Editorial: Let’s not bypass the Constitution

It didn’t get much attention, perhaps deliberately, when the Legislature was pushing its endless wish list to the governor’s desk last week. But when the Senate passed Assemblyman Tom Umberg’s bill to bypass the Electoral College, there should have been a full-throated public debate.

The notion that the Electoral College has become antiquated and useless — the Constitution’s very own vermiform appendix — has always been popular with high school debaters and those who believe progress results when institutions are abandoned. It gained steam in 2000 when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won a majority of electors.

Fervent Democrats vowed then and there to assure that no such disaster would befall the nation again. Stanford University Professor John Koza provided a blueprint. What if, reasoned the professor, state legislatures agreed among themselves to commit all their electoral votes to whomever won the national popular vote, never mind which presidential contender wins each state?

Koza’s thought experiment soon became a semistealthy movement that would be given serious consideration in several states. A Louisiana legislative panel approved it, as did the Colorado Senate. New York, Illinois and Missouri have shown interest.

The idea does hold some appeal in an age of fast food and speed dating. Some people may think it unnecessary to balance a checkbook, and some newcomers to America may wonder why the highest-scoring team in the ninth inning can’t be declared the game’s winner.

Bypassing the Electoral College is the political equivalent, and it would deny the populace the benefit of systemic maturity — all at the insistence of what the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt called “the terrible simplifiers.”

The founders knew that safety, rather, lies in complexity.They devised an ingenious system of checks and balances in which both large and small states could be represented by two senators as well by unequal numbers of representatives. The Electoral College, likewise, was meant as a windbreak against majoritarian storms, an absolute necessity for small and underpopulated states.

Supporters of AB 2948 hope to prevent the country from enduring another shrieking incubus such as visited us in 2000, when San Franciscans and other “blue,” coastal residents prevailed over the “red” voters of California’s inland counties and gave the state’s electoral votes to Al Gore. But if enough states join the pact, they would deliver us into yet another constitutional crisis.

That’s because Article I, Section 10 prohibits a state from joining others in such compacts. Somehow we suspect Assemblyman Umberg and his confederates in the Senate did not even think about that constitutional restriction.

We promise you the issue will be decided in federal court, possibly over the 2008 election itself — exactly the opposite outcome the terrible simplifiers intended. We urge Gov. Schwarzenegger to veto this too-clever-by-half-thought experiment.

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