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    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000

    TALLAHASSEE -- My middle son will be voting for the first time Nov. 7. Like many other people, not all of them young, he does not appreciate being told that he shouldn't waste his vote by casting it for anyone other than George W. Bush or Al Gore.

    What's wrong, he asks, with voting for someone else whom he actually respects, someone who might conceivably make a better president? Or to help grow some third party like the Greens to future viability?

    But of course he already knows the answer. No one else has a remote chance of being president or even carry this state. If he votes for his first choice, he may be helping the one he likes least to carry Florida.

    That wouldn't be a worry in a taken-for-granted state like Utah or Massachusetts. But in a state as large and closely contested as Florida, whose 25 electoral votes could spell the difference, a vote for a minor candidate means that you don't care who will be remaking the Supreme Court.

    Politics in a democracy should be about voting for whom you like, rather than against whom you don't. Being forced to make the best of bad choices is the ironic consequence of something that was meant to be utopian.

    Unwilling to trust selection of a president either to Congress or to direct election, the framers of the Constitution fancied that choosing electors for that purpose, as Alexander Hamilton explained it, "affords a moral certainty that the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications." It was, he noted, "almost the only" aspect of the proposed Constitution that opponents did not attack.

    Almost nobody has been that happy with it since. All voters may be theoretically equal, but those in swing states, especially large swing states, are plainly more equal than the others. This contributes to the suppression of new parties, even those that might have something to offer, and to their dog-in-the-manger reputation as spoilers.

    Because of minor parties, 17 candidates have won with less than a majority vote (Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton did it twice). The electoral system allowed three of them -- John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and Benjamin Harrison, who did not have memorable presidencies -- to win with fewer popular votes than someone else.

    "The Electoral College remains an accident waiting to happen," warns the Center for Voting and Democracy, a public interest group that advocates voting reform.

    I don't think we'll ever see direct election or electoral votes awarded proportionally. There's too much resistance from interest groups whose influence depends on their presumed power to deliver key states.

    The reform to which there would be the least resistance is the presidential runoff, an idea whose time has come.

    A nation this large and diverse needs to have a chief executive who commands a clear majority. No president can be everyone's choice, but he or she should be at least the second choice, if not the first choice, of most of us. That comes with a runoff, which would also ease the pressure on voters to go with a likely winner, rather than a favorite, the first time around. This is something the states could adopt right now, for themselves.

    No, no, no, this is not about something as unthinkable as prolonging the election campaign for even one more miserable moment. It is, rather, about conducting the runoff on the same day -- in fact, the same minute -- as we mark our first choices for president.

    Far from a new idea, it's been around for 150 years. It is used in Ireland and in Australia and is under consideration for the British House of Commons and in several American states -- seriously so in New Mexico and Alaska, which have strong third parties. Four states, including Florida, once used it for party primaries.

    Florida dropped the instant runoff because it was cumbersome to recount paper ballots and the time required created obvious opportunities for mischief. But modern ballot methods and computerized counting make the process simple, instant and foolproof.

    Here's how it might work. Your first choice is, say, Ralph Nader. Your second is Gore. You mark the ballot that way. Someone else marks Pat Buchanan first, Bush second. And so on. At day's end, neither Gore nor Bush has a majority. The computers allocate the second-choice votes, beginning with those whose first choice ran last. This continues up the line until someone has a majority.

    The result "is to allow people to vote affirmatively for their candidate of choice without wasting their votes outright or handing the election to a candidate with whom they strongly disagree," wrote Matthew Cossolotto, the CVD's vice president, in a Washington Post op-ed piece. "It empowers voters while making major-party candidates less vulnerable to spoilers."

    It also would provide a true measure of the voter appeal of minor parties like the Reform, Green and Libertarian and compel major-party politicians to pay more respect to their points of view.

    It's about a better democracy. Why are we waiting?

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