Colorado will have a referendum on the ballot this November, asking voters whether they want to divide the state’s Electoral College votes in proportion to the popular vote. If it passes, Colorado will join Nebraska and Maine as the only states in the US without the “winner-takes-all” provision for their Electoral College votes.
In the meantime, President Bush regularly proclaims his intention to ensure direct elections in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not just “democracy,” direct elections!
Most of us didn’t pay much attention to the Electoral College before 2000. We were vaguely aware that our quadrennial exercise in civic responsibility was not a direct election, that we were really voting for delegates to some mythical beast called the Electoral College rather than for our chosen candidate. The more politically sophisticated among us knew that the Electoral College vote could theoretically elect the candidate who did not get the largest number of popular votes. Hard-core history buffs knew that there was actually at least one occasion when it happened. For the rest of us, the Hayes-Tilden compromise was so esoteric that it never even turned up on quiz shows. (Okay, it was the end of Reconstruction and the start of Jim Crow in the American South, but who cares about that?) We thought of the Electoral College kind of the way one thinks of the old stuffed moose head Grandpa keeps in the attic—someday we really ought to get rid of it, but it’s just harmless clutter. All it does is take up space. We’ve lived with it this long, and it never caused a real problem. Why borrow trouble? Cross that bridge when we come to it.
So let’s talk about the 2000 election, when the Electoral College did cause a real problem. Please. Yes, I know we aren’t supposed to talk about it. That’s just beating a dead horse. It shows we’re sore losers, not willing to let bygones be bygones and get on with our political lives. None of the candidates this year are willing to raise the issue of the validity of the 2000 election, or even the question of how we make sure it doesn’t happen again. Before 2000, we didn’t talk about the Electoral College because it couldn’t possibly cause any problems. Now we don’t talk about it because only losers complain.
The major problem of the 2000 election was the flawed mechanism for voting in many states. Not just Florida. Indeed, Illinois had more miscounted and uncounted votes than Florida, probably more than twice as many. In Illinois it didn’t matter, because an accurate count of the popular vote would not have changed the Electoral College vote from Illinois. The same is probably true of New York. The hanging chads of Florida mattered because the popular vote was so narrowly split that 500+ votes could change the Electoral College outcome.
And that narrow split mattered because of the “winner-takes-all” rule, which prevails everywhere but in Nebraska and Maine (and maybe after November, in Colorado.) The rule says that the winner of the popular vote in a state, even if s/he wins by a single vote, gets the entire Electoral College delegation of that state.
The “winner-takes-all” rule is not part of the U.S. constitution. It is not part of the constitutions of most states that have it. It is a mere statute, a creature of legislature. It can be repealed at the state level, by the same process used to rename an airport or raise a cigarette tax.
The “winner-takes-all” rule, as we have seen so far this year, means that only states with closely divided votes matter in the campaign. Only states with closely divided votes need to worry about the accuracy of their vote counts. The rest of us (Illinois voters, for instance) could all just stay home, for all the difference it makes to the electoral process.
Some reasonable objections have been raised to direct popular election of the president. If every one of our 105 million votes really mattered, voter by voter rather than state by state, we would have to put a lot more attention and money into making sure each of those votes was properly counted. In most states, the winner-takes-all rule means that the size of the landslide doesn’t matter, as long as there really is one. We can afford to be sloppy. We can afford to put our oldest, least functional voting machines in poor neighborhoods and rural areas. We can afford to make polling places inaccessible to people with disabilities. We can afford to mess around with the absentee votes of people in the military. Only the “battleground” states really have to worry about running accurate and honest elections.
Oops. That’s an argument that cuts both ways, isn’t it? What we’re really saying is that democracy is expensive. Freedom isn’t free. There’s an original thought. You get what you pay for. How much do we value our republican form of government? Why don’t we put our money where our mouth is? Or is democracy only something we want to ram down the throats of ignorant foreigners, whether they want it or not?
So it’s time for Illinois to follow Afghanistan and Iraq and Nebraska and Maine and maybe Colorado down the path our politicians think is for external use only—let’s repeal the “winner-takes-all” rule and vote as free individual citizens for the most important politician in the world.