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With the presidency still hanging in the balance, many people are
calling for radical reforms to our system of elections. A survey we
conducted right after the election found that just 38 percent of voters
give our electoral system an “excellent” or “good” rating. Fifty-nine
percent say the system is just “fair” or ” poor.”
As a result, everything from the way we vote to how the votes are
counted and the Electoral College itself have been called into question.
Indeed, Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton announced she would draft
legislation to abolish the Electoral College as soon as she reached
Washington. Others have talked about the need for some form of
electronic voting conducted with a uniform national standard.
Those who expect that this state of affairs will lead to major
reforms before we vote again may want to tone down their expectations.
For example, while the current situation has raised questions about
the Electoral College, there is virtually no chance that the current
system for selecting presidents will be scrapped soon. Why? In our
post-election survey, Rasmussen Research found that just 31 percent of
respondents said we should get rid of the Electoral College; 33 percent
thought it should be reformed, and 32 percent believed it should remain
unchanged. In other words, the American people have some desire for
change, but want to proceed cautiously.
If Senator-elect Clinton and others want to abolish the Electoral
College, they will have to amend the U.S. Constitution — a task the
founding fathers intentionally made very difficult. An amendment must be
approved by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, and
ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. It is virtually
impossible to accomplish this without massive levels of popular support.
Even widely — and wildly — popular proposals like the Equal Rights
Amendment and congressional term limits haven’t been able to overcome
the constitutional hurdle.
As for another sweeping reform, consider the idea of electronic
voting. While people are understandably concerned about the current
debacle over chads and dimples, questions will be raised about any new
approach that is proposed. In September, Rasmussen Research conducted a
survey to measure attitudes towards voting on the Internet. Sixty-six
percent of all adults were concerned about the possibility of fraud.
Most (52 percent) were also concerned that, with an electronic system of
voting, reporters and politicians might be able to find out how
individual citizens voted.
This is not to suggest that we’re stuck with the status quo. It
simply means that massive changes do not take place in America
overnight. Changes in our voting procedures will be tested incrementally
and carefully, just like the founders intended.
Consider again the example of the Electoral College. While only about
a third of Americans want to abolish it, another third want to reform
it. Reforms may therefore be possible if they don’t require a
One such possible reform is based upon the fact that the Constitution
does not require electoral votes to be handed out on a winner-take-all
basis in the states. In fact, Maine and Nebraska divvy up their votes
differently — by congressional district, rather than the state as a
whole. In their system, the winner of a congressional district receives
one vote and the winner of the state receives two more. So, if this
approach was in place elsewhere, the candidates would split the votes on
close to a pro rata basis. We would no longer see the spectacle of a few
votes in Iowa, Florida, Michigan, or anywhere else deciding all of that
state’s electoral votes
If Florida used this system, we wouldn’t be hearing about disputed
votes in selected counties. Palm Beach County belongs to a congressional
district whose electoral vote would have gone to Al Gore. Other votes in
other Florida counties would already be in Bush’s column. Had the same
system been in place in California, George W. Bush might have picked up
20 or so of that state’s electoral votes. In that case, Al Gore wouldn’t
have started with a 54-vote head start.
Is this a good reform? That’s for voters to decide. We won’t know the
answer until someone tries to pass it and voters get to hear all the
pros and cons debated. However, it is the kind of reform that could be
attempted on a state-by-state basis without amending the Constitution.
Therefore, it’s in the realm of the possible.
The message here is that if voters really want to change the
Electoral College, they can do so on a state-by-state basis. This is
especially in states with the initiative and referendum process. States
without the initiative process would probably be more resistant to
change because elected politicians are generally less supportive of
reform than the public at large. As a practical matter, this means that
initiative states like California and Florida might be among the first
to implement reforms. Other states, such as Texas and New York, would
wait and see what happens.
Regardless of the specifics, Election 2000 may encourage some people
to demand reforms in the electoral process, but the pace of reform will
be slow and incremental.