If the proposed Colorado system had been used everywhere in 1992, Clinton would have led with just 236 electoral votes and the House would have selected the president. The House also would have selected in 1948 and 1968. Political scientist Judith Best notes that the electoral-vote system, combined with winner-take-all allocation, creates a "distribution condition." Candidates cannot just pile up popular votes in the most populous states. They must win many states, because legitimacy, and the capacity to govern this extensive republic, involves more than crude arithmetic.
The federal principle, Best argues, prevents the most dangerous kinds of factions—racial, religious, economic—"from uniting their votes across state lines. It confines them within little republics and forces them to compromise early and often with their fellow state citizens."
The 2000 election, the sixth in which the popular-vote margin between the winner and runner-up was less than 1 percent, was a reminder that the electoral-vote system quarantines electoral disputes. Imagine a close election—2000, or the 1960 election, in which Kennedy's margin over Nixon was just 118,574—under direct popular election. With all votes poured into a single national bucket, there would be powerful incentives to challenge the results in many thousands of the nation's 170,000 precincts. The outcome could remain murky for months, leaving whoever wins crippled by attenuated legitimacy.
America has direct popular election of presidents, but has it within the states. As Best says, the states are not mere administrative agencies for a unitary government; they are components of a compound—a federal—republic. And today's electoral-vote system is not an 18th-century anachronism. It has evolved, shaping and being shaped by a large development the Constitution's Framers did not foresee—the two-party system.
Under the Colorado proposal, almost all of that state's elections would result in 5-4 splits of its electoral votes. The one-vote prize would hardly be worth a Colorado stop by any candidate. Still, the proposal appeals to single-minded—hence simple-minded—majoritarians. And to some Kerry partisans who should be careful what they wish for.
Suppose Kerry wins Colorado (in 2000 Bush won with 50.8 percent; Kerry's campaign says their man is leading today). And suppose winner-take-all is ended. Kerry will harvest five instead of nine electoral votes. He could lose the presidency by seven electoral votes (Gore lost by five), less than the eight-vote swing that Colorado's new system would produce. That would be poetic justice, the best kind.
---George Will, in Newsweek.