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Dan Knight's Soapbox

Reforming the Electoral College

Part 2 in a series on election reform

Dan Knight
November 28, 2000

The Electoral College has been the most attacked part of the US Constitution. It has also proved the most resilient, surviving every attack to date.

The Electoral College may have been a necessary provision to assure support of all the states in creating the United States, but today most view it as an outdated anachronism, a final vestige of states' rights in an era where all other elected offices are filled by direct popular vote.

Until the Constitution is amended, we must work with the Electoral College. There are ways to make the Electoral College more representative of the popular will, which we should see as a stopgap solution until a constitutional amendment allows direct popular vote for President and Vice President.

Proportional Distribution

The first step toward a more representational Electoral College is a federal mandate that states assign electors in proportion to the popular vote - and that electors be bound by law to vote as assigned.

In smaller states with two electors, in most races the winning candidate would have two electors, while the second place candidate would receive one. In a tightly contested three way race, each candidate may end up with a single elector.

As the number of electors increases, a state's delegation will more closely represent the popular will. For instance, Florida has 25 electoral votes, which will all be assigned to the winner once one is determined. However, both Gore and Bush obtained about 48% of the popular vote. Under a proportional system, the razor-thin margin between them would probably result in 12 electors for each, with the remaining elector assigned to the third-party candidate with the most votes (assuming that is at least 2%).

In fact, the larger the state, the more likely third-party candidates will receive some votes in the Electoral College. This is a good thing. Under the current system, candidates such a John Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader obtained a respectable percentage of the popular vote, yet none of them received even a single vote in the Electoral College.

Another benefit of distributing electors proportionately is that it would be that much more difficult for newscasters to call the election before polls close on the West Coast.

Voting for President

If we were to assign electors proportionately in each state, we could see a national situation such as that in Florida this year, where no candidate receives a majority of the vote. Since the Constitution requires a majority vote in the Electoral College, we need a system which would bring that about in a race with three or more candidates.

The solution is to have a second vote, eliminating the candidate with the least votes. As an example, if the present election were held under this system, perhaps Nader would have 10 electors, but neither Bush nor Gore would have a majority. In this case, a second ballot would take place between Gore and Bush, one where Nader's electors would be reassigned based on the popular vote in their home states. (In the case of Florida, where there would be a 12-12 tie, that elector would go to whichever candidate won the popular vote.)

If four or more candidates had electors, the process might be repeated several times, each time eliminating the candidate with the least votes and reassigning those delegates to the remaining candidates.

The Impact of Electoral College Reform

The greatest benefit of such reform is that the Electoral College would, at least in the first round, better reflect the will of the American voter. I don't know if that would change the result of the current election (still undetermined as I write this), but as a nation we would see the Electoral College as more representative than it is today.

The second benefit of this reform is that minority candidates would receive Electoral College votes, although possibly at a somewhat lower level than their popular vote.

A third benefit, closely linked to this, is that supporters of third-party candidates would be more likely to actually vote for them, since there would be a real chance of the candidate receiving some votes in the Electoral College.

A fourth benefit, related to the second and third, is that such reform could make new political parties viable alternatives to the established parties. Instead of despairing at receiving only 1, 3, or 10% of the vote, they would rejoice at their growing impact on the American political process.

Best of all, once we break the entrenched power of the two party system, the election process is more likely to focus on principles, issues, and positions than the current system. We may see parties arise that hold traditionally Democratic views on some issues, Republican views on other issues. We may see a new consensus emerge when multiple voices enter the public debate.

As voters, we will see political parties define themselves more on principles and less in reaction to the other parties. We will have more meaningful choices.

This should also go hand-in-hand with federal voting reform, which we will discuss in the next article.

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