Perils of the Electoral College

This election day, approximately 100 million voters will trek to the voting booth to vote for the highest office in the land. Yet when they wake up on Nov. 8, they may be greeted with an alarming surprise.

First, the result of this year's presidential race will likely have been decided by fewer than a million voters. Those are the undecided voters in a handful of large swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which have lots of votes in the Electoral College.

Second, while Gov. George W. Bush has pulled slightly ahead of Vice President Al Gore in the presidential popularity contest, some oddsmakers still give Mr. Gore the lead in the projected Electoral College vote. Voters may wake up to find that Gore has won the election with fewer popular votes than Mr. Bush.

Since the Civil War, this calamity has only occurred twice, in 1876 and 1888. But the specter hangs over every presidential election that is remotely close. That's because with the 18th-century Electoral College, each presidential race is conducted as individual contests in the 50 states.

What's more, since the rules are "winner take all" and heavily tilted toward the largest states, it means that a presidential candidate need only win a plurality of votes in each of the 11 largest states to win enough Electoral College votes to capture the prize.

So, Bush may win more popular votes nationwide, but Gore could win more votes in enough key states to become president. If that happens, count on a big disconnect between an already disengaged public and our national politics.

Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, Barry Goldwater, and John McCain have supported various approaches to amend, reform, or scrap the Electoral College. One reform would be for states to allocate their electoral votes differently. Without making any changes to the US Constitution, states could use a proportional allocation like that used to allot delegates in most presidential primaries. With a proportional system, a candidate with 55 percent of the popular vote in a state wins 55 percent of that State's electoral votes, but not all; if the second place finisher receives 45 percent of the popular vote, he or she wins 45 percent of the electoral votes, instead of nothing.

If all states adopted this change, the effect would be to downplay the importance of the 11 largest states, and make all states more competitive for electoral votes and more attractive to presidential candidates. This method has a logic and fairness to it that is compelling. But critics of this reform point out that it also could increase the possibility that, in a three-way race, no candidate would receive a majority of the Electoral College vote.

To avoid such confusion, why not simply do away with this 18th-century anachronism? All other federal elections are by a direct vote of the people.

Why not elect the president in a simple, national vote? All voters then would be given equal attention no matter where they lived.

Certainly there are important questions to resolve in proposals for a direct election of the president. For example, many direct-election advocates call for a second "runoff" round of voting between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the popular vote.

But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning the highest office in the land. To prevent minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support.

Yet, if the top two finishers in the presidential contest were to face off in a second, national round of voting, the costs would be exorbitant. Candidates would have to scramble for millions of dollars of extra cash to run a new campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election administrators would be more than $100 million. The campaign season would drag out, and voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time. Not surprisingly, voter turnout usually declines in runoffs.

Rather than mandate a low threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should permit other electoral mechanisms to reach a majority winner.

A more efficient and inexpensive method would be to use an "instant runoff," which is used in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Ireland and is recommended in "Robert's Rules of Order." An instant runoff allows voters to rank their top, second, and third choices on the same ballot. The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs, and improves on their benefits. The instant runoff is likely to be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 and consideration in several state legislatures in 2001.

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 commands support from a majority of voters. It is time to upgrade the "democracy technology" we use in electing our most powerful office, so that we don't wake up the day after election day and groan over the unintended consequences of our antiquated Electoral College.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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