America's Electoral College was badmouthed by a chorus of independent thinkers in the weeks leading up to last Tuesday's presidential election -- as it usually is.
But in the end the Electoral College served the nation well -- as it usually does.
Creative devotees of the conventional wisdom that disdains the college wore themselves out this year imagining elaborate nightmares that the system was in danger of foisting upon the nation. They were mostly versions of a deadlocked election, leading to a betrayal of the voters' will when the House of Representatives or the courts were called upon to choose our new president.
Or, at least, the college's detractors reminded us, there was always a chance that the loser in the popular vote would be made president by the college.
And, of course, because of the college a bare handful of battleground states once again monopolized the inestimable advantages of around-the-clock attack ads and almost daily candidate drop-ins -- for months on end.
It is true that the Electoral College has gone "wrong" a few times in American history -- most recently in 2000, when George W. Bush narrowly lost the nationwide popular vote yet became president. It is also true that in every election it gives outsized representation to residents of less populated states. It is even true that closely divided states get more attention from candidates -- and presumably, and more importantly, from presidents -- than "safe" states do.
But the nation gets something in return, and it was visible last week.
Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney by about 2 percentage points in the popular vote Nov. 6 -- by about 3 million votes out of some 120 million cast. Yet this narrow victory was transformed into a clear, decisive and unassailable majority in the Electoral College -- which has evolved (in nearly all cases) to award all the electoral votes of each state to the candidate who wins a plurality of its popular votes.
In short, the college once again gave the nation finality and closure after a bitter and divisive campaign. A pure popular-vote system -- the vision that dances in the heads of many college critics -- might often do no such thing.
While we're imagining horribles, imagine how the thousands of lawyers at the disposal of the political parties might tie the country in knots with legal challenges and recounts after any close popular-vote outcome. Yes, as we learned in 2000, legal agonies can befall us under the college, too. But because reversing an Electoral College outcome would in most elections require separately overturning the outcomes in three or four or five states, it is much less likely.
Meanwhile, the Electoral College does something else that is even more valuable. Because winning the presidency under the college requires winning whole states -- and not simply running up vote totals in one's strongholds -- it forces candidates to seek broader national support. Just winning the overall popular vote doesn't cut it; one must win states. Thus, the candidate who prevails is typically the one who breaks out of his party's geographic and cultural home base and makes inroads, if you will, on the enemy's turf.
So it was last week. The base of the Democratic Party today is in what one might call downtown America -- the Northeast quadrant and the West Coast. The outskirts -- in the Old South and the arid West -- are the native soil of the GOP.
Each candidate carried most of the states in his political backyard. But Obama broke through to steal away Virginia, Florida (apparently), New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. He also took Ohio, a state that has become the battleground of battlegrounds because it is closely divided between a Dixie-influenced hinterland and industrial metropolises along Lake Erie.
Romney broke out of the Republican backyard only in Indiana, a state much like Ohio. His overall support was slightly more regional, more factional and less national -- and so he lost decisively, because of the Electoral College.
Under a pure popular-vote system, candidates might well craft a winning strategy by concentrating on getting out the vote and running up the score in their own home regions. Winning in many different places would, in itself, no longer count. Candidates (and presidents) might become more the mere representatives of particular regions and interests rather than seeking to tap into the varied passions and concerns of America as a whole.
Electoral College critics will point out that these supposed benefits were not really what the Constitution's framers had in mind when they invented the system. They simply preferred their democracy to be as indirect as possible -- because, to be frank, they doubted the perfect wisdom of the average person. I can't imagine why.
But so what? Europeans discovered America while looking for a new route to India. Many wonder drugs have been discovered while researchers were trying to develop something else. It makes little sense to thoughtlessly discard a useful inheritance just because it is useful in a way our forebears did not intend.
D.J. Tice is the Star Tribune's commentary editor. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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