If it's mid-October in a presidential year, you can count on two things.
One is that no presidential candidate will be visiting Utah, and some people will blame the Electoral College.
The other is that I am going to write my quadrennial defense of the Electoral College.
Oh, there is a third thing. I will get a lot of mail, some of which will be published as letters to the editor, telling me I am wrong. Believe it or not, I am open to good counterarguments. I haven't heard one yet.
Let's make one thing clear first. The only system that would lure candidates here this year is one that makes the votes of Utahns count 100 times as much as the votes of other people.
Utah gets no attention because it lacks political diversity. Our five electoral votes are solidly in John McCain's camp. Under a popular-vote system, candidates would look at Salt Lake City's population of about 180,000, which has a decidedly Democratic slant, and decide it isn't big enough to worry about. They would look at the Wasatch Front, with its population of about 2 million, and see that it is solidly Republican.
Why fly out here to capture a few votes?
But if Utah was politically diverse, it would certainly get attention under the Electoral College system, the way Colorado does today. It might get attention under a popular-vote system, but I doubt it. A candidate might adopt a strategy to win with the votes of small states, farmers and rural areas, but that would be a far-flung, not to mention expensive, campaign.
The second thing to do is to establish what your goal is for a presidential election. Is it to empower the person who collects the most votes? In that case, popular elections won't guarantee the will of the people any more than the Electoral College. Bill Clinton never got 50 percent of the popular vote. Third- and fourth-party candidates easily could ensure that the winner represents only a minority of voters.
Or would you like the winner to have at least 50 percent, plus one? That would require runoff elections periodically. Take 2000, for instance. If a runoff had been held, you could be sure Ralph Nader would have been beating down Al Gore's door, demanding he make changes to his platform in exchange for Nader's endorsement. Ross Perot might have done the same to George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in the '90s.
We then would have coalition governments. Maybe you think that's a good thing. I don't.
The truth is we do elect presidents by popular vote, and we hold 51 such votes every four years. Your vote counts in the state in which you live. Despite a popular argument to the contrary, voting for a losing candidate does not mean your vote went for naught.
We have the Electoral College because the Founding Fathers distrusted direct democracy. The only body the Constitution originally allowed to be chosen democratically was the House of Representatives. Senators originally were chosen by state legislatures. The founders set up a brilliantly diverse system that tempers all sorts of power, including the power of the people.
One of them, Elbridge Gerry, put it rather bluntly. "The people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men," he said. Today we recoil at that. But go ask people on the street who they are voting for and why. You may become a Gerry fan.
The Electoral College forces candidates to compete for states. That forces them to look at issues that are unique to far-flung parts of a vast and diverse nation.
Some people would want to apportion electoral votes by percentage, rather than the winner-take-all system used by most states today. Under one analysis, such a system would have sent the '92 and '96 elections to the House of Representatives a constitutional last resort that really makes the popular vote irrelevant.
Ours isn't the only system that removes the top office a step from the people. Parliamentary systems allow people to elect parties, and the parties choose the prime minister.