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Flunk the Electoral College, Pass Instant Runoffs

by John B. Anderson // Published January 11, 2001 in The Progressive

The Presidential controversy in Florida has had one virtue: It has shown that too many of our electoral rules and practices are antiquated and unexamined. We must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize and fully democratize our elections.

There is no better place to start than that peculiar institution, the Electoral College. The Electoral College fails to provide for majority rule and political equality. The Electoral College divides us on regional lines, undercuts accountability, dampens voter participation, and can trump the national popular vote. With current plurality rules, it can turn third party candidates into "spoilers," where voting for your favorite candidate can help elect your least favorite. All forward-looking Americans should embrace direct election of the President by a majority vote.

The candidate with the most votes is elected in every other federal contest--and in nearly all elections of any consequence here and abroad. But instead of a simple national vote, the Presidency is decided by fifty-one separate elections in each state and the District of Columbia, with electoral votes allocated according to the size of each state's Congressional delegation. To maximize their clout, states have chosen to allocate their electoral votes by winner-take-all--the candidate who wins the most votes in a state, no matter what the margin or how small the percentage, wins all that state's electoral votes. (Maine and Nebraska, also allocate some of their electors according to the popular vote winner in U.S. House districts.)  

A majority of Americans consistently support direct election of the President. Their concern about the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College is grounded in history. Our framers distrusted democracy and saw the Electoral College as a deliberative body able to correct bad choices made by the people. They had the misplaced fear that, after the consensus election of George Washington, future Presidential elections would be divided along state lines, with candidates having only regional appeal and unable to win a majority of the electoral vote. The Electoral College, then, would convene and pick the best candidate among the people's "nominees." The belief of some of our framers that the college would check the excesses of majority rule are founded on a wildly mistaken understanding of how politics would evolve in the United States.

The rule for apportioning electoral votes according to the number of each state's members of Congress also was anti-democratic. It made electoral power in the Presidential race dependent on the population of a state rather than on its number of voters. For this reason, there is no national incentive to spur turnout in a state and expand the franchise. The initial impact was to give slave states additional weight. The infamous constitutional provision counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportioning Representatives was designed to favor Southern states. Slaves couldn't vote, but they could give their owners extra power in both Congressional and Presidential elections. It is no accident that slave-owning Virginians served as President for thirty-two of the nation's first thirty-six years.

By factoring in a state's number of Senators, the Electoral College gives small states disproportionate weight, as the fewest number of electors a state can have is three--two Senators and one House member. As a result, the total number of votes cast in Wyoming this year for three electoral votes was fewer than the number of popular votes it took to win a single electoral vote in ten states that are bigger or had high turnout, such as Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In 2000, if states had electors equal to the number of House members, Al Gore would have turned his plurality win in the national popular vote into an Electoral College win even without victories in Florida and New Mexico.

But small states should not be too quick to celebrate. Because of winner-take-all rules, big states swing far more electoral votes and gain far more attention if races are close there. This year, competitive small states did get attention from the campaigns, as both parties realized that the election could be decided by a mere handful of electoral votes. But in most elections, even the competitive small states are overlooked as the candidates focus on competitive large states.

Ironically, Electoral College defenders often express worry that the candidates will spend time only in the big states. But to win a national direct election with a majority vote would require active campaigns in far more parts of the country than under current rules.

Electoral patterns and polling allow the candidates to know precisely which states are competitive, and that is where candidates put their resources to mobilize voters and, increasingly, to pitch their messages about their national priorities. In the November election, most states--including twelve of the eighteen smallest--were won by comfortable margins, and a majority already can be judged as noncompetitive in 2004. Voter turnout increased in all but one of the closely decided states, often on the order of 10 percent, but it was down in the rest of the nation. In a national election, however, your vote would have the same power no matter where you lived. All potential voters would be treated equally, with at least some grassroots organizing activity likely to take place everywhere rather than in the fractured, piecemeal fashion we see today.

