Dropping Out of the Electoral College

Election '04

Every presidential election matters, but 2004 has particular significance. Re-election of George W. Bush with the return of Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House could tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and federal courts for a generation. It could trigger a wave of Democratic retirements in the House that might cement Republican domination on Capitol Hill for decades. It could unleash a wave of hard-right policy initiatives.

So everyone should be involved, right? In a democracy, it's one person, one vote?

There's just one problem: that's not the way we elect the president. We cling to a thoroughly outmoded Electoral College that divides us along regional lines, undercuts accountability, dampens voter participation and can undermine legitimacy when the electoral vote trumps the national popular vote. As the bumper sticker notes, Democrats have to RE-defeat Bush this year because the Electoral College denied Al Gore's popular vote advantage of a half-million votes in 2000.

Instead of a simple national election, we hold 51 separate contests in the states and the District of Columbia, with each state having a number of electoral votes equal to its number of U.S. Senators and House members (ranging from three electoral votes in the states with the fewest people to 55 electoral votes in California). This arrangement awards more electoral votes per capita to low population states which tend to be conservative, giving Republican candidates an unfair advantage. It's like having a foot race where one side starts10 yards ahead of the other.

A presidential candidate needs to receive the highest number of votes in the right combination of states to win a majority of the Electoral College vote.The perverse incentives created by this method are painfully obvious from this year's campaign – most states already are effectively ignored by the candidates and groups seeking to mobilize voters because in a competitive national race, most states are dominated by one party or the other. Most campaign focus and energy – and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern – are pitched to undecided swing voters in the key battleground states. If you feel like your issues and concerns are being ignored, chances are it's because you live in the wrong state and/or are not part of the faceless slice of undecided swing voters.

The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the use of plurality elections – the candidate with the most votes wins 100 percent of the electoral votes from that state, even if less than a majority. Plurality elections mean that a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the nearly hundred thousand voters in Florida who supported Ralph Nader.

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

While there are serious proposals that would keep the Electoral College, fundamentally, the only transparent solution to this anti-democratic mess is to have "one person, one vote" jall across the nation. Every American voter should count as much as every other voter; it shouldn't depend on where you live. All would have the same incentive to vote, no matter your postal address.

There are important questions to resolve for a nationwide direct election, however. One of them is related to our antiquated plurality tradition where the highest vote-getter wins, even if less than a majority. This has happened in several gubernatorial elections in the past decade. That possibility occurring for a nationwide presidential election presents problems of legitimacy.

To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a second "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. A strong leader should be able to reach out effectively to enough voters to command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to election officials for a nationwide election could be a half billion dollars. And 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, such as instant runoff voting. IRV simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank their "runoff" choices along with their first choice, 1, 2, 3. Instead of having a second election, ballot-counters use the rankings to determine the runoff choices of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the runoff. The system is used for major elections in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland, and this year in such diverse settings as the Utah Republican Party state convention and city elections in San Francisco.

With large majorities of Americans against the Electoral College, Democrats have nothing to fear in picking up on Hillary Clinton's call in November 2000 for a constitutional amendment for direct election. And they have much to gain: a unique opportunity to end an anti-democratic, 18th-century anachronism.

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