History of Electoral College has shown us electoral crisis
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- What should have been one clear lesson of Nov. 7 -- that every vote does count -- has been distorted into something alarmingly different and wrong: Whether every vote counts depends on who's willing or able to count it. If George II is crowned president, it will be less by the grace of God, as the British would say, than by the grace of Katherine Harris.
Amid all the fascination with hanging chads, swinging-door chads, pregnant chads, dimpled chads and what have you, one had to wonder whether even the Republic of Chad counts votes more reliably than we smugly superior Americans do. I don't know about Chad, but from a friend in Brazil I hear they do it better there. Every voting station is a computer that shows a picture of the candidate chosen and prompts confirmation of that choice. It cannot be subverted by something so trivial as a stubborn speck of cardboard.
Heck, they do it better even in Texas, whose law provides for hand-counting clinging chads, dimpled chads or any chad that reflects "a clearly ascertainable intent of the voter to vote."
But it wouldn't matter how chads may have tipped the presidential race in one or two Florida counties if it weren't for that uniquely American anachronism called the Electoral College. We must be rid of it, no matter who wins the hand-counts and lawsuits.
America has long since outgrown the electoral intent, which was to have elite and presumably smarter people pick the president for the rest of us and give the smaller states more influence than they deserved. Each state must forever have two votes in the Senate because the Constitution makes that unamendable, but the Electoral College can and should be replaced with direct election.
"The last popular-vote winner defeated by the college was Grover Cleveland in 1988," writes electoral reformer John Anderson, the former congressman and one-time independent presidential candidate. "Since then, we have amended the Constitution to elect senators directly, to guarantee women's right to vote and to lower the voting age to 18. We have passed the Voting Rights Act to provide access to the ballot regardless of race or ethnicity. The Electoral College has escaped this move to greater democracy only because of institutional inertia."
It is much easier said than done, of course. Each elector represents an average of 319,000 voting-age Americans. Twenty-three states, more than enough to block reform in the Senate, average less than that. In the smallest of them, an individual citizen's vote is potentially three times more influential than that of a registered voter in Florida, California or Texas.
But the argument that the small states would perish of neglect under direct election is cunning fiction. How often did either Bush or Gore visit Utah, North Dakota or other small states where the outcomes were foregone? When every vote counts the same, candidates will go wherever they think there are votes to be won even if it's only a corner of an otherwise unwinnable state.
And let's not forget how even large states can be passed by when the polls aren't close, as happened to Florida three times when it was locked down for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and to New York and Pennsylvania when they were in Clinton country four years ago. New York didn't see much of George II this year either, and Texas saw little of Al Gore.
Despite the predicted landslides, however, some 2.2-million New Yorkers still voted for Bush and 2.4-million Texans voted for Gore. That's 4.6-million people whose votes, at day's end, didn't matter except as part of the popular vote, which in no other country that elects a president would be as meaningless as it is here. This is one of the reasons why so many Americans don't vote. Even in Texas, with their governor running for president, only 43 percent of the voting-age population turned out, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. New York, despite a sizzling senatorial race, did only marginally better at 45 percent.
That's only one of the ways the Electoral College hurts us. The most obvious, at the moment, is to make it possible for ballot problems in a single county to subject the next president to a lingering cloud of illegitimacy.
No election is foolproof. Voters mismark ballots or spoil them. Machines can malfunction or be instructed wrongly. The exit polling that showed Gore carrying Florida may well have been closer to what the voters intended than how they actually voted.
"That's what most Americans didn't understand, the kind of human error rates and mechanical error rates in our voting system," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
As statisticians see it, and as one said on public radio the other night, Florida's razor-thin difference was so far within the scientific margin of error that the race could only be called a draw. But the Electoral College doesn't allow for statistical draws. Some winner must take all.
The larger the universe, the less such glitches matter. There's no question who won the popular vote nationwide. But as we've seen, it doesn't matter.
I wish there were some real hope of abolishing the electoral system, as presidents as diverse as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter tried to do. The House approved popular election in 1969, including a runoff if no candidate topped 40 percent, but it was filibustered in the Senate. The Senate did vote favorably 10 years later, 51-48, but that was 15 votes short of the two-thirds needed. No proposal has made it to either floor since. Even large-state senators are unevenly enthusiastic. Interest groups -- blacks, Jews and various regional industries in large states -- fear for their perceived ability to swing 15 to 54 electoral votes en bloc.
But it's an entire country that's at stake, a country where as many people will believe they were cheated as those who feel they won. At long last, 135 years after Appomattox, states' rights must abdicate in favor of e pluribus unum.
Short of popular vote, the states could -- and should -- award their electoral votes proportionately, though this magnifies the risk of some electoral bomb-thrower like Ralph Nader sending the election into the House of Representatives. (I am almost willing to see that happen, if it meant that an outraged public would finally demand direct popular election.)
The next best thing would be to award electoral votes by district with the statewide winner getting the remaining two. Maine and Nebraska do this, as Florida would have done but for a Republican state Senate filibuster in 1992. The opposition argued then as it will now: Why weaken Florida's clout? The answer now, as it was then, is that voting is about each of us as individuals, not about clout for politicians and lobbies. Let Florida show the way and other states will have to follow.
This would make a fitting subject for an initiative, and if the Democrats don't sponsor one, they're daft.
Angela Guedes, my friend who is so proud of her country's new voting system, reminded me in her e-mail that it wasn't so long ago that Brazil was a military dictatorship and corruption is still "not unusual." But she trusts her election outcomes without reservation, which is more than Americans can say at the moment.
"Good luck for you all," she wrote. "We are here waiting to know who will be the most powerful man in the world."
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