Ditch the Electoral College

That a candidate can lose the popular vote and still win the presidency is the result of an anachronistic law from the 18th century designed to weaken the peoples' voice.

| Thu Nov. 9, 2000 3:00 AM EST

The nation is holding its breath as it awaits the results of the ballot recount in Florida. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency itself hangs in the balance.

How, for instance, will we explain to young people, already so disengaged from politics, that Democrat Al Gore won more votes than Republican George Bush in the national popular vote, but Bush may be on his way to the White House?

Imagine if, after the conclusion of the Super Bowl or the World Series, it was announced that the "winner" didn't really win. That instead the championship would be given to, well -- the loser. That's exactly what might be happening right now for the highest elected office in our land.

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The blame for this democratic anomaly rests squarely with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a clumsy device that was created in less democratic times by our nation's founders and has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our Constitution.

Under the ponderous Electoral College method, each of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual contests. What's more, since the rules are winner-take-all and give disproportionately heavy significance to the votes of the largest states, it means that a presidential candidate need only win the highest numbers of votes -- even if less than a majority -- in the right combination of states to win enough Electoral College votes to capture the grand prize.

The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. Most states are effectively ignored by the candidates, as they are seen as noncompetitive. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in the key battleground states.

The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that the presidential winner does not need to reach a majority of the popular vote. As a result, a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any potential ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the tens of thousands of voters who supported Ralph Nader -- but who largely preferred him to George W. Bush.

So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures as diverse as Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform, or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to scrap the Electoral College and institute a national direct election.

There are important questions to resolve, however. What if, for example, the highest vote-getter only receives 35 percent of the vote in a multicandidate race? That possibility also presents problems of legitimacy.

To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a runoff election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be more than a hundred million dollars. Weary voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.

Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a single election. The most efficient and inexpensive method is instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third runoff choices. The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs, and improves on their benefits. The system is used in Great Britain, Australia, and Ireland and likely will be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.

If George W. Bush ultimately is elected, his challenge will be to bring the nation together despite his loss in the popular vote. Already lawyers and partisans are raising charges and countercharges, and the potential for deep national divisions are rising. Al Gore and George W. Bush need to move beyond short-term partisan and parochial interests, and work together to resolve this dispute in a way that is best for the country.

For future races, direct election of the president using an instant runoff would be the fairest and most efficient way to ensure that the nation's chief executive not only has won the popular vote, but also commands support from a majority of voters. Win, lose, or draw, it is time for George W. Bush, Al Gore, and our political leaders to join together and push for a constitutional amendment that abolishes this 18th-century anachronism.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.

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