November 23, 2000
Is the Electoral College Good for Jews?
Almost as soon as it became apparent that the disputed vote in Florida would determine the winner of this month's presidential election, politicians around the country started hurling rhetorical grenades about the Electoral College.
Hillary Clinton, now the Democratic senator-elect from New York, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) were among the first; both called for sweeping reforms that would include abolition of the Electoral College. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had an amendment in the works even before the election.Jewish groups generally support good government causes, but they were strangely quiet in the wake of this surge of electoral indignation.
And with good reason, according to some top Jewish thinkers. The current system may be cumbersome and hard to explain, but it has magnified the power of the tiny Jewish minority in this country. The same calculus holds true for a number of other minority groups, including the politically important African American and Hispanic communities, and for the smaller states whose influence is protected by the college.
"The Electoral College is a way of diffusing power, of requiring candidates to pay attention to small states and small groups within states, such as the Jews," said Marshall Breger, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a top Republican activist. "If there was one big popular vote, the focus on the Jewish vote would be far, far less."
Jews are still concentrated in states with big blocks of electoral votes such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, California and Illinois, said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs. "That makes our power greater than the numbers suggest. Political activism and campaign contributions are important, but at the end of the day, it's the vote that counts."Diament agreed that this week's bitter fight over the Florida vote, and the uncertainty it has created about the presidential succession, has made Americans nervous about what many view as an antiquated, hard-to-explain system.
But it could be worse, he said.
"If we didn't have an electoral college, we'd be having a national recount today, not just a recount in some Florida counties, and that would be an even worse nightmare."
But other observers say concerns about eliminating the college are based on the politics of the past century.Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, argued that changing the current system would not hurt Jewish political interests because of the community's increased role at every level of the political process.
"At one time, it was important for the Jews," he said. "As a tiny percentage of the electorate, the Electoral College gave Jews extra influence in New York, which at that time had the biggest bloc of electoral votes."But today, he said, "the influence of the Jews is not based on the tiny number of votes they cast but on their activism in the political process. Jews are vitally important, especially on the Democratic side, as activists, as contributors, as organizers and as people who provide intellectual leadership. That far outweighs their tiny influence as voters."
And that influence, he said, is national, not concentrated in the few states with big Jewish populations.Ginsberg said that eliminating the Electoral College would be a good idea, but "objectively, it's not likely to happen."
Most observers agree; while the idea of eliminating the Electoral College flourishes after every close and disputed election, political and constitutional factors make the process of acting on that concern all but impossible.
"Right now there may be a bandwagon to abolish the Electoral College because of the mess in Florida," said Breger. "But it's going to have a broken axle very shortly. The small states don't want to lose power; they'll never approve it."
Collectively, smaller states can easily stall a constitutional amendment in the Senate, where the two-thirds majority required for passage would be almost impossible to win.
Even harder to win would be the three-quarters of the states needed for ratification.
And despite the current rhetoric, both major parties are likely to resist any change in the current system for the most basic of reasons: money.
The current system allows candidates to focus their advertising efforts in states where they get the most bang for the buck - critical Electoral College states where the outcome is in doubt.
In this year's presidential contest, neither major candidate invested much in advertising in New York, a state everybody knew would go to the Democrats.
Direct elections would change that calculus, driving up campaign costs, critics of abolition say."If presidential candidates were forced to advertise intensively in all 50 states - which is what would happen if we went to a direct vote system - campaign costs would skyrocket, and we'd see a dramatic increase in all of the problems associated with our campaign finance system," said another Jewish activist here.