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Fulbright Scholars Discuss U.S. Electoral College at Opening Dinner

Fulbright Scholars Discuss U.S. Electoral College at Opening Dinner

Professor Dan Caldwell speaks on the oddities of the American election system to 50 visiting scholars and guests at the UCLA Faculty Center.

By Leslie Evans

Visitng Fulbright Scholars from countries as diverse as Romania, China, Nigeria, Israel, Indonesia, the Czech Republic, Colombia, and Japan were joined by the Fulbright Program Advisory Board and other guests for this year's opening dinner on Monday, October 18, at the UCLA Faculty Center. Some 50 people attended the dinner, where each of the visiting Fulbright recipients was introduced by Ann Kerr, the Southern California Fulbright coordinator. They told briefly where they are from and what they are studying. They are each doing research at various college and university campuses in the Southern California area. Some are here for six months while others will spend a full year in Los Angeles.

The Fulbright program, which provides support for all Fulbright recipients in the Southern California area, is sponsored nationally by the U.S. State Department and administered by the Council for International Exchange of Scholars in Washington, DC. It is hosted at UCLA by the International Institute. This year, Ann Kerr told the assembled guests, the visiting scholars will have the opportunity to take part in a number of field trips, including to the editorial offices of the Los Angeles Times and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech.

After dinner over wine and coffee the visiting scholars heard a presentation by Political Science Professor Dan Caldwell of Pepperdine University on that peculiar American institution the Electoral College. "Half a million more people voted for Gore than for Bush in 2000 but Bush won anyhow," Caldwell said in opening. "The reason why was the Electoral College. The founders of the Constitution had a distrust of direct democracy. It did exist in ancient Athens and in the New England towns, but the founding fathers were concerned about excesses, so they wrote in representative democracy."

Usually, he said, the popular vote and the votes in state capitals by the generally unknown electors produced the same winner, although not by the same margin, but there have been four elections where the winner of the popular vote lost the election: 1824, 1876, 1888, and then, after more than 100 years, the election of 2000.

Caldwell pointed to two problems with the Electoral College scheme that have raised recent demands for a constitutional amendment to abolish it. The first is that it is unduly influenced by divergent state rules on how electors are supposed to vote, and the predominant method systematically pushes the Electoral College totals away from the popular vote totals. This happens because almost all states until recently have used a winner takes all rule that gives no credit to the candidate who loses in that state despite the fact that it is a national election that is going on.

Two states, Maine and Nebraska, Caldwell told the visitors, have adopted a proportional system for their electors, and Colorado is voting on a proposal to do this about the time of this year's presidential election.

Equally problematic, Caldwell said, is the disproportionate weight given to small states by the Electoral College system. Since each state has a number of electors equal to its representatives in the House of Representatives plus its two senators, the smaller the state the greater the weight of the two electors it gets for its pair of senators. Caldwell gave the example of Wyoming, with a population so small that it has only one member of Congress compared with the 34 in California. The effect of this on its Electoral College representation is that its 3 electors amount to one for every 164,000 people. California, ins contrast, gets one elector for every 627,000 people. Dan Caldwell suggested that this is like not counting the votes of millions of Californians, since they can be outvoted by a much smaller number of representatives from Wyoming or other small states.

Fulbright scholars who spoke in the question period generally thought the American system odd and prone to bend democracy by its arbitrary weightings and inherent divergences from the actual vote of the people. Caldwell told them, however, that constitutional amendments in the United States are extremely difficult to pass and the system is not likely to be changed any time soon.

Fulbright Program