Keeping a Balance 

Our forefathers had the right idea with the Electoral College.

Recently, some Tennesseans, including former Senator Fred Thompson, have proposed that our state join the National Popular Vote compact. This is a solution for a problem we don't have that will lead to problems we don't want.

The compact would subvert the Constitution by changing the way we elect our president. Instead of forthrightly seeking to amend the Constitution by abolishing the Electoral College, the proposal bypasses the Constitution by creating a compact among some states that would bind all states. Amending the Constitution requires the assent of 38 states; the compact can be adopted by as few as 12 states. But all 50 states would be bound by the result.

Under the plan, the electoral votes of a state would be committed to the candidate who is the "national popular vote winner" regardless of the vote within the state. Thus, in 2008, although John McCain won 57 percent of the vote in Tennessee, its 11 electoral votes would have gone to Barack Obama.

The Electoral College is part of an elaborate mechanism designed by the country's founders to create interdependent centers of power, each balancing the excesses of the others. The Constitution balances the competing elements of our republic: The membership of the House of Representatives is based on population. The Senate is based on equal representation by state.

This design balances the interests of large and small states.

The Electoral College mirrors this arrangement by giving each state electoral votes equal to its membership in the House plus its two senators. California gets 55 electoral votes because of its large population, but no state, even Delaware, has fewer than three electoral votes. It reflects the founders' compromise between large and small states and between electing the president by Congress and electing the president directly by the people.

Bypassing the Electoral College through the proposed compact undermines that balance by effectively erasing states' boundaries and undercutting states' sovereignty.

On a practical level, the Electoral College requires a successful candidate to assemble a winning coalition across a broad geographic spectrum, embracing both large and small states, rather than a narrow concentration of votes.

A popular vote, in contrast, does not require the candidate to have broad appeal. It would make it possible for a candidate to win without any majority but merely a plurality of the popular vote. The compact would require the states to determine the candidate with the "largest national popular vote" — not a majority. This encourages multiple candidates. In such a multi-candidate race, the largest national popular vote could be obtained by a regional candidate with just 35 percent or less of the popular vote.

Under the compact, presidential candidates would have no incentive to campaign anywhere except in the major media markets in a few states. The country would, in essence, cede its presidential elections to the largest metropolitan areas.

Our system has proved remarkably stable for more than 200 years. Ours is the world's second-oldest written Constitution after Iceland's. That is remarkably long for a governmental structure. Only the Civil War mars our record of political stability, but the breakdown in the system in 1861 did not occur because of the Electoral College.

The American Bar Association once called the Electoral College "archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, and dangerous." These adjectives describe virtues of our constitutional system, not faults. It is archaic — not obsolete ­— and still serves us well. It is supposed to be undemocratic, to protect smaller states from tyranny by a few large states. We are a republic, not a democracy.

The complexity of the system prevents wild swings in popular sentiment from becoming wild swings in policy. It is ambiguous only in that it is subtle rather than simplistic. If it is dangerous, the alternative of a national public vote, with the voters of a few states binding the voters of the rest of the states, is much more dangerous.

The late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said of an earlier proposal to do away with the Electoral College: "It is the most radical transformation in our constitutional system that has ever been considered." Our constitutional method of electing presidents, balancing the state and federal governments, has served our nation well. It would be foolish and disingenuous to bypass the written Constitution, nominally keeping the Electoral College but nullifying its function.

Memphis attorney John Ryder is a Republican National Committee member from Tennessee. A variation of this column appeared in The Washington Times.

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