Washington Post

Post-Traumatic Suggestions

By William Raspberry

January 1, 2001; Page A23

If there are county commissioners, state legislators and secretaries of state pondering what to resolve for the New Year, here's a suggestion. Resolve to fix your voting system.

You'll want to get rid of confusing ballots, including the infamous butterfly ballots. You'll also want to replace punch-card voting machines. Given the political trauma of the recent presidential election, those reforms are virtually automatic.

At least they ought to be. The problem is that some of you have been so fixated on Florida and the controversy about whether and how to count disqualified ballots that you may be missing a critical aspect of the problem. I refer to the fact that the most error-prone machines tend to be in the poorest counties.

It may be coincidental that those counties' voters are often disproportionately minorities, but it is a fact. That's the chief reason why the Supreme Court's derailing of the recount in Florida is seen by much of the civil rights community as a racial matter.

They are convinced (who isn't?) that a manual inspection of the ballots rejected by the outdated voting machines would have given Florida's electoral votes -- and the presidency -- to Vice President Al Gore.

But this isn't just a matter for Florida -- or for this election. The Post reported last week that one of every 16 presidential ballots was invalidated in Atlanta's Fulton County, which uses punch-card machines, compared with a rate of one in 200 for Cobb and Gwinnett counties, which have more modern equipment. A sixth of the ballots in some heavily black Chicago precincts were thrown out, while almost every vote in the outer suburbs was counted.

I hope you'll resolve to fix that. In fact, you'd better resolve to fix that. If any obvious inference is to be drawn from the controversial holding of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is that states that use voting devices of varying accuracy risk being found in violation of the "equal protection" clause of the Constitution.

But that's the mechanical aspect of voting. My suggestion for reform goes deeper -- that you fix the electoral system.

I have in mind two things. First -- and this ought to be a national initiative -- resolve to end the winner-take-all method of choosing presidential electors. Even without tinkering with the electoral college, it surely is possible to choose a state's electors in proportion to the votes for the presidential candidates. If that had happened in Florida, Gore and Bush would have been arguing over who got 13 of the state's electoral votes and who got 12. As it was, Bush, who garnered less than a majority of Florida's popular vote, received all 25 of its electoral votes, in effect disenfranchising half Florida's electorate.

While you're resolving at least to think about a system of proportional representation, you might take a look at the idea of preference voting. If it's wrong to disenfranchise voters whose presidential candidate loses by even the tiniest margin, it is also wrong to penalize those who vote for their preferred candidate by transforming that vote into support for their least favorite candidate.

That is precisely what happens now. A vote for Pat Buchanan in the recent election, for instance, translated into a vote for Gore, even though it is unlikely that Gore would have been that voter's second choice. Ralph Nader probably took enough Florida votes that otherwise would have gone to Gore to hand the election to Bush. Under a preference system, voters could list, say, Buchanan as their first choice and Bush as their second. If no candidate received a majority of the total vote, then second-choice ballots would be tallied -- in effect an instant runoff.

The obvious result would be that no candidate would be elected with less than a majority of the vote. But another, far more important, outcome would be the empowerment of third parties. It would be significantly easier to build third-party movements if supporters knew they weren't helping to elect their least-favored major-party candidate. In addition, it would give third-party supporters more clout with the major parties, which would be tempted to modify their campaigns to make their candidates attractive at least as a second choice.

Just a suggestion.