Our Electoral System
December 13, 2000
Voting system needs
By PETER DeFAZIO
A HEALTHY DEMOCRACY requires the active
engagement of citizens and the legitimacy they grant to its
institutions. I am concerned that this cornerstone of our democracy
is being eroded. Regardless of your party affiliation or how you
feel about the recent national election results (or lack thereof),
the ongoing disputes in the presidential contest and various
congressional races around the country have raised a number of
questions about the integrity of the federal electoral process. The
recent election chaos seems more like something you'd see in an
emerging democracy, not a country with more than two centuries of
While the high stakes of the current election
have created widespread public recognition of electoral
irregularities, these problems are not new. We should take this
opportunity to examine how we can prevent similar problems in the
That is why I have introduced bipartisan
legislation in Congress, along with Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, to
create a Federal Elections Review Commission, made up of experts in
election law, the U.S. Constitution and U.S. history, not elected
officials or party loyalists.
The nonpartisan commission would not be created
to look into allegations of irregularities in the most recent
election. Rather, it would take a more sweeping, analytical look. A
review of systemic, structural and procedural issues to ensure the
integrity of, and public confidence in, federal elections is long
overdue. Restoring faith in democracy demands no less.
I have heard from many constituents concerned
that the candidate who wins the popular vote may not necessarily win
the presidency, because of the Electoral College process. The
Electoral College is a product of a different century in which those
who drafted the U.S. Constitution did not trust the masses to
directly elect the president.
Much has changed since the Constitutional
Convention of 1787. The right to vote has been extended to
individuals older than 18, including women, minorities and those
without property. Thanks to the 17th Amendment, senators are now
elected by popular vote. There is a strong argument the president
should be elected the same way, or at least by allocating electors
proportionally by congressional district within a state. The Federal
Elections Review Commission would review the rationale for the
Electoral College as well as proposals to reform or abolish it.
The commission also would look at a number of
issues to guarantee citizens the right to vote. There have been a
number of localized reports about problems reading ballots,
inadequate staffing of polling places leading to long lines and
citizens being turned away. In my first re-election race in 1988,
because of a poorly designed ballot, more than 50,000 residents in
the 4th District inadvertently missed voting in the congressional
The Federal Elections Review Commission would
analyze concerns about voter registration, ballot access and design,
and operations of polling sites to ensure voters are not
disenfranchised. The commission also would consider reforms such as
same-day voter registration, uniform ballot design and the options
used in some states that allow mail-in, absentee, weekend or early
voting - all of which could raise our anemic voting rates.
The commission also would be charged with
studying proposals for a uniform poll closing time to prevent media
distortions of elections. If there's one thing Americans can agree
on, it's the deplorable behavior of the media on election night.
Besides these micro-level issues, the commission
would review the more systemic issue of whether the competition
Americans so prize in the private sector flourishes in the electoral
arena. The commission would review the history of presidential
debates and the role of the private Commission on Presidential
Debates to determine whether or how more voices could be included.
The commission also would study the impact of our winner-take-all
elections and various proposals to increase electoral competition,
such as instant run-off voting and proportional representation.
Democracy occasionally needs to be rejuvenated.
Given traditionally low voter turnout in the United States and
issues surrounding the current election, this may be one of those
times. I believe a Federal Elections Review Commission would provide
a step toward the necessary healing.
Peter DeFazio, a Democrat,
represents Oregon's 4th District in the U.S. House of
Dec. 13, 2000
Two easy ways to reform
By Matthew Cossolotto
If George W. Bush ultimately wins the White
House, as now appears likely, then Bill Clinton's famous 1992
election mantra -- "It's the economy, stupid" -- will turn out to be
off the mark this year. We're in the midst of the longest economic
expansion in history, yet Vice President Gore appears to have lost
the election. Go figure.
Perhaps Al Gore's mantra this year should have
been: "It's the voting system, stupid!" The outmoded and inaccurate
vote-tabulation system used in many states apparently has undermined
Mr. Gore more than any other factor -- particularly in Florida.
