Dual Election Reforms Now Vital: Electoral College + Ballot Systems

By: - November 21, 2000 12:00 am

The presidential election has thrown two elements of America’selective system into deep doubt.

Clearly, there’s the electoral college. Not only does thisquaint mechanism date from the era of the outdoor privy; itspotential to thwart the popular vote of the American people –which it has apparently just done — reeks appropriately.

How, under the sun, can anyone claim one American’s vote, forthe single office of the Presidency, should count more than someother American’s vote — just because of residency?

Right now, it looks as if a few hundred vote George Bush lead inFlorida will weigh more than a 200,000 or so nationwide pluralityfor Al Gore. That’s simply unjust and wrong.

But also thrown into vivid relief by the election is theembarrassment of grossly inaccurate or incomplete voting systems.The spotlight has been on Florida’s sloppy vote counting,particularly ballots easily punched for the wrong candidate orotherwise spoiled. Yet under closer scrutiny, many states systemswould expose similar flaws.

Claiming to be the world’s greatest democracy, leading the globein technology, couldn’t — shouldn’t — we do better?

Adherents of the current electoral college system warn ofupsetting the Founding Fathers formula. But back then,communications were so poor it was feared potential presidentswouldn’t even be known outside their own regions. And democracy washardly perfected: slaves, women and unpropertied whites couldnteven vote.

Later, the system let popular vote winners be denied thepresidency in 1824, 1876 and 1888. The same injustice almostoccurred in seven 20th century elections. Now another misfire hasoccurred, and years of mandateless presidency loom before us.

I’m reminded of the comment of House Judiciary CommitteeChairman Emanuel Cellar of New York, leading a successful 1969House effort to substitute a direct vote of the people. Theelectoral college, said Cellar, “is barbarous, unsporting,dangerous and downright uncivilized.”

The House voted that year, 338 to 70, for a direct voteamendment to the Constitution. But a Senate filibuster by Southernand small state conservatives blocked the reform.

Ten years later, the Senate fell 15 votes short of the neededtwo-thirds to substitute direct vote. This time such liberals asBill Bradley (N.J.), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (N.Y.) and PaulSarbanes (Md.) joined the opposition after black and Jewishorganizations claimed that their pivotal power in big swing stateswould be threatened.

Clearly, small states and big state minorities can’t both gainfrom the current electoral college setup. But two centuries ofthwarted reform have left us asphyxiated by that much specialinterest political smoke.

Today, defenders say direct vote would cause presidentialcandidates to ignore less-populated rural states. But, in fact,they don’t go there much anyway. Campaign marketing currentlyfocuses candidates, almost grotesquely, on larger swing states.

With direct vote, there’d at least be reason to campaign in safestates, trying to bring out friendly voters for your cause. Why?Because every vote, unlike now, would count.

But with direct vote, would we have nationwide confusion –precinct by precinct recounts — in a very close election?

Probably not: the statistical chances of a U.S.A.-wide vote asclose as Florida today are tiny. A comparatively close nationalvote wouldn’t likely occur more than once every few centuries –compared to the one-in-three count of hairbreadth elections underthe electoral college system.

What the 2000 count should propel us toward is a unified,nationwide, electronic voting system, to be implemented as soon inthis decade as its safe and thoroughly vetted.

Would that diminish states’ rights? Perhaps, but for goodreason: Whether it’s a single currency or an irrefutably legitimateway to elect our president, some issues are more important.

The era of mechanical voting machines must end. Proponents saythat with specialized encryption codes to identify individuals, thetechnology is now known to achieve totally secure voting over theInternet.

One can imagine a joint Presidential-Congressional commission toprobe this issue: Are the claims right — Could virtually totalInternet security in fact be achieved? What kind of system testswould be advisable (in sample localities and states)? And even ifpeople could vote from home or a library or kiosk, would it be agood idea to continue polling places (equipped with screen-touchvoting terminals) for at least a number of elections?

What’s certain is that electronic voting could prevent thedouble (and thus invalid) votes and flawed ballots reported fromFlorida, and if truth be known, familiar in many states. A recountanywhere produces some change in totals — clear proof howprimitive today’s systems are.

The change from ugly, disputed elections of past times is thatwe now have the technology to substitute a virtually fail-safe,nationwide voting system.

But history does record that there’s often a fairly narrowwindow — often just a year or two — to build up, after someelectoral debacle, enthusiasm to try reform.

We’ll have to hurry.

Original Stateline Story

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