Originally created 11/17/00

Experts clear up Electoral College confusion



ATHENS, Ga. - Don't bet the farm that the Electoral College becomes a casualty of the incredible see-sawing U.S. presidential race.

The hot debate around water coolers about the old-timey electoral body will very likely end the same way as other Election 2000 obsessions.

"It will probably end up being an exercise in futility," said Dan Coenen, a constitutional scholar at the University of Georgia School of Law.

"My prediction is the Electoral College system won't change," said Ed Larson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning University of Georgia historian.

The Electoral College, the body created by the Constitution that elects presidents, is under scrutiny again as Americans wonder how it happened that one candidate, Al Gore, won the popular vote and the other, George W. Bush, appears poised in unofficial counts to win in the Electoral College and the presidency.

In case you forgot your high school civics, Election Day votes provide only a guide to Electoral College electors in each state who cast ballots in December. The candidate with 270 or more of 538 electoral votes wins. At least two times in the nation's history - in the 1876 election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and the 1888 election of Republican Benjamin Harrison - candidates who won in the Electoral College did not win the popular vote.

But the Electoral College is too entrenched and conservative a system to change easily, even though disenchanted voters in some states are taking to the streets, Mr. Larson and Mr. Coenen said Wednesday at a roundtable discussion in Athens.

Abolishing the system and moving to another electoral system such as a direct election - in which the person with the most popular votes wins - would require a constitutional amendment, which needs a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of states.

"That requires a lot of consensus," Mr. Coenen said. "It's predictable that small states won't favor reform."

The Electoral College safeguards federalism, ensuring that small or thinly populated states such as New Hampshire and New Mexico with a small number of electoral votes serve as more than flyover zones in national elections. Some Americans, Mr. Larson said, also believe the system helps minorities retain power, concentrated as some are in the battleground states of Florida, California and Texas.

And incredible as it seems today, Mr. Larson said, the Electoral College is "much more likely to lead to a clear winner." The candidate who wins the popular vote in presidential races generally takes the White House.