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The Perils of the Electoral College



Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are riding a roller coaster in the presidential contest, with first one in the lead, then the other. Even with Gov. Bush in the lead on the popular voter, some oddsmakers still give Gore the lead in the projected Electoral College vote. Bizarrely enough, in the case of such a head-on collision, the U.S. Constitution trumps the vote of the people.

That's because with the 18th-century Electoral College, each of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual contests. What's more, since the rules are Winner Take All and heavily tilted toward the largest states, it means that a presidential candidate need only win more votes than anyone else in each of the 11 largest states to win enough electoral votes to capture the prize. Not surprisingly, both Bush and Gore are spending more time in large swing states like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania than in smaller states or already-decided states.

So George Bush may win more popular votes nationwide, but Al Gore could win more popular votes in enough key states to amass enough Electoral College votes to become president. If that happens, count on a big disconnect between an already disengaged public and our national politics.

Since the Civil War, this calamity has only occurred in 1876 and 1888. But the specter hangs over every presidential election that is remotely close. Leading national political figures like Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, John McCain, Kweisi Mfume and Strom Thurmond have supported previous proposals to amend or scrap the Electoral College.

One reform would be for states to allocate their electoral votes differently. Without making any changes to the U.S. Constitution, states could use a proportional allocation like that used to allot delegates in most presidential primaries. With a proportional system, a candidate with 55 percent of the popular vote in a state wins 55 percent of that state's electoral votes, but not all; if the second place finisher receives 45 percent of the popular vote, they win 45 percent of the electoral votes, instead of nothing.

If all states adopted this change, the effect would be to downplay the importance of the 11 largest states, and make all states more competitive for electoral votes and more attractive to presidential candidates. This method has a logic and fairness to it that is compelling. But critics of this reform point out that it also could increase the possibility that, in a three-way race, no candidate would receive a majority of the Electoral College vote.

To avoid such confusion, why not simply do away with this 18th-century anachronism? All other federal elections are by a direct vote of the people. Why not elect the president in a simple, national vote? All voters then would be given equal attention no matter where they lived.

One concern is that direct election could allow a candidate to win with only 35 percent or 40 percent of the vote. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support. Two-round runoffs, which are used in most southern primaries, are one way to achieve this goal. The top two finishers face off in a second election, ensuring that one of them will win a majority.

A more efficient and inexpensive method would be to use an instant runoff. An instant runoff simulates a two-round runoff in one round of voting by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third runoff choices. The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs and improves on their benefits. The instant runoff is likely to be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 and consideration in several state legislatures in 2001.

Direct election of the president using an instant runoff would be the fairest and most efficient way to ensure that the nation's chief executive commands support from a majority of voters. That's certainly more than can be said for the antiquated Electoral College. It is time to upgrade the democracy technology we use in electing our most powerful office.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999). For more information, see or write to: P.O. Box 60037, Washington, D.C. 20039.

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