Equal Protection and the Electoral College

by Dr. Lorenzo Sadun

As everybody knows, this year's presidential election was unbelievably close, with Florida (and New Mexico) decided by just a few hundred votes. We're told that this proves that ``every vote counts''.

Just not where I live. Here in Texas, a million Bush voters could have stayed home, or a million extra Gore supporters could have voted, and it wouldn't have changed the outcome. Likewise in states like California and New York, where Gore won by huge margins. Or smaller states like Utah, which went for Bush by more than 2 to 1. It didn't matter if the networks called these states before the polls closed; we knew how they we going months before the polls opened.

Despite their different preferences, individual Texans, Californians, New Yorkers and Utahns all found themselves powerless to affect the election. Our votes didn't count. All we could do was hope that our friends in Florida or Michigan or New Hampshire voted our way.

Is that any way to run a country? The US Supreme Court halted the Florida recounts because the recounts would have treated votes cast in different counties, or even within the same county, slightly differently. This, they decided, was an unconstitutional violation of the Equal Protection Clause. A vote cast in Miami should have exactly the same chance of influencing the outcome as a vote cast in Tampa. So why should that Miami vote be different from a vote cast in Dallas or Los Angeles or Salt Lake City?

Some have argued that the electoral college is needed to protect the smaller and more rural states, which might be ignored in an election determined by popular vote. Yet most of these states are already ignored because they are safely Republican. Only a very foolish candidate would bother campaigning in Wyoming or Montana when his time and resources were needed in swing states like Pennsylvania or Michigan. It would be nice if all regions got equal attention, but there is no fundamental right to host a candidate visit. What is fundamental is the right to have your vote count. With a popular vote election, each vote cast in Green River, Wyoming would have exactly the same impact as a vote cast in New York City.

Many have suggested that the electoral college could be improved by having states adopt Maine and Nebraska's system, under which most electors are assigned by congressional districts instead of winner-take-all. This would only make matters worse. Thanks to gerrymandering, most of us live in congressional districts that are ``safely'' Democratic or Republican. In such a system, only the residents of a few swing districts would have a meaningful say.

Long ago, when the United States was a loose confederation of semi-independent states, the electoral college made sense. The choice of president was left to electors selected by the states, just as today the head of the UN is chosen by delegates of the member nations. But the United States is no longer a loose confederation. We fought a bloody war on just that issue, and the Confederacy lost to the Union. Since 1865 we have tried to be ``one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all''.

We should be true to our national mottoes. If we are to have a ``government of the people, by the people, for the people'', then the president should be chosen by a vote of the people. If we are to have ``equal protection under the law'', then votes should be counted without regard to where a voter lives. The electoral college must yield to ``one person, one vote''.