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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Red vs. Blue: The Electoral College and Our Political Divide

The latest from Tara Ross, author of Enlightened Democracy.

A nation is divided. Multiple elections feature similar divisions of red and blue on an electoral map. One region of the country leans Republican, while the other region reliably supports Democrats.

America, circa 2005? Perhaps, but the description also fits America in the 1880s.

In the aftermath of Reconstruction, American presidential elections were intensely regional. Strong emotions and grievances separated North and South. Reuniting the country after the Civil War was no easy task. The regional divide could have persisted indefinitely were it not for at least one factor: The country's unique Presidential election process encouraged a quick healing of old grudges.

Then, as now, the Electoral College encourages voters and candidates to cooperate and compromise with those who are not like themselves. Indeed, Presidential candidates who cater to one region or special interest group are easily defeated by those candidates who succeed in building cross-regional national support. Grover Cleveland was one nineteenth-century President who was quickly forced to learn this lesson.

In 1888, Cleveland was defeated in his re-election attempt--despite a national popular vote victory--because his support was too heavily localized in the South. His opponent, Benjamin Harrison, received fewer total votes, but these votes were distributed across a wider spectrum of states. Cleveland learned his lesson. He rebuilt a national base of support during the next four years, and he went on to win a second term in 1892.

Other nineteenth-century political officials also had ample reason to understand the need for national coalition building: Neither political party could be assured of victory in any Presidential election unless it reached out to voters beyond its home base.

The natural allegiance of Democrats was to the South, but they could not carry a Presidential election without the votes of at least a few northern or western states. Similarly, Republicans could never safely rely upon their home base in the North and West. Technically, Republicans could win an electoral majority without obtaining the votes of any southern states; however, their margin of victory when relying upon northern and western voters, alone, was always dangerously narrow.

In many ways, the Electoral College encouraged voters and candidates in both political parties to reach across the seemingly stark northern/southern divide. The regional divisions caused by the Civil War and Reconstruction were healed, at least in part, because the Electoral College forced both parties to understand and appeal to those outside of their base constituencies.

Today, America faces a comparable situation. Two Presidential elections in a row have featured remarkably similar electoral maps. Democrats maintain strong bicoastal support, while Republicans maintain strong backing in the South and Midwest. A handful of states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, remain caught in the middle.

The Electoral College will help heal the divide between red and blue America in the twenty-first century, just as it did following Reconstruction. A direct election system, as promoted by The New York Times and other Electoral College critics, would serve primarily to exacerbate tensions.

Electoral College critics dispute this analysis, arguing that direct popular elections would heal frustration. A simple majority of individuals, they argue, should always be able to determine the outcome of Presidential elections. A system that allows the minority of individuals to outvote the majority is simply a recipe for resentment. The 2000 election is cited as a case in point.

This argument may sound appealing, but it is deeply flawed. The ramifications of eliminating the Electoral College would be greater than many anticipate. Ultimately, a direct election system would promote acrimony among the diverse states and voters in this nation.

The first noticeable consequence of a direct election system would be an increased number of Presidential candidates. Today, the winner of the popular vote within each state wins that state's entire allocation of electoral votes. Second, third, or fourth place candidates do not receive any electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska). Accordingly, the nation has a strong two-party system. Third-party candidates such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader don't often receive many votes from individuals, because these votes are thought to be "wasted."

A direct election would reverse this situation. Suddenly, any vote cast for any candidate counts in the final national tally. A vote for a third-party candidate is no longer wasted. Rather, it is an attempt to force a run-off. Third party candidates would have greater incentives to jump into Presidential races, and they would receive more votes once they join the fray.

Over the years, candidates would proliferate. Multi-candidate races, with accompanying run-offs and recounts, would become the norm. Divisions would not--could not--be healed under such a system. To the contrary, the electorate would become deeply fractured.

The nation's Presidential election system cannot prevent regional divisions from occurring. The world is imperfect and contains many flawed human beings. Disagreements, problems, and splits will happen. The Electoral College, however, rewards those who pull together and seek to work with voters who are not like themselves. It encourages unity, just as direct elections promote discord.

Thanks at least in part to the country's unique Presidential election process, today's electorate will resolve its differences eventually, just as nineteenth century Americans were able to reunite despite the pain and suffering that accompanied the Civil War.

Tara Ross is a commentator for American Enterprise and the author of Enlightened Democracy. This article first appeared as a column at


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