November 3, 2012

THIS YEAR, once again, Americans are confronted with the distinct possibility that the winner of a tight presidential race might not be the candidate who received the most votes.

The reason for this, of course, is our electoral college system. It can lead and has led to elections in which the top vote-getter does not prevail, a bizarre result in a country with a deep allegiance to majority rule and “one person, one vote.” George W. Bush governed as the popular-vote loser in his first term as president. This year, some political analysts speculate that President Obama might claim that dubious distinction in his second term. In an election so close, it’s even conceivable that Mitt Romney could win the White House but not the popular vote.

The prospect of different winners in the popular and electoral votes is but one of the system’s imperfections. Only a few swing states, large or small, end up mattering during election season, with the rest ignored. That can distort not only campaigning but policy: This year, both candidates have pandered to the small and declining coal industry, because it matters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and never mind that it is the most dangerous fuel in an era of climate change.

But it’s easier to identify the electoral college’s flaws than to devise a defect-free alternative. Yes, a direct popular vote would be fairer, in principle. Yet it could lead to difficult national vote counts, or a proliferation of fringe and regional candidates, each trying to capture the White House with the largest share of a fractured vote. These problems could be cured by the creation of a national election apparatus and a runoff system. However, France’s recent experience, in which a far-right party has made it to the second round, is not reassuring. There are other possible fixes, but the more complex the change, the less likely that reform would be adopted. Any reform already faces a steep climb in the Senate, since the same small states that benefit from the electoral college would presumably be in a position to block it.

The electoral college is the system the country has — and has had for centuries — an institution that should be adjusted only with extreme care. Meanwhile, if Tuesday’s election produces a split between the popular and the electoral votes, Americans should keep their cool. Both candidates accepted and played by the current rules, byzantine as they are. The popular vote will be a byproduct of a contest in which both sides spent time, energy and money to win the most electoral votes. As in every presidential election since George Washington’s first, the candidate who achieves that constitutionally prescribed goal will be the legitimate president-elect.