WHOEVER WINS the most electoral votes tomorrow -- and let's hope we know tomorrow night -- will be the president-elect, thanks to the strange and anachronistic institution called the electoral college. At this stage, it's possible to construct scenarios under which either candidate wins a majority of the popular vote and loses the presidency. If this happens, as it did in 2000, some partisans on the losing side will challenge the legitimacy of the winner. The complaint will, once again, be frivolous. Both sides know the rules and the possibility of an incongruous outcome.
But the broader question is a fair one: Is the electoral college a relic that should be discarded, and, if so, what ought to replace it? Nobody today would design an election system like the one that America's founders fashioned. Voters in each state choose a number of electors equal to the number of senators and representatives the state sends to Congress -- unless, that is, the state legislature decides to appoint the electors itself. Technically, the president isn't even elected until these electors cast their votes, long after the people have gone to the polls. Electors are expected to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged -- though they don't always do so. A state's electors are winner-take-all -- except in Maine and Nebraska and maybe soon in Colorado. Small states have a disproportionate voice: A vote in Wyoming or here in the District of Columbia counts more than a vote in California. If the electoral vote is tied, the process becomes absurd: The House of Representatives selects the president, with each state delegation casting a single vote, while the Senate selects the vice president.
The founders' intent was to put a layer of deliberation between the people and the presidency. A byproduct is that candidates ignore the jurisdictions they expect to win or lose handily and focus exclusively on expected "battlegrounds." The result: A majority of Americans are left out of the campaign.
All of this could be fixed by direct election of the president -- a system that could, if properly designed, ensure elections that better reflect majority will. But if Wednesday morning headlines prompt calls for reform, it will be worth remembering a few things.
First, the current system has worked pretty well over the centuries, only rarely producing anomalous results. Second, change would not come easily; small states would have a big incentive to block the constitutional amendment that would be needed for most fundamental reform. Third, any reform would have unpredictable, and not necessarily beneficial, consequences of its own. The electoral college ensures that purely regional candidates have no chance of becoming president. Direct elections, by contrast, could encourage candidates to cultivate strong regional bases and campaign minimally elsewhere -- appealing mostly to the South, say, or to the coasts. Such a system could also encourage independent candidacies that would weaken the two-party system. To prevent a president from being elected in a wide field with, say, 35 percent of the vote, some provision for runoff elections would be necessary. That, too, can have democratic trade-offs -- as leftist French voters discovered when they had to vote for the conservative President Jacques Chirac to head off a runoff victory in 2002 by ultra-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Whoever wins this election, it is time for serious discussion about reforming our presidential election system.