Lessons from an Election Fiasco
In recent days, the attention of the nation has been riveted on the political process in Florida, where a recount and a controversy over confusing ballots will determine who will become the next president - most likely George Bush. But this media drama should not distract us from the fact that there are some larger and long-term political lessons that must be learned from this election - no matter who ends up the eventual winner. The most important of those lessons is that we must finally get rid of that arcane and outmoded system, the Electoral College. Right up until Election Day, the defenders of the Electoral College, such as George Will, assured us that the possibility of electing the person who lost the popular vote was too remote to ever worry about. But the result of this election clearly shows that this kind of democratic disaster is all too possible. And not too surprisingly, observers from around the world have been scratching their heads, wondering how the leading democracy in the world could elect a leader who came in second in the polls.
Defenders of the Electoral College have already begun to offer the same old arguments about how it preserves federalism, or ensures some power for small states. But none of these supposed advantages, even if true, could possibly justify the election of the losing candidate -- a violation of basic democratic principles. It is time that we joined all the other major democracies of the world and elected our president by popular vote. It's really just a matter of political common sense.
There is another, less obvious, but equally important lesson that we must learn from this election fiasco: we can no longer put up with a voting system that creates the possibility for spoilers. These are third party candidates who take enough votes away from one major party candidate to ensure the election of the other major party candidate who wouldn't have won otherwise. Spoilers are a frequent problem in the Electoral College because most states use plurality voting systems, where the candidate with the most votes wins all the electoral votes.
In this case, if Bush wins, the spoiler will have been Ralph Nader. It seems likely that if Nader had not run in Florida, Oregon and New Hampshire, Al Gore would have easily won those states and thus the presidency. As it is, Bush will probably take those states, even though most people actually voted against him -- either for Gore or Nader. This is another grave issue.
The spoiler problem may actually be a more serious one than the Electoral College, because it goes far beyond presidential elections and can affect any legislative or executive election that uses plurality voting. For example, Greens running for Congress in New Mexico have allowed Republicans to win House seats in traditionally Democratic districts. As interest in third party candidates continues to grow, many Americans are increasingly aware of this spoiler problem; but what few realize is that there are other voting systems that easily eliminate this problem.
Ireland and Australia both use a system called "instant runoff voting," that allows people to vote for third party candidates, prevents the spoiler problem, and ensures that the winning candidate has the support of the majority of the voters. Here's how it works: Voters indicate not only their top choice of candidate on the ballot, but also rank their second, third, and fourth choices. If no candidate gets a majority of the first place votes, then the candidates with the least votes are eliminated one by one, and their supporters' votes are redistributed to their next choices, until one candidate wins with a majority of the vote.
And that is not the only alternative voting system worth our consideration. Most other Western democracies use another type of system, proportional representation voting, that not only prevents spoilers in elections, but also allows third parties to be represented in legislatures even if they receive only 10-15% of the vote.
America needn't have to tolerate the political injustices and chaos that have characterized this election. It is unnecessary to put up with elections where the winner is determined not by the actual vote, but by the malfunctions of the voting system itself. We simply need to acknowledge that there are serious deficiencies with our voting systems and force our political leaders take a serious look at alternative systems that are not prone to these problems. Americans deserve to use the fairest, most reliable, and most democratic voting system; but we must demand it.
Douglas J. Amy is Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College. His most recent book is Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems from Praeger Publishing.