The Case Against the Electoral College The Electoral College; Is this what the founders had in mind? Hardly! Get rid of it

by Steven Hill // Published November 12, 2000 in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The nation holds its breath as it awaits the results of the ballot recount in Florida. It's as simple as this: the winner of Florida's popular vote wins the presidency.

But the simplicity of the Florida drama is far different from our bizarre rules to elect the president. Democrat Al Gore won more votes than Republican George Bush in the national popular vote. But Bush may be on his way to the White House.

Blame for this democratic anomaly rests squarely with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. The Electoral College is a clumsy device that never would be imitated by a state for electing its governor -- or by a town electing its dogcatcher. It has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our constitution, but like an appendix, we keep it because it hasn't ruptured... yet.

Here's how it works. The presidential race is conducted in each of the 50 states as a separate contest, with each state having a number of electors roughly proportionate to its population. To win, a presidential candidate needs to receive the highest numbers of votes in the right combination of states to win a majority of the electoral vote.

The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. Most states are effectively ignored by the candidates, as they are seen as non- competitive. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in the key battleground states.

The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the use of plurality elections -- ones where the candidate with the most votes wins, 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 potential ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the tens of thousands of voters who supported Ralph Nader -- but who primarily preferred him to George Bush.

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

There are important questions to resolve, however. What if, for example, the highest vote-getter only received 35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility 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 command majority support.

Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be more than a hundred million dollars. 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. The most efficient and inexpensive method is instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to cast their "runoff" choices along with their first choice. Instead of having a second election, ballot-counters just need to determine the runoff choices of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the runoff. The system is used in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland and likely will be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.

If George Bush is elected, his challenges will be great in bringing the nation together despite his loss in the popular vote. Rather than accept an Electoral College system that can distort popular will and take most states out of play in electing our national office, his support for direct election of the president with a majority requirement would send a powerful message that on issues of fundamental democratic fairness, we should move beyond short-term partisan and parochial interests.

Win, lose or draw, it is time for George Bush, Al Gore and our political leaders to join together and push for a constitutional amendment that abolishes this 18th-century anachronism.