11/06/2012 01:01 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2013

'I Trust the People'

As I write this on Election Day, just outside my window in Manhattan's Morningside Heights stands a statue of Samuel J. Tilden, who was the pre-Al Gore answer to the trivia question of who was the last presidential candidate to win the popular vote and lose the election.

While the 2000 election turned on the hanging chads of Palm Beach County, Tilden -- a Democratic New York governor who led the charge to break up the Tammany Hall gang led by William Marcy "Boss" Tweed -- fell victim to a deal-cutting House of Representatives that gave the presidency in 1876 to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for pulling federal troops out of the post-Civil War South and ending Reconstruction.

Now with the possibility that there could have once again been a split between the popular vote going for one candidate and the opponent snatching victory via electoral votes, the hue and cry to do away with the 18th century-created Electoral College has once again reared its head.

But if we learned anything from the Florida fiasco of 2000, switching to a pure popular vote basis in a severely divided country carries the potential to engulf the entire country in the kind of hanging-chad struggles that wound up with the Supreme Court assuming the role of Republican ward heeler to give George Bush the presidency.

Just think of Lyndon Johnson's famous Box 13, discovered six days after the 1948 United States Senate election in Alice, Texas, that when opened miraculously delivered 200 out of 202 votes -- and the election -- to the future 36th president of the United States.

And in a closely divided nation, where the popular vote reflects that division, think of Box 13s and hanging chads all across the country as the fate of 300 million people and the world at large depend on an accurate count. John F. Kennedy's 1960 margin over Richard Nixon amounted to less than one vote per precinct nationwide. This is not a fanciful concern.

The answer is not to do away with the Electoral College, but to change it along the lines that already exist in Nebraska and Maine, which award two Electoral College votes to the winner of the states' popular vote, and allocate the rest on the basis of congressional districts. In Maine, for example, President Obama was reasonably certain of a statewide victory, but the Romney campaign saw enough of a chance to win in the northern Second District to make a last-ditch effort to pick up that vote.

This would not guarantee an agreement between the popular and Electoral College votes. There are still such wide disparities among districts that are politically divided and those firmly controlled by one party or the other. Think New York's 15th or 16th Districts in Manhattan and the Bronx, or Alabama's 6th District based in the Birmingham suburbs and Texas' 13th District based in the northwestern corner of the state, which the Cook Partisan Voting Index identifies as the most partisan Democratic and Republican districts respectively in the nation.

But by broadening the base of electoral votes -- moving closer to one-man, one-vote, while acknowledging the difficulties of facing Box 13-style crises across the entire nation -- the likelihood that there would be a conflict between the popular and Electoral College votes diminishes greatly.

And just as Romney's campaign decided to at least take a look at campaigning in Maine's Second District even though he had no likelihood of winning the statewide vote, assigning Electoral College votes by congressional district would mean no longer would presidential elections be contested solely in the eight or nine swing states identified by the respective campaigns as ripe for the picking.

The would mean that instead of just Ohio, Nevada, Virginia, Florida and Iowa getting all of the candidates' attention -- and their TV stations getting all of the billions spent on advertising -- places like upstate New York, California's Central Valley, San Antonio, Atlanta and even Salt Lake City might suddenly find themselves as contested territory. People in Las Vegas or Cincinnati who have endured tens of thousands of vitriolic and inane political ads might not wish that on the rest of us, but at least we would actually get to feel we were part of the process of picking our leaders.

On the base of the statue of Tilden outside my window is the quote "I trust the people." It actually drops one word from the quote on his gravestone monument in upstate Columbia County's Cemetery of the Evergreens which reads,"I still trust the people."

But with the prospects of a closely divided electorate, and the potential that Lyndon Johnson's Box 13 or Palm Beach County's hanging chads could become precursors of nationwide chaos if we switch to a pure popular vote for president, another phrase I heard growing up in Brooklyn might be more appropriate: "You trust your mother, but you cut the cards."