Voter futures

One big electoral mess, and suddenly everyone wants to abolish the Electoral College. It’s an antiquated relic, they argue. And it’s not democratic, else why would Al Gore, winner of the popular vote, be in danger of losing the presidential election?

They’re right, but why stop there? Let’s face it, the American system has a number of antiquated relics. Right now, we’re all agog about the Electoral College, but if we decide to get rid of it, what’s next? The U.S. Senate? You think it’s democratic? Hah! What’s democratic about a national governing body in which the people of Idaho, population about the same as greater Sacramento’s, have the same number of senators as all of California does?

Besides, there are some good things to be said about the Electoral College. Like the Senate, it gives rural states a little boost when it comes to competing with their heavily populated counterparts. It was refreshing this year to see Gore and George W. Bush campaigning strongly in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Iowa and Oregon that ordinarily never see a presidential candidate.

On the other hand, those of us who didn’t live in one of the so-called “swing” states might as well have lived on Mars, for all we saw of the candidates. Besides, all Americans feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that a presidential candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the election—something that has only happened three times, in fact. And the Electoral College system is strange and archaic, even more so when you think about what happens in case of a tie vote there. (The decision goes to the House of Representatives, where each state has one vote. Talk about a mess!)

Some have argued against abolishing the Electoral College out of fear that direct popular elections, which always have a number of third-party candidates running, could produce winners that come in with less—even far less—than a majority vote, thereby weakening their mandates. There’s a good solution to that, however, one that is already in use in Australia and Ireland and under serious consideration in the states of Vermont, New Mexico and Alaska. It’s called “instant-runoff voting,” and it allows voters to designate their first, second and third choices. If none of the candidates wins an outright majority, the losing candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ alternative choices are redistributed to the top two vote getters, until one has a clear majority. It’s the kind of election for which computers were invented.

Had such a system been in place this year, it would have forestalled the quandary many Ralph Nader supporters found themselves in. They could have voted for their man without worrying that they were helping elect their least favorite candidate.

If we’re going to reform the presidential voting system, why not do it right?