Scrutinizing Our Electoral System
December 13, 2000

Eugene Register-Guard

Voting system needs scrutiny

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 democratic rule.

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 future.

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 race.

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 Representatives.


Christian Science Monitor
Dec. 13, 2000

Two easy ways to reform elections
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 vote.

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 "disenfranchised."

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 constitutional amendment.

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 those states.

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 disagree strongly.

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]