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Weighing Electoral College pros and cons

In 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 Electoral College.

Alan 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 contested states.

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.

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