Let’s obliterate a dinosaur

We have a tradition of the person or team with the most points, runs or votes winning – except when it comes to electing our president, the highest office in our nation. The blame for this democratic anomaly rests with that 18th century anachronism, the Electoral College.

Created in less democratic times by our founders, the Electoral College is a clumsy device that no longer serves us well. It harkens back to a time when the U.S. Senate also was devised to be elected by our state legislatures instead of a direct vote of citizens. The Senate election was changed to a direct vote in 1913 with the 17th Amendment, but almost 200 years later we still have the Electoral College.

The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are obvious from this year’s campaign. States like New York which are locked up early are effectively ignored by the candidates. Most of the campaign energy, and increasingly even the candidates’ messages for how they’ll govern, are aimed at swing voters in a few key states. Consequently, voter turnout in the battleground states was up by 10 to 15 percent but was down in the rest of the country.

What can be done? For many years leading politicians such as Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy and John McCain have supported approaches to reform or scrap the Electoral College. It’s time to abolish it and institute a national direct election, specifically instant runoff voting.

This inexpensive alternative simulates a traditional runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third “runoff choices.” If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the weakest candidates are eliminated and their voters’ ballots counted for their runoff choices. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.

The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs and improves their benefits. Great Britain, Australia and Ireland use the system and likely it will be the subject of a ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.

To ensure that the country’s chief executive commands support from a majority of voters, let us work together to abolish this 18th century dinosaur.


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