WASHINGTON – It's possible – unlikely,but possible – that Richard Robb,mayor of South Charleston,W.Va.,since 1975,could cast the deciding vote in next week's presidential election.
Mathematically,there are tens of ways that President Bush and Democrat John Kerry could tie,with 269 electoral votes each,sending the election to the House of Representatives.
That is unless Robb,one of five Republican electors from the rural mountain state,breaks form and decides to cast a vote for Kerry,giving him the election. Robb said he's also considering withholding his vote as a protest,which would deny either candidate the 270 votes needed to win,also sending the decision to the House.
These scenarios,or a few others that could play out Tuesday – such as Bush winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College – could galvanize enough support for a constitutional amendment doing away with the nearly 220-year old system,said Mark Rozell,a public policy professor at George Mason University in Fairfax.,Va.
In the Electoral College,designed by the framers of the Constitution,a slate of electors is allocated to each state based on its representation in Congress. On Nov. 2,citizens will not actually vote for Bush or Kerry,but for a group of electors pledged to vote for one of the two.
Robb is one of a dying breed: electors who actually take it upon themselves to make an informed decision on behalf of the people – not just to vote for whichever candidate received the majority of the state's votes.
The framers of the Constitution came up with the Electoral College in part because they feared that if the people elected the president directly,a demagogue could easily sway them,Rozell said.
Though electors are generally chosen by political parties and pledged to vote for the party candidate,no federal law requires them to do so. Twenty-seven states have laws binding electors to their pledges,according to the National Archives Web site. West Virginia does not.
Robb,58,said he is considering defecting because he disapproves of how the president has handled the war in Iraq and is opposed to the Bush tax cuts.
Robb said he is fulfilling his responsibility as an elector by immersing himself in the issues so that he can make an informed choice. Asked whether he feels a responsibility to carry out the will of the thousands of West Virginians who are likely to vote for Bush,Robb said,“I do take that into consideration. I really do.”
Rozell,who is rethinking his support for the Electoral College,said Robb's situation is one way the system has outlived its usefulness: In an age of instant mass communication,voters can educate themselves and make informed choices. They do not need electors to do it for them.
But Rozell's chief concern is that,except for Maine and Nebraska,states award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the popular vote. Those two states split electoral votes based on the popular vote,and Colorado could join them if voters approve a referendum Tuesday.
Consequently,this year's election is being fought in only 10 or so swing states like Ohio and Florida. States like Texas and California receive almost no attention from the candidates because one of the candidates is far ahead in polls.
“Right now about three-fourths of the states are totally out of the picture,” Rozell said.
Defenders of the system argue that a direct popular election would simply tip the balance: Candidates would campaign only in a few heavily populated urban areas.
“Any way you do an election,you're going to have a bias of some sort,” said Gary Gregg,director of the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville.
Robert Richie,executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy,said he favors a direct popular election with a requirement that a candidate win a majority of the vote – with a runoff if necessary. “That would ensure whoever wins would truly be a national and not just a regional candidate,” he said.
But John Samples,an Electoral College proponent at the Cato Institute,said even with such a provision,candidates would still spend most of their time “trying to run up a huge majority in their base.”
Speaking of a possible runoff between two candidates who emerge from a larger group,Gregg said,“Do we really want to do this twice? I don't. I think that would be bad for our political system.”
But with Bush in 2000 becoming the first president since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 to win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote,many Americans have lost faith in the system,Rozell said.
If the opposite happens – Kerry wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote – or if a tie occurs,that could make a good case for dumping the system,Richie said.
“There are so many things in this system that are ticking time bombs,” he said.
But Gregg said despite the much-disputed election results in Florida in 2000,policy makers realized the system had worked,yielding a legitimate result in a tight race.
Gregg said the Electoral College reinforces the two-party system,ensuring that radical candidates have no chance of getting elected. In considering a popular vote,he said,“Our stable,moderate political system is not worth risking.”
There have been more proposed Constitutional amendments to scrap the Electoral College,some 700,than on any other topic,according to the National Archives.
Even if another disputed election occurs,it would still be difficult to convince three fourths of the states to approve an amendment to change the system,said Walter Berns,an expert on the Electoral College at the American Enterprise Institute. “Frankly,that's not likely,” he said.