While much of America fixates on the possibility that Nov. 2, 2004, may rival the confusion of Election Night 2000, Harvard historian Alexander Keyssar is casting a look backward - to the 1968 contest pitting Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey not only against each other, but against third-party candidate George Wallace.
Wallace walked away with 46 Electoral College votes, threatening to emerge a kingmaker if he could deny Nixon or Humphrey the 270 required to win. Nixon, in the end, prevailed with 301.
What does this have to do with 2004?
It answers a question that Keyssar posed in May at a Boston lecture, a question the nation may yet revisit: "Why do we still have an Electoral College?"
Soon after the 1968 election, a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College nearly went to the states with Nixon's blessing. But by 1970 it was dead, felled by racial politics.
So it was that the system remained in place in 2000, producing the disputed election of George W. Bush over Al Gore and prompting no fewer than six reform proposals in Congress. Nothing came of them. In the 111 years before that, 587 constitutional amendments on the subject met the same fate.
For upwards of 50 years, as measured by Gallup polls, Americans have voiced a persistent preference for a direct popular vote. But the Electoral College is nothing if not resilient, protected by both history and a prevailing pessimism that it can ever be reformed.
The civics class truism is that the Electoral College was created to keep smaller states from being overpowered by larger ones. The reality is more complicated.
"If not the Electoral College, what?" asks Walter Berns, a respected student of constitutional law at the American Enterprise Institute. He has long argued that the system works far more often than not. Indeed, in 46 out of 50 elections since 1804, the victor has won both the Electoral College and the popular vote, according to the calculations of the Congressional Research Service.
The words "Electoral College" are not in the Constitution, although the phrase had come into use by the early 1800s.
According to the National Archives, the word "electors" apparently derives from the Holy Roman Empire, while the word "college" refers to the electors acting as a unit.
States are allocated one electoral vote for each of their two U.S. senators and one for each of their seats, awarded by population, in the House of Representatives. In voting for president, citizens actually mark their ballots for a slate of electors, who in turn later vote for president - this year, on Dec. 7.
Electors are chosen winner-take-all in every state but Maine and Nebraska. A proposal on the ballot in Colorado would require electoral votes there to be distributed proportionally with the popular vote.
Still, the mechanics of the Electoral College can mystify Americans.
"You think of a college as a place, but it's not a place," says Keyssar, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States.
"Or you think of it as a national gathering of people, but electors meet in their own states. The term also has implications that have become part of the lore that it is to be a national deliberative body, but it doesn't deliberate."
The system emerged from 22 days of debate during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Meeting in Philadelphia's sweltering summer heat, the delegates were already cranky and fatigued from previous debates and disputes. Presidential scholar George C. Edwards III recounts that they were vexed by a number of issues:
They worried about cabals and corruption. Some feared that direct election would place too much power in one person's hands. They fretted over voting equity between small and large states.
Yet, as Edwards writes in the new book Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America, it was James Madison who said that the greatest division "lay between the Northern & Southern."
There was no advantage in direct election for the South because slaves could not vote. Under the Electoral College system, slaves did count - although only as three-fifths of a person each, as the Constitution dictated.
Finally, there was the "George Washington factor": Everyone assumed he would be the first president - but after him? Would the limitations of geography and communication keep Americans from a working familiarity with national figures? Would they be inclined to support only favorite sons?
Alexander Hamilton held out the hope that the system finally devised to elect the president would avoid "tumult and disorder," or at least as often as possible.
The first hint of trouble came in 1796, when John Adams' victory margin depended on two electoral votes he picked up in Virginia and North Carolina - Thomas Jefferson country. Adams got them - but only because the states were not then winner-take-all.
Both Virginia and North Carolina had rectified that by 1800, Massachusetts (Adams' home state) retaliated by doing the same, and most other states followed.
The 2000 election is often compared to the disputed election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. But Stanford University constitutional scholar Jack Rakove draws more recent comparisons:
"A plausible case can be made that John F. Kennedy actually lost the popular vote to Richard M. Nixon in 1960," Rakove says. And in 1976, a shift of votes in Ohio and Hawaii could have won the Electoral College for Gerald Ford, even though Carter "enjoyed a national plurality of well over a million votes."
As for 1968? Edwards has done the math: Wallace's electoral votes might have proved decisive had 53,034 votes gone Humphrey's way instead of Nixon's in New Jersey, Missouri and New Hampshire, or with a shift of 111,674 California votes (1.5 percent of the state's total).
Would Wallace, Edwards asks, "have forced on Nixon the same kind of a 'hands-off' attitude toward the South that Rutherford B. Hayes had agreed to in 1877 in exchange for the electoral votes he needed to be elected"?
As Keyssar reads it, the aftermath of 1968 revealed faulty assumptions underlying the conventional wisdom that small states would never allow the Electoral College to be abolished.
Thirty-four years ago, that constitutional amendment was defeated not by small states, but by Southern senators intent on maintaining "the old order," as Keyssar detailed in an Oct. 17 essay in the Boston Globe.
The senators opposed the civil rights and voting rights laws that were beginning to widen the franchise the South had so long denied to black people, who were counted in awarding Electoral College votes - even though they were often kept from the polls.
To stall the amendment, opponents went so far as to read the names of French prime ministers into the record - going back to 1800.
Whether 2004 provides a different story remains to be seen.
What if John Kerry prevails in the Electoral College, but fails to carry the popular vote (the idea being that both parties will then have felt themselves wronged)?
Or what if he loses the Electoral College to President Bush, but wins an undeniable majority of the popular vote, stoking the bitter fires of four years ago? Will that produce a groundswell for change?
The question in our time is the same as it was in the founders' day. As Berns puts it, "What's the best way of getting the best person?"
Delia M. Rios writes about the American identity for Newhouse News Service.
Going back to 'college'
Our choices for Tuesday
Issue 4 is affordable way for city to improve
Issue 4 would hurt city, help taxpayers little
Bush is best choice to fight terrorists
Letters to the editor
More letters: The election of 2004