Party hacks who might, just might, have minds of their own

Electoral College
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The Independent US

The legal chaos in Florida may end this weekend, this month or next month - or perhaps it will never end. Whatever happens, the focus will soon be shifting to the electoral college and its select group of members to decide who becomes the President of the United States.

The legal chaos in Florida may end this weekend, this month or next month - or perhaps it will never end. Whatever happens, the focus will soon be shifting to the electoral college and its select group of members to decide who becomes the President of the United States.

Florida's 25 electoral votes, the fourth-highest tally allotted to a state, are the mathematical difference between victory and defeat for both candidates, essential if either is to win the absolute majority of 270 votes that is required.

However, there is nothing in the US Constitution to prevent the electors going ahead without Florida when they convene on 18 December in the various state capitals and the District of Columbia to cast their ballots.

The 12th amendment of the Constitution dictates that the winner merely needs "a majority of the whole number of electors appointed". In other words, if Florida has not got its act straight in time, the electoral college will shrink from 538 to 513 votes, and the required majority will be not 270 votes but 257.

In that case, the arithmetic favours Al Gore. The Democratic candidate has 255 electoral votes and George W Bush has 246. As well as in Florida, the outcome is completely unpredictable in New Mexico, where the lead has switched three times in as many days.

But Mr Gore is narrowly but clearly ahead in Oregon (where the count of the vote is still incomplete) and its seven votes would put him ahead. Were Florida excluded from the equation, and even if he were to win New Mexico, Mr Bush would have to reverse in a recount the result in either Wisconsin or Iowa to prevail - something most experts consider highly unlikely.

But whether the votes number 538 or 513, the ultimate decision will be taken by the members. So often they are sneeringly dismissed as party hacks, but the description is unfair. "Hacks" they may be, but they are also the unsung foot soldiers of politics; lifelong party loyalists who put in long unpaid hours manning telephone banks, stuffing envelopes and getting voters to the polls on election day.

The 68-year-old Luther E "Ikey" Miller, a member of the Republican slate of electors in the state of Virginia, which George W Bush carried easily, is typical of the breed.

A retired state court clerk, he has been involved with his local party in Rileyville for 30 years, chairing it for 14 of them. He had never voted Democrat in his life, he said last week, "except maybe when I was younger and didn't know what was going on".

Electoral college members, in short, are not the kind of people who will have a rush of blood. Since the Second World War, only half a dozen of them have broken party ranks; the last occasion was in 1988 when a Democratic elector cast his vote for Lloyd Bentsen, the vice-presidential candidate, rather than Michael Dukakis at the top of the ticket. That year it didn't matter, since George Bush Sr defeated Mr Dukakis by 426 electoral votes to 111.

But this time it could be different. Just possibly, some electors could feel a moral obligation to ensure that the "will of the people", as expressed by the popular vote, is respected. Yesterday, Mr Gore was leading by 232,000 in the popular vote, a margin that the last straggling returns are unlikely to affect significantly. In that case, and for the first time since 1888, the potential loser in the electoral college - and thus in the race for the White House - will have won a plurality of the popular vote.

Assuming, for argument's sake, that Mr Bush does win Florida's 25 votes, giving him a bare 271 vote majority in the college, and Mr Gore scoops everything else, leaving him 267 votes, a couple of rogue electors could produce an electoral college tie. If three rebelled, the result would be reversed.

Only half of the states require their electoral college members to vote en bloc. In most of the others, convention dictates this. In Maine and Nebraska votes are distributed to the winner by congressional district. And there is no prescribed punishment for electors who transgress.

Once this tangle is resolved, the future of the electoral college will be called into question. The newly minted Senator Hillary Clinton of New York has called for its abolition; her husband was more guarded, saying that the device helps to ensure smaller states are not completely ignored.

The college's outright abolition would take a constitutional amendment, which would have to be ratified by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states. A neater solution would be to allocate votes on the basis of congressional districts carried by a candidate. This more limited change could be adopted by each state without tinkering with the Constitution.

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