Archive: Dan Rather

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Veteran CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante is the host of's Smoke-Filled Room. Each week, Bill invites a top political expert into the Smoke-Filled Room to answer your questions. Today’s guest is CBS News Anchor Dan Rather in a special post-election edition of S.F.R.

Plante: Many news agencies predicted that a candidate could win the popular vote but not the electoral vote in this election. Now that that prediction could really come true, I am left to wonder: Is the Electoral College system outdated? Is the reason for the Electoral College a moot point? Please, explain why or why not this American procedure is valid in the year 2000 and beyond. Nicole Campbell is interested.

Rather: This is an excellent question that raises one of several profound constitutional and philosophic issues we confront in the wake of this unique election and post-election period.

The Electoral College was devised by the Founding Fathers as a compromise between those who believed the President should be chosen by only elected officials and those who believed it should be a straight popular vote. Today, no one thinks that other politicians should select the President (at least no one I’ve ever come across). So in that sense the Electoral College is out of date.

But it serves another vital purpose, almost by accident. If the country had a straight popular presidential vote, people in small states, people in rural areas would get far less attention from the candidates. Small states are slightly over-represented in the Electoral College; that’s exactly why someone can win the electoral vote but not the popular vote. But the Electoral College system does help these states have a louder voice.

Is that good? Should it be changed? Those are issues for souls far wiser than I, but you can bet the rent money the debate will be loud and long.

Plante: James M. Fearing writes, “There are clearly irregularities in South Florida that call into question the entire process in that state and, therefore, the presidency. There are news stories of other occurrences in several states as well. Is there any precedent for what we do now? Has any state ever been compelled to revote? Would there be any precedent for sending in election observers, even neutral foreign observers, to ensure a fair process?”

Rather: The short answer is “no, sir, we’re in uncharted territory.” If you hear a smart lawyer or a clever reporter tell you he or she knows what’s going to happen, grab your wallet, because no one knows for sure.

No state has ever had to have a re-vote in a presidential election. It would be a radical, history-making, precedent-breaking event. It would be a high-risk event for this democracy.

But there is plenty of precedent for having election observers. The federal Justice Department and statlaw agencies often send election monitors to areas where there has been past evidence of election fraud. Foreign observers? Not a chance.

Plante: ”Since it appears that Gore will win the popular vote and lose Florida, I was wondering if the Electors are legally bound to vote for the candidate that carried their particular state?” asks Glen Winters.

Rather: Only half the states have laws requiring Electors to vote for the candidates they are pledged to. But in the nation’s history, only seven Electors have ever strayed.

Plante: Michael Roseman asks, “If Bush wins on the basis of 1/30th of 1 percent of one state's voters in a state that seems to show evidence of election irregularities, and when Gore appears to have won the popular vote, how can he hope to win the hearts and minds of the American people? Will there be any honeymoon at all or simply four grinding years of political warfare?

Rather: It’s hard enough to gather the straight facts now without trying to gaze into the future. But let me make a few comments.

If – big if – Bush is inaugurated, the risk his term will be haunted by questions of legitimacy is grave indeed. The risk of toxic gridlock is high. The same holds if the fates put Al Gore in the White House.

It’s hard to see that there is a solution to this other than good, old-fashioned statesmanship and courage. Will that happen? Lord knows, and he ain’t saying.

What kind of statesmanship is possible? Allow me to repeat a few ideas from thoughtful people in other smoke filled rooms. Say, for the sake of argument, Bush is the man. He could appoint two or more prominent Democrats to his cabinet. Names like Sam Nunn and George Mitchell come to mind. He could let it be known that maybe it’s time for some of the hard-edged GOP House leaders to move on. He could, in the transition period, open public negotiations with the Democrats on key issues like Social Security or Medicare, and be ready to compromise.

These are times that will separate the statesmen from the politicians.

E-mail questions to The Smoke-Filled Room.

About Bill Plante
Bill Plante is a three-time Emmy Award winner who joined the CBS News Washington Bureau in 1976. He has been covering national elections since 1968. In 1984, he was part of a CBS Nes teamthat captured an Emmy for coverage of Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election campaign. Plante is one of the most knowledgeable and respected political correspondents in Washington. (He'll do just about anything, including bungee jumping, to get a good story.)