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Historian Carol Berkin Discusses the Electoral College

Aired December 18, 2000 - 2:26 p.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, most of us have paid scant attention to the electoral college. That's why we've been asked to bring in Carol Berkin to help us sort this out on CNN.

Professor Berkin is a historian and expert on the electoral college. She teaches at the City University in New York.

Hello, Carol.

CAROL BERKIN, HISTORIAN: Hello. Nice to see you.

PHILLIPS: Nice to see you too. I take it you've never seen anything like this before.

BERKIN: Absolutely not. And never thought I would see anything like this, but I'll bet you in two years there will be 20 books on the electoral college coming out from historians.

PHILLIPS: Will there be one from you?

BERKIN: Oh, I'm not sure. I'm not sure.

PHILLIPS: What do you think you found to be the most interesting part of all of this for you? I mean, this is your expertise, this area.

BERKIN: I think what's interesting about this is how many misconceptions about how wise the founding fathers were in planning all of this. It's really interesting, as an historian of the Revolution and the Constitution, to see the way in which things have changed and evolved, and really, if the founding fathers were here today, they would be just befuddled by everything that's going on.

Seeing African-Americans vote, seeing women vote, seeing the electoral college as so important, seeing the presidency as so important, which, of course, they didn't really think it was back in 1786-89. So this is really very interesting for a historian of the early period of this country.

PHILLIPS: Now, Carol, another goal with the founding fathers, with the electoral college, was, you know, to share power among the states and national government. Is that working?

BERKIN: Well, yes. But the electoral college is really a kind of compromise. First, they thought they'd have the Congress select the president, and then they thought, balance of powers, that's not so good. Then they thought they'd have the state legislatures select the president. And then they said this would give federalism the problem of the states versus the national government a problem.

And the interesting thing is, you know, we keep talking about the electoral college, but these electors never meet all together. And that's because there's just a hint of paranoia in the founding fathers. They were afraid if the electors all met in one place, someone could bribe them or persuade them to change their votes, and even a foreign power might come in and persuade them to change their votes. So they meet in separate states to make sure that none of this ever happens.

PHILLIPS: Well, let's talk about that switching. Before we get there, though, I just want to let viewers know, Carol, as we're talking, we're watching some live -- or live pictures from New York as they count the electoral votes.

OK, now back on the issue of switching. Now, the punishment -- it's not a legal punishment, but you're party pretty much ousts you...


Actually -- all right. We're going to go to New York and listen in. Hold on, Carol. Stay with us, OK>

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... president of the United States.


The chair announces that the entire membership of this electoral college of the state of New York have cast their ballots for the Honorable Al Gore as president of the United States. The college will now proceed with the balloting for the vice president of the United States, and at this time, the chair recognizes the Honorable Dennis N. Hughes (ph) of Rockland County.

PHILLIPS: There you go, New York casts ballots for Al Gore, all 33 -- is that right, Stephen? -- 33 votes for Al Gore, which now brings our number, the electoral count that you can see on the right- hand of your screen, Bush 187 and Gore 101. And of course, 270 are needed in this process.

All right, Carol, let's go back to you...


PHILLIPS: ... and talk about the switchy-changey here and the fact that there really is no legal punishment if someone is talked into switching over. Basically, they're just sort of ousted from their party.

BERKIN: Well, in 23 states there's no requirement that the elector vote for the person that they're supposed to represent at all. In 27 states, there is a requirement that if you're elected on the Republican slate or the Democratic state -- slate, you cast your vote that way. But the penalties are minimal: $100 fine. It's a misdemeanor. The real penalty comes from the political party, who never wants to hear from you again if you do this.

PHILLIPS: Well, let's talk about Margaret Leach. Bob Franken brought up Margaret Leach from West Virginia. She was the one that switched over several years ago and ended up launching a really great political career. Maybe it's not so bad to be a rebel.


BERKIN: If you're planning to change parties, then this might be a good way to do it. But on the whole, parties frown on lack of loyalty.


