When Vice President Al Gore finally conceded the Y2K presidential race, one national institution deserved more credit than any other for keeping our postelection political slamfest from spinning into chaos: the electoral college. In this year of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, the college has emerged as much more than a quirky blast from the founding fathers’ past. Its contribution to our political stability is far more profound than–as its defenders always seemed on the verge of arguing–preventing states such as Wyoming from bolting the union. Consider what would have happened in the weeks following election day if we had no electoral college.
The answer is not that Gore would have been elected president. Remember that, despite their protests, Team Gore signaled in the first hours of postelection Day 1 that they were seeking more than an ordinary recount. “The campaign continues,” Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley bellowed to campaign workers in the Gore camp’s official statement of nonconcession. At no time did he or Gore answer the question, if victory was not to be theirs, when would they let the election become final?
True, they said they would call it quits following a “full and accurate” Florida recount. But after they championed ever-more-subjective ballot standards that served to place ever-more-complete discretion in the hands of their allies, it became clear that their only standard for accuracy was whatever would make Gore the winner. And with as many as 42 lawsuits pending by early December–many, if not all, brought by Gore loyalists–the vice president and his allies may well have had it within their power to delay a final decision for months, if it had not been for the electoral college.
The most obvious check that the electoral college placed on this impending chaos was a deadline, combined with fail-safe mechanisms to ensure that the deadline was honored. Could court challenges compel letting these dates slip? It appeared for a time that the Gore camp wanted as much until they realized that the Constitution endowed state legislatures with unchallengeable powers to impanel electors. Soon the Florida Legislature made it clear that it would act. Such an act would precipitate a constitutional Armageddon, the Gore people charged, but reports of back-room talk about making Florida miss the electoral vote began to diminish. Meanwhile, every court acted with haste.
Important as an enforceable deadline proved, the college provided an even greater bulwark against this year’s gathering storm of political ambitions and mutual distrust. So long as we have an electoral college, our presidential elections remain state-by-state contests, which means the chaos will be contained.
Without the electoral college, in an election as narrow as 2000 or 1960 or 1968 or 1976 or perhaps even 1992, every ballot box in the nation would be subject to seizure. Every hamlet voting station could have been examined over and over again for irregular chads or voters who felt that local officials slighted them.
It took more than four weeks to wade through the counts, recounts, partial third and fourth counts, lawsuits, challenges and appeals in just one state where the action centered on three or four counties. Expand the targets of opportunity nationwide, and we would probably see a repetition of this November’s madness in every election.
By keeping the presidential elections in the states, the college also ensures that states and counties will run the voting, not the federal government. After watching local officials in Florida examine punch cards with magnifying glasses, federal administration might seem like a deliverance, but it wouldn’t be. Imagine now if those counters in Palm Beach County had not been local officials answerable to the local electorate but instead federal employees of an agency run by, say, Daley or, if the Republicans were in office, a latter-day Lee Atwater. Who in the party out of power would trust the legitimacy of an election ever again?
Without an electoral college, the counts and recounts, suits and countersuits would have surely continued for even longer, paralyzing our government and far more deeply poisoning our political life. They didn’t, and the credit belongs to the electoral college.