Stateline Story

Dual Election Reforms Now Vital: Electoral College + Ballot Systems

  • November 21, 2000
  • By Neal Peirce

The presidential election has thrown two elements of America's elective system into deep doubt.

Clearly, there's the electoral college. Not only does this quaint mechanism date from the era of the outdoor privy; its potential to thwart the popular vote of the American people -- which it has apparently just done -- reeks appropriately.

How, under the sun, can anyone claim one American's vote, for the single office of the Presidency, should count more than some other American's vote -- just because of residency?

Right now, it looks as if a few hundred vote George Bush lead in Florida will weigh more than a 200,000 or so nationwide plurality for Al Gore. That's simply unjust and wrong.

But also thrown into vivid relief by the election is the embarrassment of grossly inaccurate or incomplete voting systems. The spotlight has been on Florida's sloppy vote counting, particularly ballots easily punched for the wrong candidate or otherwise spoiled. Yet under closer scrutiny, many states systems would expose similar flaws.

Claiming to be the world's greatest democracy, leading the globe in technology, couldn't -- shouldn't -- we do better?

Adherents of the current electoral college system warn of upsetting the Founding Fathers formula. But back then, communications were so poor it was feared potential presidents wouldn't even be known outside their own regions. And democracy was hardly perfected: slaves, women and unpropertied whites couldnt even vote.

Later, the system let popular vote winners be denied the presidency in 1824, 1876 and 1888. The same injustice almost occurred in seven 20th century elections. Now another misfire has occurred, and years of mandateless presidency loom before us.

I'm reminded of the comment of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Emanuel Cellar of New York, leading a successful 1969 House effort to substitute a direct vote of the people. The electoral college, said Cellar, "is barbarous, unsporting, dangerous and downright uncivilized."

The House voted that year, 338 to 70, for a direct vote amendment to the Constitution. But a Senate filibuster by Southern and small state conservatives blocked the reform.

Ten years later, the Senate fell 15 votes short of the needed two-thirds to substitute direct vote. This time such liberals as Bill Bradley (N.J.), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) and Paul Sarbanes (Md.) joined the opposition after black and Jewish organizations claimed that their pivotal power in big swing states would be threatened.

Clearly, small states and big state minorities can't both gain from the current electoral college setup. But two centuries of thwarted reform have left us asphyxiated by that much special interest political smoke.

Today, defenders say direct vote would cause presidential candidates to ignore less-populated rural states. But, in fact, they don't go there much anyway. Campaign marketing currently focuses candidates, almost grotesquely, on larger swing states.

With direct vote, there'd at least be reason to campaign in safe states, trying to bring out friendly voters for your cause. Why? Because every vote, unlike now, would count.

But with direct vote, would we have nationwide confusion -- precinct by precinct recounts -- in a very close election?

Probably not: the statistical chances of a U.S.A.-wide vote as close as Florida today are tiny. A comparatively close national vote wouldn't likely occur more than once every few centuries -- compared to the one-in-three count of hairbreadth elections under the electoral college system.

What the 2000 count should propel us toward is a unified, nationwide, electronic voting system, to be implemented as soon in this decade as its safe and thoroughly vetted.

Would that diminish states' rights? Perhaps, but for good reason: Whether it's a single currency or an irrefutably legitimate way to elect our president, some issues are more important.

The era of mechanical voting machines must end. Proponents say that with specialized encryption codes to identify individuals, the technology is now known to achieve totally secure voting over the Internet.

One can imagine a joint Presidential-Congressional commission to probe this issue: Are the claims right -- Could virtually total Internet security in fact be achieved? What kind of system tests would be advisable (in sample localities and states)? And even if people could vote from home or a library or kiosk, would it be a good idea to continue polling places (equipped with screen-touch voting terminals) for at least a number of elections?

What's certain is that electronic voting could prevent the double (and thus invalid) votes and flawed ballots reported from Florida, and if truth be known, familiar in many states. A recount anywhere produces some change in totals -- clear proof how primitive today's systems are.

The change from ugly, disputed elections of past times is that we now have the technology to substitute a virtually fail-safe, nationwide voting system.

But history does record that there's often a fairly narrow window -- often just a year or two -- to build up, after some electoral debacle, enthusiasm to try reform.

We'll have to hurry.

Original Stateline Story