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Dan Knight's Soapbox

The National Vote

Part 1 in a series on election reform

Dan Knight
November 27, 2000

As I write this over Thanksgiving weekend, it's been nearly three weeks since the election, and we still don't know if George Bush or Al Gore will be the next president. As a nation we joke about butterfly ballots, the Daley legacy, Florida voters voting for two presidential candidates, and chad, in dimpled, hanging, and pregnant varieties.

The British, either laughing at us or with us, have issued a Revocation of Independence, citing our inability to choose a leader and thus govern ourselves.

As the first nation to point a finger at voting irregularities abroad, this election brings the focus home - and it looks like we need to make some changes.

National Voting Standards

Almost without exception, the way ballots are cast is determined not on a national level nor even on a state level, but on a local level.

Here in Michigan some voted on computers with touch screens, others punched chad out of computer cards with a stylus, others flipped levers, and yet others marked boxes on a paper ballot. There is no consistency, which is a big part of the problem with the Palm Beach County (FL) butterfly ballot. (The other problem there was a failure to test the ballot for usability. Even a 5% error rate in that county is enough to change Florida's outcome and the result of the national election.)

On the federal level, there are only three rules about who may not vote: felons, non-citizens, and those under 18 years of age. All else is left to the states, which set their own residency requirements, set a range for acceptable ballot styles, and have their own standards for who will and who will not be listed on the ballot. (A few do have a standard statewide ballot and are to be applauded.)

States or Citizens?

The US Constitution was more concerned with states' rights than citizens' rights - most individual rights were tacked on with the Bill of Rights and other amendments. The electoral college system, which may stand between Al Gore and the presidency despite his lead in the popular vote,* was designed to balance the power of states within the recently-created union.

* For the record, I didn't vote for Al Gore, nor did I vote for George Bush. I have my preference for which I'd rather see in the White House come January 2001, but I'm trying not to let that influence this discussion.

As proponents of the electoral college are apt to point out, we live in a republic or representative democracy, not a direct democracy. That means we elect those who make decisions for us - it avoids having to hold a national referendum on dozens or hundreds of issues each year.

Still, in all elections except one, it is the vote of the citizens that decided the winner. We vote directly for commissioner, mayor, Senator, Representative, and who knows what other offices. The candidate with a majority of the vote (or, in some instances, simply the most votes) is the winner.

Not so the President. Instead, we vote for electors who will then go to Washington and choose our next president. It's a poor way of choosing the President - and it's made worse by the way it's implemented from state to state.

In most states, it's a winner-take-all decision. Here in Michigan, Al Gore edged out George Bush, so he gets all of Michigan's electors. The votes of perhaps half the voters in the state are not represented in the electoral college when three or more candidates run for the presidency.

In two states, Maine and Nebraska, electors are chosen by congressional district. This supposedly gives each district a more meaningful role in the process, but it still means half the voters in any district may not have their vote represented in the Electoral College.

In no states are electors assigned in proportion to the popular vote, which would make them more representative of the voters. Those supporting third-party candidates may not have any representation in the Electoral College, but the state delegation would be more representative of the state's voters than a winner-take-all vote or a vote by congressional district.

The drawback to this system is the lack of uniformity in the way states choose their electors. Because each candidate knows he will get 40-60% of the electors from these states, they focus their campaign on states where their efforts will pay off - the winner-take-all states.

A National Vote for a National Office

The President and Vice President are the only people elected to office on a national basis. They are also the only people not elected by a popular majority or a plurality of the vote.

Over two centuries into this experiment in representational democracy, it's time we changed that. We need to abolish the Electoral College. We need to let voters choose the President and Vice President directly.

This will require amending the Constitution, which can take years. It's something we as a nation should do, but until the Electoral College is abolished, we need to make it more representative.

The first step toward this is requiring the states to delegate their electors based on the popular vote. If Gore get 48% in Florida, Bush 48%, and Nader 3%, the state's 25 electoral votes would be assigned at 12 to Gore, 12 to Bush, and 1 to Nader. It would eliminate the national frustration (America held hostage) over the Florida recounts - at least this time around.

The system would still be biased in favor of the smaller states, as the Electoral College has been since the beginning, but it would be more representative of the popular will than the current hodgepodge of winner-take-all, district, and proportional delegation.

A National Slate for a National Office

The next step in election reform is having the same choice of candidates in all states. The Democrats and Republicans appear on the ballot in all 50 states, but such is not the case for the Greens, Libertarians, Reform Party, Natural Law Party, and other small parties. This is grossly unfair to newer and smaller parties, which need to contend with different standards in different states to get on the ballot.

For instance, after the Reform Party fragmented, we had Pat Buchanan listed as the Reform Party candidate in some state, while John Hagelin was listed in others. Here in Michigan, Hagelin was listed as the Natural Law candidate. In some states, he was strictly a write-in candidate. All third-party candidates had to deal with issues like this.

We need a national standard for inclusion on the ballot for the national office of President. Just what that standard should be I leave to the wisdom of others, but we and the third-party candidates are ill-served by the current system.

The Reformed Electoral College

Until the Constitution is amended, we must use the Electoral College to elect the President and Vice President. As we work toward a national popular election for national office, federal law should require states to apportion their electors based on the popular vote.

In the smallest states, two electors would go to the candidate with a majority of votes, one to the second place candidate. In larger states, such as Florida, proportional representation might lead to 12 electors for Bush, 12 for Gore, and 1 for the leading third-party candidate. (Had there been no third-party candidates, or if none of them had 2% of the vote, 13 electors would go to the winner of the popular vote this year, 12 to the second-place candidate.)

Electors would also be bound to vote for their candidate, which is not the case in all states at this time. I'll have more to say on that and other aspects of the Electoral College in the next article.

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