PHILLIPS: Now earlier on, too, on "BURDEN OF PROOF," a constitutional law professor had said that the electoral college has to go, that it's just simply not a democratic process. What do you think about that?

BERKIN: Well, you know, I'm a historian. I predict what ought to be done in the past, not the future. I'm a little nervous about making that prediction. But I do seriously think that we ought to rethink whether institutions established in the 18th century belong in the 20th century, or 21st century.

We may decide to keep it, but we shouldn't be wedded to some notion that 54 men back in 1787 were wise enough to predict the year 2001. They wouldn't have wanted us to feel that way.

PHILLIPS: Well, from renegade to reform. Reform will be the keyboard this year, I'm sure.

Carol Berkin, historian, thanks again for giving us your insight.

BERKIN: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: And you'll be joining us throughout the day, correct?

BERKIN: Absolutely, yes.

PHILLIPS: Terrific. Thanks, Carol.

And the updated numbers, once again, are on the right side of your screen. Bush 187 and Gore has 134.

We're going to take a quick break and we'll be right back.


STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: We'd like to take you to Lansing, Michigan, where just a moment ago that state's electors voters, electors cast their ballots. Let's see how that looked.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I call upon our sergeants at arms to please step forward and distribute ballots.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I proudly place into nomination and ask your unanimous support as Michigan's choice of president -- Vice President Al Gore for president of the United States of America.


FRAZIER: Lansing, Michigan.

George W. Bush is in Washington today, meeting with some politicians who could make or break his legislative agenda. The governor conferred with the Republican and Democratic leadership, and pledged to push ahead with his $1.3 trillion tax cut.

There is some reluctance even among Republicans to press for such a large tax cut. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, for example, has urged Bush to cut taxes incrementally.

Bush also ran his tax plan past Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve. He didn't go into details, but told reporters he and Greenspan went over ways to keep the economy going. Bush says his tax cut is an insurance policy against any economic downturn.

PHILLIPS: The folks at Gallup have been asking Americans how they feel about the electoral college. Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport joins us now from Princeton -- from the Princeton studio.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK NEWPORT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, GALLUP POLL: Hello, Kyra. Indeed we have. We just finished our latest interviewing last night, and we can show you some things that have implications for what you were just talking about with the historian and what we're seeing today.

The country is split politically about in half. There's no way around that. The vote was about 50-50 on election day, and now when we ask people questions about how they feel about the election, it's roughly the same. we asked whether final result fair or unfair in the result of the election

Here's a question we asked. Was the final result fair or unfair, in the results of the election? 51 percent fair. Roughly, split half and half. Of course, these unfair people are mostly Gore supporters. These are mostly Bush supporters.

So we can take that a little further and look at a question, which said, "How confident are you in the whole process?" -- i.e., the process that we're watching on CNN today. And we find a lack of confidence in the election system. Look at this: 35 percent said they have very little confidence in the way that we elect a president. 32 percent just say some. It's actually a little less than a third that go up to the top box and say they have a lot (UNINTELLIGIBLE) confidence in the system. Obviously, a need for reform.

So as the historian was just saying in New York, should we junk the electoral college system? Yes says the public. In fact, they've been saying that every time we or any other pollster have asked that question now for many, many years: 59 percent say go to a popular vote system. Support for the constitutional electoral college system is down there at about just 37 percent.

We just saw the pictures of George W. Bush, the president-elect, getting some pretty good notices from the public in terms of how he's been handling himself since he became president-elect last week: 54 percent say they've grown more confident in him. Interestingly, if we go all the way back to 1992, just after Clinton was elected, we found about the same number. So Bush is doing about the same job as Bill Clinton in these first weeks after their election.

And finally, the big high-profile appointment of the weekend, of course, Colin Powell. Look at these numbers: 83 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Colin Powell. Very, very high number as these things go, much higher than either Cheney or Bush, although those favorables are pretty good as those things go.

That's where the public stands. Kyra, Stephen, back to you in Atlanta.



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