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Opening Arguments

A popular scheme

You have to give Birch Bayh credit for his stubborn persistence. Political columnist David Broder writes that Evan's father is still at his crusade to do away with the Electoral College and institute a popular vote for president 40 years after his failed attempts to get the change into a constitutional amendment. These days, Bayh is trying an end run around that pesky document by trying to get states to endorse the National Popular Voter Plan, promising to pledge all their electoral votes to the candidate winning the national popular vote. If enough states go along, then the Electoral College is effectively dead.

Broder has the right term for this plan -- it's a "scheme" -- and is properly skeptical:

No one knows what the abandonment of a federal principle -- voting by states for the highest officer in the land -- would mean for American politics and government.

The two-party system that is the underpinning of our form of representative government is supported by the Electoral College, which gives each party a reliable base of support and forces both to compete fiercely for swing voters in the places where they are of roughly equal strength. That mix of stability and uncertainty is the formula for a healthy politics, and changing the formula should not be done casually.

A direct election scheme almost certainly would boost the already astronomical cost of presidential campaigns. It would likely offer new temptation for self-financed millionaire candidates to run as independents, knowing that their major-party opponents would no longer have any assurance of electoral advantage.

With no runoff provision possible under this scheme, would fringe candidates be able to bargain for commitments as the price for staying out of the race? Would a Ralph Nader or a Pat Buchanan or a George Wallace have less leverage -- as Bayh contends -- or more?

These are serious questions.

The Electoral College is part of the Constitution's careful construction of a federalist system with all its checks and balances. Those who keep pushing us toward a pure democracy ought to think as much about the drawbacks of that system as well as the perceived advantages.