Democracy for the 21st century

It all becomes official and formal on Saturday when the new Congress receives the electors' report. The country's 538 electors met on Dec. 18 in the capitals of the 50 states and in the District of Columbia. They gave the recently resigned governor of Texas, George W. Bush, the bare 271 votes needed to make a majority in the Electoral College. And so, for the fourth time in our history, we have a president who failed to win the popular vote.

There has been lots of talk about the inequities and iniquities of our vote-counting methods and also much talk about whether the Electoral College system, that quirky institution which our Founding Fathers inflicted on us more than 200 years ago, accords with the needs of the time.

Before the way we select our president leaves our radar screen, permit a brief timeout for a constructive idea about how to fix the Electoral College. It's not a new idea. It goes back to 1976, when Jimmy Carter got 57 more electoral votes than President Ford - considered then a tight race.

The Twentieth Century Fund convened a task force, chaired by Jeane Kirkpatrick of the American Enterprise Institute and Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. A friend dug up for me a copy of their 1978 report, titled "Winner Take All."

The task force came up with a way of preserving the Electoral College system while ensuring the winner of the popular vote would almost certainly win the electoral vote. The proposal was to introduce something called a "national bonus." In addition to the electoral votes for each state representing the sum of its senators and representatives, there would be an additional two votes per state to go automatically to the winner of the national popular vote. That means the popular-vote winner would start with a "bonus" of 102 electoral votes and could hardly lose.

Furthermore, the office of elector would be abolished. The electoral votes would be simply tallied and reported to Congress. That would eliminate the danger of the "faithless elector" voting contrary to instructions. Three faithless electors would have tipped the recent election to Al Gore.

The task force also recommended - with great foresight - measures to improve the accuracy, integrity, and speed of the voting-counting system and a mandatory recount by an independent authority within a few days of the original count.

Not much attention was paid to the task-force recommendations in 1978, but then the need for change didn't seem so pressing until last fall's stormy election full of protests and contests, leaving the country in a state of utter frustration about its electoral nonsystem. Perhaps it's time for a change.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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