Throughout this protracted election, we've
learned a great deal about the imperfections of punch-card voting
machines used in certain Florida counties (not to mention many other
jurisdictions around the country). If anything good comes out of
this battle, it's likely to be the upgrading of obsolete voting
machines across the country.
We should also see a vigorous effort to move
toward uniform ballot designs and voting procedures nationwide, at
least for presidential contests. Improvements in these areas would
certainly be a constructive step forward for our democracy.
But we shouldn't stop there. It's important, of
course, to actually count every vote. That's largely a function of
technology and accounting techniques. But we should also ensure that
every vote actually counts. That requires taking a hard look at how
we translate votes into representation and political power.
Whoever eventually wins the White House this time
will have received less than a majority of the votes nationwide. The
same thing happened in 1992 and 1996. Why? Because we use the
plurality, winner-take-all voting system, which we inherited with
little debate from the British.
In presidential elections, the practical effect
of this system is felt most powerfully in the Electoral College. In
most states (48 in fact), the candidate who wins a state -- whether
by a landslide or the slimmest of pluralities -- wins all of that
state's Electoral College votes. But it's important to remember that
this winner-take-all allocation is not mandated by the Constitution.
Two states, Maine and Nebraska, divide their
Electoral College votes according to which candidate wins a
particular congressional district in that state. Another approach is
for each state to allocate Electoral College seats according to the
state's popular vote. This "proportional" allocation would ensure
that the Electoral College more accurately reflects the popular
By contrast, even if every disputed vote is
hand-counted in Florida, it's virtually certain that the winner of
that state's 25 electoral votes would be the choice of less than 50
percent of the state's voters. In other words, when it comes to
electing all-important electors to the Electoral College, more than
50 percent of Florida's voters will be effectively and needlessly
Using a more proportional allocation method would
enfranchise voters in Florida and around the country. Remarkably,
this pro-democracy reform can be achieved state by state without a
In Florida, a proportional allocation of its
electoral votes would mean that the winner of the state would
receive 13 of Florida's 25 Electoral College votes, while the losing
candidate would walk away with 12. In a state where both candidates
appear to have received roughly 48 percent of the popular vote, a
proportional allocation along these lines strikes me as an
inherently fair outcome.
One of the benefits of reforming the
winner-take-all system in the states is that the national electoral
map would suddenly look very different. You wouldn't see a nation
divided starkly between "Gore states" in the Northeast and West and
"Bush states" in the South and Southeast. You would immediately see
a more nuanced view of the US, complete with pockets of Gore
supporters in "Bush states," and vice versa.
Moreover, if states created a fairer allocation
of Electoral College seats, you would find that candidates for
president would no longer be able to take a given state for granted
or write off certain states. They'd have to campaign in many states
to win a portion of the Electoral College seats available to them in
Another useful reform could be readily
implemented right now by the states. It's called "instant runoff
voting" (IRV). Under IRV, which is currently used to elect the
president of Ireland and the mayor of London, voters simply rank the
candidates in order of preference. In this year's presidential
election, some left-leaning voters could have ranked Ralph Nader
first and Gore second.
On the right, many voters could have ranked Pat Buchanan
first and George W. Bush second.
The ballot-count simulates a runoff. If a
candidate wins an outright majority of first-preference votes, the
count is over and that candidate wins the state. But if not, the
last-place finisher is eliminated, and the ballots cast for that
candidate are awarded to the voter's next choice. This simple change
in the system would allow voters to vote affirmatively for their
favorite candidate without wasting their vote outright or being a
"spoiler" and handing the election to a candidate with whom they
It would ensure that whoever wins all of a
state's Electoral College votes receives at least a majority of the
votes cast in that state.
These proposals are purely a matter for the
states to decide. Any state in the union is free to initiate a
fairer allocation of its Electoral College votes or adopt
instant-runoff voting without amending the US Constitution. The first step in picking up
the pieces after this electoral mess is establishing blue-ribbon
commissions at the state and national levels to examine the full
range of reforms needed to modernize our voting system.
We must ensure not only that we count every vote,
but that every vote truly counts in America.
[Matthew Cossolotto, author of 'The Almanac of
European Politics' (Congressional Quarterly, 1995), is vice president
of the Washington-based Center for Voting and Democracy]