Lessons from Florida
William Raspberry writes powerfully about the need to question the winner-take-all principle, citing the work of CVD. A Seattle Times political writer also touts proportional representation. November 2000. Professor Douglas Amy, George Pillsbury and Kevin Peterson write commentaries about avoiding future fiascos .
A No-Win Situation
There's something else troubling about the way we elect presidents -- something beyond the personal attacks, the derelict voters and the influence of big money.
It is the fact that so many of those who do vote don't have their votes counted.
Florida is a good example of what I'm talking about -- not because that state turned out to make the decisive difference in this week's election, but because more than 2 million voters -- nearly as many as will go to the winning candidate -- had no say in the outcome. All of Florida's 25 electoral votes will go to the other guy.
That's the unavoidable consequence of the winner-take-all system that prevails in all the states save Maine and Nebraska.
At the end, of course, any contest for a single office is a winner-take-all affair. But why should it be that way in the states? Why should more than a million-and-a-half California supporters of George W. Bush see all 54 of the state's electoral votes go to Al Gore?
In short, what is wrong with apportioning each state's electoral votes in accordance with the way the state's electorate voted? (A better question, no doubt, is why not ditch the electoral college system altogether and go to direct elections?) Politicians as different as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon backed a constitutional amendment to have all the states go to a proportional system. Obviously, nothing came of the proposals.
Why? Robert Richie, who heads the Center for Voting and Democracy, says it's probably because the political party that would be favored in a winner-take-all state is usually the party that runs the state. The party with the power to change the system has no incentive for doing so.
By the way, it isn't just the "wasted" votes that bother me. Bush hardly campaigned at all in New York -- and for the same reason that Gore neglected Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska: His opponent had the states locked up, along with 100 percent of their electoral votes. Indeed, Bush was criticized by some GOP strategists for wasting time and resources campaigning in California. A proportional system would have changed all that. If Bush had thought he had a realistic shot at, say, 20 of California's 54 electoral votes, you couldn't have kept him out. Similarly with Texas, long ago conceded to Bush, but where Gore supporters managed to produce some 40 percent of the vote -- enough to be worth about a dozen of Texas's 32 electoral votes. In fact, those votes were worth nothing.
The problem goes beyond tactics. The winner will become president of all the people, including those who never had the chance to see, hear or question him, tell him about their particular situations, or otherwise impress themselves on his consciousness. Nor is it just in presidential elections that the winner-take-all system effectively disenfranchises minority voting blocs. A significant number of states have black populations of sufficient size to elect a member of congress. But because of population distribution and the way congressional districts are drawn (by state legislatures) they aren't able to translate their numbers into political results. North Carolina, for instance, went from 1901 to 1992 without having a single African American member of its congressional delegation -- and then only after a painstaking redrawing of the districts that later was overturned by the Supreme Court. It wasn't that blacks didn't vote during all those decades; it was that the winner-take-all districts rendered their vote impotent.
Proportional voting (perhaps a "super-district" scheme like the one advocated by Richie's Center for Voting and Democracy) would give effect to minority votes while also making it overwhelmingly likely that white and black politicians would actively solicit those votes.
This week's presidential election was so close -- both in the electoral and the popular vote -- that it's likely a proportional voting arrangement would not have changed the outcome. But that's hardly an argument against considering such an arrangement.
Neither "wasting" votes nor the calculated neglect of minority voting blocs can be good for our democracy. Winner-take-all is, well, a loser.
Counting on an interesting election night
WASHINGTON, D.C. This is not the time to talk philosophy. Or describe how political campaigns represent our concerns, hopes and ideals for what might be.
Forget lofty: A few hours before the election, it's time to count.
Sometimes majority rules. We elect candidates who tip the magic 50 percent, plus one. In other contests, plurality trumps -- a winning candidate might get 40 percent of the votes in a three-way contest.
Then there is the Electoral College.
It's easy to count. So reporters, campaign workers and ordinary citizens have been adding and re-adding state totals on a map and exploring ways for either Al Gore or George W. Bush to tally up the needed 270 electoral votes. The Internet makes this great fun. There are dozens of sites with interactive maps that show what this election might look like, with state-by-state returns.
I will be logged on and watching Florida. If Gore wins that state's 25 electoral votes, election night will be interesting and, perhaps, long. If Bush wins, on the other hand, it'll be a lot easier to go to bed early. (Easier said than done: I love watching election returns.)
This year we even have the thrilling, if remote, possibility that one candidate could win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College. This could happen because Bush should win big in Texas -- by 30 percent or more at the polls -- but still collect no more than that state's 32 electoral votes. We've survived Electoral College surprises before. In 1824, John Quincy Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives after the Electoral College tied.
The losing candidate, Andrew Jackson, was gracious at first. But when Henry Clay was named secretary of state, Jackson called the election "the corrupt bargain" and spent the next four years campaigning. He won easily in the next round.
Could we stand another corrupt bargain? Should we have to?
Last week U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., called for the abolition of the Electoral College. They want direct elections: one citizen, one vote.
That would improve our democratic process. But is getting rid of the Electoral College the only thing we ought to change?
This week, for example, the District of Columbia will begin selling vehicle license plates that include the optional phrase, "Taxation Without Representation." The tags will remind the District's citizens and Congress that this country still has electoral inequities.
But what about inequities in Congress?
Start with the House. We are one of the few nations still clinging to the idea of "first past the post" district elections. Most countries opt for proportional representation, which ensures a voice for nearly every point of view. In Europe, it means Greens and other minority parties are players in a system designed to better mirror the complexity of society.
Here, we cling to a process that essentially protects the Democrat and Republican parties, and compels voters to pick between the "viable" candidates.
Now consider the Senate: Two senators allotted per state. So a senator from Wyoming has the same weight representing 479,000 people as does a senator from California with 33 million residents.
This is the same inequity -- no more, no less -- that occurs in the Electoral College.
If you live in Wyoming, North Dakota or Idaho, the Electoral College is what allows your voice to be heard in a national election. Without it, few national candidates would need to visit small cities like Spokane because the election could be won or lost with just the big urban TV market vote.
Then perhaps that's what we want: No more corrupt bargains, but a direct democracy where the majority rules -- and the counting is easy.