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U.S.: Americans Revisit Election System

  • Kevin Foley

The U.S. presidential election is still unsettled but Americans are already talking again about whether its time to change the indirect method of choosing a president. In the following report, correspondent K.P. Foley notes that this discussion is almost as old as the nation itself.

Washington, 15 Nov. 2000 (RFE/RL) -- While officials in the southern U.S. state of Florida continue efforts to determine who won the popular vote for U.S. president there in the 7 Nov. election, Americans have renewed a public debate about whether the nation needs a new method of choosing its president.

On one side are those who say the current indirect selection method is an undemocratic anachronism. Defenders of the system say it guarantees a democratic election and add that direct presidential elections could create chaos.

The debate is almost as old as the U.S. republic. According to the Congressional Quarterly and other reference sources, more than 700 proposals to change the method of electing presidents have been introduced in the U.S. Congress over the past two centuries.

The aggregate popular vote total from the 50 states, Washington, D.C. and the U.S. territories has no legal significance. What counts are the votes of the members of the Electoral College.

The College -- which here simply means "group" -- consists of electors and citizens, from each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C. When the constitution went into force in 1789 it enshrined the College as the method of electing the president and vice president.

Walter Berns, one of Washington's most respected constitutional scholars, says the men who wrote the constitution settled on the Electoral College method because they believed it would result in the selection of the most qualified candidate.

"They decided on the Electoral College only at the end, in part because they had difficulty coming to a decision, and they had difficulty because, and this, I think, should always be in our minds when we think about revising the system by which we choose a president, they were concerned not with the democratic character of the election so much but which system would produce a better president."

Berns says that because of the current controversy, there will be "a flurry of proposals," to amend the constitution and either eliminate or change the Electoral College method.

A state has as many electors as it has senators and members of the House of Representatives. Each state has two senators. The number of House members depends on the number of House districts in a state.

There are 435 House members and 100 Senators. In addition, the federal capital of Washington has three electors. There are 538 members of the College. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win. As of Tuesday, Democratic candidate Al Gore had 255 to 246 for Republican George W. Bush.

When Americans voted for Bush or Gore -- or any of the other presidential candidates who qualified for a state's ballot -- they were actually choosing their state's slate of electors. So, the candidate who received the most votes in a state also received the votes of that state's electors. In 48 states and Washington, the winner receives all the electoral votes. Maine and Nebraska award the electoral votes on a system based on which candidate received the most votes in each election district.

This is why the country is awaiting the outcome of the popular vote recount in Florida. Its 25 electoral votes will put one of the candidates over the top.

Critics of the Electoral College method say it does not truly reflect "the will of the people." John Anderson, a former U.S. Congressman who ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1980, says it is possible that the candidate who emerges with the most votes will still not win the election.

"The candidate with the most votes is elected in every other election for federal office (Senate and House of Representatives) and in nearly all elections of any consequence here and abroad," Anderson wrote last week.

The U.S. Constitution, he says, requires 51 separate presidential elections, with electoral votes allocated based on the size of each state's congressional delegation.

Eric Olson, the deputy director of Washington's Center for Voting and Democracy, told RFE/RL the College is "an antiquated, flawed system," which gives power to really only a few voters in a few big states that public opinion surveys regard as undecided for either candidate.

The candidates, he says, devote their resources only to the states they believe will affect the outcome. Olson says Bush paid little attention to Texas, even though it has 32 electors, because he is the governor of that state and expected to win it easily -- which he did. Gore, says Olson, did not spend much time in New York, which has 33 electors, because the state is regarded as a Democratic stronghold. This, says Olson, is a major flaw in the system.

"It gives more influence to a handful of voters in a handful of states than to all voters having the same amount of influence in their vote."

However, Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, contends the current system forces the candidates to pay attention to the entire country, including small states that offer only a few electoral votes.

"Because three electoral votes in one instance, five in another, seven in another matter enormously. If those states didn't matter, you'd never have presidential candidates making appearances there, in fact they would confine themselves largely to the large population centers where they could be efficient..."

Olson and his colleagues at the Center for Voting and Democracy advocate abolition of the Electoral College. They propose replacing it with a direct presidential election method similar to one used in Australia, Britain, and Ireland. In this method, called the "instant runoff" method, voters make two selections, both counted on election day. Olson says citizens vote for their candidate but also pick a "runoff" candidate.

In this method, any candidate with the most votes, or first choices, is the winner. If there is no winner, the weakest candidates are eliminated and a second round of counting takes place. Counting continues until a majority candidate emerges.

Michael Franc, vice president for governmental affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, says this method, and other direct election proposals, are really unfair. If candidates had to compete for a majority of votes, he says, then they would spend most of their time in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.

One thing the Electoral College does is it gives each individual state sort of its last remaining role in selecting the president. If the Electoral College is disbanded, the voters of all the mountain states, the voters of a lot of the smaller states around the country would become mere footnotes in any campaign and the candidates would probably ignore large swathes of America, whereas today they really are forced to compete in different geographic areas and try to win a coalition of different kinds of constituencies in order to get the 270 electoral votes they need."

It's not clear yet whether a proposal to amend the constitution will be submitted when the new Congress is seated in January. However, at least two prominent Democrats, Senator Charles Schumer of New York and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, say it is time to change the system.

That is also a difficult task, which may be why none of those 700 or so proposals of past years succeeded. The constitution states that amendments must first be supported by two-thirds of the members of both the House and the Senate. The amendment must then be ratified by three-fourths of the 50 states. The constitution may also be amended if three-fourths of the states ask the Congress to convene a constitutional convention.