a lively, sometimes contentious, conference at MIT on the problems and
merits of the Electoral College, a group of scholars looked into what
one called the "fun house mirror of electoral politics" and debated its
reflections of federalism, states' rights and equality.
Some participants in the Oct. 17 "To Keep or Not to Keep the Electoral
College," which was co-sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation and the MIT
Sloan School of Management, argued passionately that choosing a
president by popular vote -- rather than the current state-by-state,
winner-take-all contests -- would upset the balance of powers among the
branches of government, encourage disruptive third parties and decrease
the power of ethnic minorities.
The greatest fear of the Founding Fathers was majority tyranny," said
Judith Best, SUNY Cortland political science professor. "Our goal is not
just majority rule, but majority rule with minority consent."
Others argued choosing a president by popular vote is fairer and would
lead to greater voter participation. Now, "There is an incentive to
campaign hard in swing states and ignore the others," said Northwestern
Law Professor Robert W. Bennett.
Akhil Reed Amar, Yale law professor, said the one-person, one-vote rule
is the very foundation of democracy; all 50 states elect officials by
simple majorities and "it works just fine." Vikram Amar, UC Davis
associate dean for academic affairs, argued that the current push for a
popular vote -- the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, joined by
Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland and New Jersey -- did not require a
Constitutional amendment to enact.
Several MIT professors discussed ways of combining features of both a
popular vote and the Electoral College. Arnold I. Barnett, the George
Eastman Professor of Management Science and one of the conference
organizers, proposed a "weighted vote" system, which allows smaller
states to retain their electoral clout. The chair of the conference's
steering committee, Alexander S. Belenky, visiting scholar in the Center
for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, proposed that the president should
be chosen by a majority of the nationwide popular vote and popular vote
majorities in at least 26 states, even if his/her opponent wins the
Natapoff, research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and
Astronautics, spoke of the advantages of a system that would base
electoral votes on actual turnout, not only a state's population. This
would, he said, increase an individual's voting power in closely
A chief discussion point was whether eliminating the Electoral College
would create disruptions in close elections, or as Best put it, "50
Floridas," a reference to that state's recounts in the 2000 election.
The presidency, she argued, is too important a position to be in doubt.
"A swift, sure decision is more important than a decision that is 100
percent accurate, down to the last vote," she said.
Akhil Amar, however, noted that huge states, with widely divergent
populations and geography such as California, pick governors by popular
vote without recount fiascos. As for the problems of carefully counting
to the last vote, "It's called democracy," he asserted.