Rob Richie and Steven Hill wrote the following commentary in April 2000; it appeared in several newspapers. Rob was invited to read the commentary on Pacifica radio on April 11, 2000. You can hear it at: http://www.webactive.com/webactive/pacifica/pnn.html

Elian Caught in the Net of Presidential Politics

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie


Americans have been touched -- and puzzled -- by the Elian Gonzalez drama. But it has become like an improbable TV movie that has lasted too long. Each new day brings some breaking news that defies common sense.

One can't help but notice that if Elian was Haitian instead of Cuban no doubt he long since would have been back in school in Port-au-Prince. Or, that if Elian's plight was unfolding in Wyoming, that he'd already be back in Havana.

But Elian is Cuban and this is Florida. And Florida is a big prize in presidential politics. The mathematics of the Electoral College allows a candidate to win the presidency by gaining the most votes in only eleven key states -- the largest states, by population. Florida is our fourth largest state, with 25 electoral votes up for grabs this November.

At the same time, our winner-take-all system gives excessive influence to what is known as "swing voters" -- those relatively few voters who are willing to support either major party. In a close race, whichever candidate wins the support of swing voters wins the election -- or, in the case of Florida, wins all that state's electoral votes.

A closely-contested state in presidential elections, Florida has a very influential group of swing voters: Cuban Americans. They are a cohesive, well-financed and vocal minority. Our peculiar method of electing our president has allowed this small group of swing voters to circumvent immigration law, defy the Attorney General and indeed define American policy on Cuba for decades.

Unfortunately for Elian and his family, that's what this whole episode is about -- political pandering to swing voters in a large state during a presidential election year.

That's why Al Gore weighed in on one side of the dispute -- saying Elian should stay in the United States -- and then quickly backtracked. He's trying to play both sides of a barbed wire fence.

The saga of Elian illustrates the worst aspects of how we elect our president. Small shifts in the popular vote can have huge impacts -- like winning or losing all of Florida's electoral votes. For this reason, events in Florida or other big, competitive states like California and Ohio are dramatically amplified.

Fortunately, states could make improvements. A few years ago, Florida nearly followed the lead of Maine and Nebraska in awarding electoral votes to candidates based on who finished first in each congressional district.

States also could allocate delegates by proportional representation, which is the system used in most presidential primaries and most established democracies around the world. With a proportional system, a candidate who wins 51 percent of a state's popular vote would win only 51 percent of that state's electors -- not all. The remainder would go to other candidates in proportion to their share of the popular vote. With proportional representation, all voters are equally important.

The next time you see yet another news report about Elian, take a moment to reflect on how our system gives such influence to a small minority of voters. If you are in the right state, and the right group of swing voters, you can bring politicians to their knees.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director. They are co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, see www.fairvote.org, phone 301-270-4616 or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039


"Qualified Progress"

Washington Post February 26, 2000: 

Jim Cohen is right to point out that Alan Keyes gained significant support from white voters in Iowa's caucuses (Free for All, Feb. 5). But Coehn is too quick to celebrate racial progress, at least in our winner-take-all elections.

Of the 150 most powerful statewide offices in the United States -- the 100 members of the U.S. Senate and the 50 governors -- not a single one is held by a black or Latino.


Eliˇn and the Election

New York Times, April 20, 2000

The story of Eliˇn Gonzˇlez (news articles, April 16) could have one fortunate consequence: focusing more attention on that peculiar institution, the Electoral College. A candidate can now win the presidency by gaining the most votes in only 11 states. Florida, our fourth-largest state, with 25 electoral votes, is one of the few big states that is highly competitive.

Florida allocates all its electoral votes to the candidate who finishes first. This system gives excessive influence to those relatively few "swing voters" willing to support either major party. Florida's most influential swing voters are Cuban-Americans.

Direct election of the president would take a constitutional amendment, but adding fairness only requires state action. In 1992, for example, Florida nearly followed the lead of Maine and Nebraska in allocating electoral votes based on who wins each Congressional district.