Two easy ways to reform elections

By Matthew Cossolotto
Published December 13th 2000 in Christian Science Monitor
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

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