On August 29, 2004, the nation's weightiest newspaper
position and called for direct election of the president in the
Its strong editorial has important implications for reformers.
Beyond the power of calling for an election where every vote counts
equally across the nation, the Times position points to two reforms
go hand in hand with direct election. (See our pages on the electoral
1. A right
to vote in the Constitution: Once everyone's vote is
counted equally across the nation, our chaotic, scattershot
decentralized approach to running elections simply is not feasible.
Like every other modern nation, we will need to develop sensible
founded on a federal right to vote.
runoff voting. As soon as direct election is proposed,
people inevitably turn to the question of whether there should
be a minimum threshold of support needed before triggering a runoff.
The League of Women Voters and some others have unfortunately called
for a victory threshold of 40% -- a threshold that can allow a
winner who actually is strongly opposed by a majority of voters and
that maintains the "spoiler" dynamic for third parties,
making it the worst of all worlds. Its only benefit is that it won't
wouldn't trigger as many second-round national runoff elections. We
instead call for requiring winners to have a majority, and use IRV
to accomplish that goal in one round of voting.
the Electoral College
August 29, 2004
When Republican delegates nominate their presidential
candidate this week, they will be doing it in a city where residents
who support George Bush have, for all practical purposes, already
been disenfranchised. Barring a tsunami of a sweep, heavily
Democratic New York will send its electoral votes to John Kerry and
both parties have already written New York off as a surefire blue
state. The Electoral College makes Republicans in New York, and
Democrats in Utah, superfluous. It also makes members of the
majority party in those states feel less than crucial. It's hard to
tell New York City children that every vote is equally important -
it's winner take all here, and whether Senator Kerry beats the
president by one New York vote or one million, he will still walk
away with all 31 of the state's electoral votes.
The Electoral College got a brief spate of attention in 2000, when
George Bush became president even though he lost the popular vote to
Al Gore by more than 500,000 votes. Many people realized then for
the first time that we have a system in which the president is
chosen not by the voters themselves, but by 538 electors. It's a
ridiculous setup, which thwarts the will of the majority, distorts
presidential campaigning and has the potential to produce a true
constitutional crisis. There should be a bipartisan movement for
direct election of the president.
The main problem with the Electoral College is that it builds into
every election the possibility, which has been a reality three times
since the Civil War, that the president will be a candidate who lost
the popular vote. This shocks people in other nations who have been
taught to look upon the United States as the world's oldest
democracy. The Electoral College also heavily favors small states.
The fact that every one gets three automatic electors - one for each
senator and a House member - means states that by population might
be entitled to only one or two electoral votes wind up with three,
four or five.
The majority does not rule and every vote is not equal - those are
reasons enough for scrapping the system. But there are other
consequences as well. This election has been making clear how
the Electoral College distorts presidential campaigns. A few swing
states take on oversized importance, leading the candidates to focus
their attention, money and promises on a small slice of the
electorate. We are hearing far more this year about the issue of
storing hazardous waste at Yucca Mountain, an important one for
Nevada's 2.2 million residents, than about securing ports against
terrorism, a vital concern for 19.2 million New Yorkers. The
political concerns of Cuban-Americans, who are concentrated in the
swing state of Florida, are of enormous interest to the candidates.
The interests of people from Puerto Rico scarcely come up at all,
since they are mainly settled in areas already conceded as Kerry
territory. The emphasis on swing states removes the incentive for a
large part of the population to follow the campaign, or even to
Those are the problems we have already experienced. The arcane rules
governing the Electoral College have the potential to create havoc
if things go wrong. Electors are not required to vote for the
candidates they are pledged to, and if the vote is close in the
Electoral College, a losing candidate might well be able to persuade
a small number of electors to switch sides. Because there are an
even number of electors - one for every senator and House member of
the states, and three for the District of Columbia - the Electoral
College vote can end in a tie. There are several plausible
situations in which a 269-269 tie could occur this year. In the case
of a tie, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where
each state delegation gets one vote - one for Wyoming's 500,000
residents and one for California's 35.5 million.
The Electoral College's supporters argue that it plays an important
role in balancing relations among the states, and protecting the
interests of small states. A few years ago, this page was moved by
these concerns to support the Electoral College. But we were wrong.
The small states are already significantly overrepresented in the
Senate, which more than looks out for their interests. And there is
no interest higher than making every vote count.
[Making Votes Count: Editorials in this series remain online at nytimes.com/makingvotescount.]