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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

No. 270: Code breaking the Electoral College

Senate pages carry the boxes containing the 2016

Senate pages carry the boxes containing the 2016 presidential electoral ballots to the House Chamber for a joint session of Congress to count the votes on Jan. 6, 2017. Credit: EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

What a week to be a math geek.

That’s often the case when votes are being tabulated in a presidential election year. And it’s been increasingly so with our nation split so evenly between red and blue, culminating with this year’s mathematical lollapalooza.

And I’ve had a lot of fun, to be honest, following the state-by-state returns, doing the calculations along with TV analysts, looking at the margins between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, taking the number of votes yet to be counted and figuring out the percentage one candidate needed to pass the other.

What did Biden have to do to overcome his deficit in Pennsylvania? How big a share of the remaining votes did Trump require to come back in Arizona? Were there enough votes left in Georgia for Biden to catch the president? And along the way, you find satisfaction in learning about individual counties with outstanding ballots, even at 1 a.m. when you’re still bleary-eyed awake wondering when Gwinnett County in the Atlanta suburbs is going to drop its next batch of ballots.

And then there’s the big calculation — adding up electoral votes from different states in different combinations for each candidate to reach the magic Electoral College number of 270.

But every so often a different number pops up at the bottom of the TV screen to remind you of how ridiculous all of this is — the national popular vote tally. One number for Trump, one number for Biden, one vote per person all across the country, all of them added together.

How is that not the fairest way of electing a president of all of our united states?

What we have, instead, is the anachronism of the Electoral College. It’s not an instrument of democracy. It can’t be when it weights one vote more than another, giving voters in less-populated states more influence than voters in more-populated states. In fact, it was designed to be undemocratic. The Founders didn’t trust the public to pick the president so they invented this system of voters picking electors to make the choice.

If it’s so good, why don’t we elect any other public officials in this fashion?

In fact, do we elect anyone at all this way? The board of the PTA? The head of the civic association? The high school class president? The homecoming king and queen? The best pizza on Long Island?

Imagine this scenario: It’s 2022 and Alex Rodriguez is up for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He falls short of the 75% needed for induction. But the ballots of baseball writers from Washington state, Texas and New York, where A-Rod spent his career, are weighted more heavily and, voilà, he makes the cut. Outrageous? You bet.

So why do we elect a president this way?

Why do we tolerate a system that leads candidates to campaign only in the swing states that decide the election? Closing the Electoral College would mean the other 40 or so states, like New York, would see some presidential love during the campaign since candidates would have to chase votes there, too — hopefully, while not forgetting smaller states.

I have no illusions. Congress is not about to abolish the Electoral College. Why would smaller states vote to take away their outsized power? One possible end-run is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, under which states pledge to give all of their electoral votes to the national popular vote winner. When states representing 270 electoral votes have joined, it takes effect, pending legal challenges. They’re at 196 now.

The math geek in me would rue the death of the Electoral College. The citizen in me would rejoice. I can always find other number puzzles to work on.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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