The fissures in the Electoral College map have the potential to further divide our nation. With candidates focusing only on where wins are possible, it becomes all the harder to reverse these trends. In 2000, the parties tended to strengthen their grips on their strongholds, meaning that in 2004, a candidate could become President without devoting any time or energy to whole regions of the country. Yet even the most lopsided states still have significant numbers of voters who oppose the majority choice. For example, Bill Clinton won at least 25 percent of the vote in every Congressional district in 1996. With direct election, campaigns would have an incentive to mobilize supporters no matter where they lived.

Direct election would have another enjoyable by-product: No partisan results in exit polls in the Presidential race could be discussed by a credible news agency until everyone had voted. On election night, analysts would need to focus on Congressional races and analysis of voter attitudes until polls closed on the West Coast--making it all the more likely that Westerners would see their votes as meaningful.

The Electoral College has been the subject of more proposed amendments to the Constitution than any part of that venerable document. Some have suggested awarding electoral votes in states in proportion to the candidates' share of the vote. Some would allocate electoral votes by Congressional district--a plan that sounds attractive on the surface but has serious problems. It accepts the reality of gerrymandered Congressional districts, and this year would have given George W. Bush a big victory despite his loss in the popular vote, as Republican support is more evenly dispersed across states and Democratic support more concentrated in cities. Some support amendments to ensure that if no candidate wins an electoral-vote majority, voters would pick the winners in a second-round runoff election. Others would replace actual electors with fixed numbers to avoid the chicanery of "faithless electors" overturning the will of the people.

 But direct election is the only viable solution that could gain the support necessary to amend the Constitution. Nevertheless, there are important questions to resolve in proposals for direct election. The most important one--indeed, a defining demand for many reformers--is the establishment of a majority standard. Ensuring that the President can gain the votes of at least half of Americans better assures that the Presidency will have national appeal. It also would once and for all liberate voters to support the candidate of their choice by eliminating the "spoiler" problem, where a third party candidacy can fracture one major party's majority vote and allow another candidate to win with a mere plurality.

This year, I joined nearly three million Americans in casting my ballot for Ralph Nader. Nader's positions in favor of proportional representation, instant runoff voting, and other pro-democracy reforms made him by far the most attractive candidate. But that vote for Nader meant that I had no ability to express my choice between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. For this reason, our current plurality system tends to suppress third party candidacies and the voter participation they could generate.

We can solve this problem by instituting a far more efficient, empowering method called instant runoff voting. Used in several nations, instant runoff voting ensures majority rule in one election. For voters, the demands are simple, and the rewards great. Rather than selecting only one choice, voters should be allowed to indicate their runoff choices by rank-ordering the candidates: first, second, third, and so on. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the election is not over. Instead, the weakest candidates are eliminated, and a second "runoff" round of counting takes place. Ballots count for each voter's top-ranked candidate still in the race. Rounds continue until there is a majority winner. Modern ballot machines can handle this quickly and efficiently. They also can ensure that any need for a national recount with a direct election system would be far easier than the difficult recount in Florida this year with current antiquated machines.

Instant runoff voting is enjoying a welcome rise in interest in the United States. In Alaska, supporters have turned in more than enough signatures to qualify it for a ballot initiative in 2002. If the initiative passes, Alaska would institute instant runoff voting for state and federal offices, including the Presidential race. Other states are considering it seriously. Vermont may have the best chance for a legislative win in 2001; backers there include the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Vermont Grange, and leaders in all parties.

Majority rule and political equality are fundamental tenets of democracy. The power of one's vote should be equal no matter where one lives, and candidates for our one national office should have incentives to speak to everyone. Since the last popular-vote winner was defeated by the Electoral College in 1888, we have amended the Constitution to elect Senators directly, to guarantee women's right to vote, and to lower the voting age to eighteen. We have passed the Voting Rights Act to provide access to the ballot regardless of race or ethnicity.

The Electoral College has escaped the move to greater democracy only because of institutional inertia and states' misguided, parochial considerations. But a twenty-first century pro-democracy movement must take private money out of elections, institute proportional representation in legislatures, and bring about the direct election of the President with instant runoff voting.

 Let's send a message to American voters that it is their votes alone that count when electing our leaders.