen, nor would nonsense like this. The whole reason for the 2000 Supreme Court decision effectively choosing the president was that the Electoral College disenfranchises some while magnifying the votes of others. Was the George W. Bush presidency legitimate? Will the Mitt Romney or second Obama presidency be legitimate? With popular-vote election, we'd be sure.