James A. Michener
Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble in Our Electoral System
NYC: Random House, 1969.
The famous author James A. Michener was chosen to serve as a Presidential Elector in 1968. While running on the Humphrey ticket in Pennsylvania, Michener was appalled by the blatant attempt by the Wallace campaign to attempt to hijack the presidential election through the electoral college. Much of the book details ideas he and other Electors had about a potential electoral vote deadlock including possible U.S. House action in the contingent election.
Michener began the race convinced that it was time for the United States to switch to a direct popular election of the president. However, as he outlines in detail, the current system has certain characteristics which he decided after examination to be worthy. Michener in particular liked the idea that a minority group had substantial influence in an election if that group happened to be geographically concentrated. He also liked the idea that the entire vote of a state go to the winner, which he interpreted as assisting the two-party system.
After his research, Michener produced a reform proposal involving two alterations to the current system. He advocated the abolition of the position of Presidential Elector and having the votes simply counted. This would eliminate the faithless elector syndrome, which he particularly disliked (although in 1968 he seriously considered such a scheme). Second, if the electoral vote was deadlocked, Michener supported a runoff election between the top two vote-getters.
The book has several strengths. Unlike other such books on the electoral college, Michener avoids technical terminology like the Short Ballot or the General Ticket. These labels, while important in understanding means of choosing the electors, are confusing for people who do not follow historic elections. Michener also is able to convey his interpretation of alternate plans quite effectively, specifically the proposal to divide electoral votes proportionally in each state, the proposal for elections by congressional district, and the direct election proposal. One of the most interesting parts of the book is Appendix E, in which Michener provides the outline for conducting the meeting of the electoral college in Pennsylvania. Very interesting outline – which could be streamlined. Far more than we did in North Carolina in 1988.
One thing to keep in mind when reading this book is that it is aimed at a general audience. Students of elections would consider many of Michener’s analyses amateurish. Michener was quite concerned about the problem that the general public has a limited understanding of the electoral system. He conducted a series of interviews with people during the election and was surprised how few people – learned or not – understood the electoral college basics. Last, Michener conducted no historic research for the book but copied information he found in previous books on the electoral college. If you are looking for new historic information or insights, don’t go to this book.
Overall, an interesting read. It’s a little ironic (and surprising) to read his very modest reform proposal given the book’s title.