As the elections approach, we should all be reminded that they should be taking a much different form. Were we living in a true democracy, one in which every vote really counted, we would notice one great difference in these upcoming elections: Al Gore would be running for re-election.
It is appalling that we are living with a president who received fewer votes than his opponent. It’s also disconcerting to think about the colossal changes to the international political landscape that have occurred under the administration of a man who acceded to the “leader of the free world” based on a 5-4 vote of a court laden with his father’s friends and his running mate’s duck-hunting buddy.
For a country that finds it excusable and desirable to start wars to “promote democracy” abroad, we are doing a poor job of protecting democracy at home. One of the greatest obstacles to achieving greater democracy is the antiquated and undemocratic institution known as the Electoral College.
The framers of the Constitution decided upon the Electoral College as a way of selecting a president in an age in which technology to sufficiently educate a large and scattered population about the candidates was not available. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention were distrustful of centralized government, cynical about the ability of the common man to make important political decisions and unwilling to give the power to elect the president to the Congress or the state legislatures. Therefore, Article II, Section I, of the Constitution created a separate entity called the Electoral College.
That was over 200 years ago. Modern times and common sense now call for change. Originally, senators were elected by state legislatures, but in an effort to improve our imperfect nation, lawmakers abandoned that system in favor of a popular vote by passing the 17th Amendment. We now have sufficient technology to ensure that every vote truly counts, and the American public deserves no less. It is time for another amendment.
George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 is not the first time the president has been chosen without a majority of the popular vote. John Quincy Adams, in 1824, and Benjamin Harrison, in 1888, both benefited from the flaws in the Electoral College. With another close election in the wings, it’s scary to think that the Electoral College could once again deprive Americans of a fair election.
It was extremely disheartening to have been a high school government teacher during the last presidential election. I had to explain to my senior students, who were able to vote for the first time, that if they voted Republican in California their vote essentially was not counted in the final tally for president, just as the votes of their Democratic friends in Utah or Oklahoma would essentially be ignored. When asked whether or not the Electoral College was undemocratic, I had to admit that it was. These are the sad but true answers that teachers across the country have to give to students who are trying to be excited about participating in our government.
That there was no great movement in either house of Congress to initiate serious election reform, especially in regards to the debacle in 2000, is baffling. Fair-minded representatives of both parties should have stood up for their constituents and demanded reform.
The “winner-take-all” system employed by the Electoral College has numerous disadvantages. First, it delegates the true decision of the election to a handful of “battleground states.” It doesn’t seem fair to have a few hundred “undecided” voters in Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio and Missouri decide the election.
Second, the current system weighs the votes of people in small states disproportionately heavily. For example, a vote in California (pop. 34 million) eventually is funneled into one of our 55 electoral votes, whereas Wyoming (pop. 500,000) has three electoral votes. I won’t waste your time with the math, but it means that a vote in Wyoming potentially has over three times as much weight as a vote in California in determining the president. Abolishing the Electoral College eliminates any of this fuzzy math with the simple principle that one person should equal one vote.
Regardless of political leanings, all Americans should write to their congressmen and ask them to start or support legislation in favor of a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. It is the next step we should take as we strive to be a more perfect nation.
Eric Olsen is a first-year graduate student in UCSB’s Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.