Abolish the Electoral College
That's not because Barack Obama won the election: Nelson, a Florida Democrat, was more than satisfied with the result.
Nelson filed a resolution, seeking a constitutional amendment that would abolish the Electoral College, because he thinks the system is outdated. He thinks the president should be chosen by popular vote -- the same way U.S. senators and representatives, state governors and legislators, and local officials are selected.
The Electoral College is the product of a compromise by the framers of the U.S. Constitution -- some of whom wanted the president appointed by Congress, and most of whom didn't trust the public to directly elect the chief executive.
The Constitution requires each state to appoint "electors" who, in turn, cast the ballots that actually elect the president. Each state is allocated electors equal to its number of U.S. senators and representatives. State legislatures determine how those electors are appointed and, in essence, how they should vote.
So, the millions of Americans who cast ballots in the presidential election actually delegate their votes to 538 electors, selected by different criteria and are subject to different requirements depending on their state. The process creates discrepancies that should be absent from voting and diminishes the power of the popular vote.
Florida provides an example of how, in some states, the system essentially nullifies individual votes. For example, Obama received 51 percent of the 8.4 million votes cast in Florida's 2008 general election; Republican John McCain received 48 percent.
Even though McCain received 4 million votes at the polls, he got a big, fat zero from Florida when the Electoral College votes were counted; Obama got 100 percent of the 27 electors' votes.
That's because Florida has a "winner take all" law and its major political parties pledge to follow it.
Last week, Florida's electors did for Obama what they did for George W. Bush in 2000 -- turn a closely contested Florida election into a rout.
Bush got all of Florida's electoral votes in 2000, though he barely defeated Al Gore by 537 popular votes statewide in that famous/infamous election. What's more, his victory in Florida enabled Bush to win the Electoral College even though Gore won a half-million more popular votes nationwide.
Obama, in contrast, won 53 percent of the popular votes cast across the United States last year , compared to McCain's 46 percent -- a decisive victory but a margin exaggerated when the Electoral College voted 365- 173, awarding the president-elect 68 percent of the electoral votes.
If skewed percentages were the only problem, the effort to abolish the Electoral College through a constitutional amendment wouldn't be worth the trouble.
But here are other, significant problems:
Nelson correctly argues that the system "permits a candidate with fewer votes nationally to win the presidency by capturing narrow victories in the big states."
In a press release Thursday, Nelson pointed to the 2000 election of Bush. The president's supporters might dismiss Nelson's citation of the controversial 2000 election as a partisan jab, but the fact that Florida's senior senator refiled his resolution to abolish the Electoral College after Obama's election undermines that criticism.
Supporters of the status quo note that the Electoral College has elected the candidate who didn't get the most popular votes only four times.
But the potential is significant, as the 2000 election showed; plus, four years later, Bush won the popular election by 31/2 million votes, but if John Kerry had won Ohio he could have won in the Electoral College.
The winner-take-all formula used in Florida and all but two states often distorts the outcome of the popular vote, pushes candidates to focus on populous states up for grabs, and runs contrary to the intent of the Constitution's framers. Florida's status as a competitive state drew vigorous attention from presidential candidates, while smaller states -- and even mega-states like California and Texas that are solidly in one party's camp -- received less attention.
The winner-take-all approach isn't a constitutional requirement. The Constitution delegates to the states the authority to allocate their electoral votes: Florida and 26 other states use law and/or party pledges to require presidential electors to award all their votes to the winner of the popular vote; 22 other states use various means to direct electors in similar fashion. (The Office of the Federal Register reports that, throughout national history, more than 99 percent of electors have voted as pledged.)
The Constitution's framers envisioned that "presidential electors" would deliberate over the choice of the president, but the winner-take-all concept pre-empts the possibility of deliberations.
Even if the winner-take-all laws and rules were discarded, the changes in presidential elections over the years (for instance, the use of mass media and electronic communications that enable all Americans to learn about the candidates) would warrant the elimination of the Electoral College.
Two steps would help end the inconsistencies and mitigate the exaggerations of the Electoral College and the current practices in most states:
1. Amend the Constitution to eliminate the use of "electors," chosen and directed by states, in favor of a simple system that results in the election of a president based on the nationwide popular vote.
2. If the Electoral College remains intact, state legislators could and should repeal winner-take-all laws, pledges or practices. The most compelling and practical alternative is promoted by a bipartisan group called National Popular Vote. The NPV proposal calls for legislatures to pass bills committing their state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide; the bill would take effect only when enacted by states that together have enough electoral votes to elect a president. (See nationalpopularvote.com for more information.)
The most recent presidential election showed again that the overwhelming majority of Americans registered to vote are intensely interested in casting a ballot in the presidential race. Their votes should be counted, and allocated to the candidates -- not to elite electors.