Overhauling the US voting system
Is the US election process "uniquely flawed"?
Last Modified: 27 Oct 2008 19:46 GMT

Is it fair to have a system where not every vote can count? [GALLO/GETTY]

Have you ever wondered why the US presidential candidates spend so much time hunting down votes in places such as smalltown Ohio and Iowa instead of, say, New York City or Los Angeles?

It is because the US has a unique - and many believe uniquely flawed - system of electing its presidents.

"The popular vote does not really matter here - we have something called the electoral college," says Richard Himelfarb, Hofstra University political science professor.

The electoral college, he explains, "is basically 51 separate elections in 50 states and the District of Columbia where votes are apportioned, with few exceptions, on a plurality 'winner takes all' basis."

Each state's electoral votes equal the number of all their representatives in congress. You need 270 to win.

Swing states

"In a close election where we all have a stake in the outcome, it's really only voters in 10 or 12 states that matter, the rest of us are just spectators"

Rob Ritchie, director, National Popular Vote

Most years, the majority of big states are either strongly Democratic - such as New York, California or Illinois - or strongly Republican as with Texas and all of the Deep South.

But in every election, candidates have to reach beyond their "safe" state turf and go to those states that are nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

These are the so-called swing states. Usually they include Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and a handful of others, although this year several normally-Republican states such as Virginia and North Carolina are added to the list.

These are the states which candidates need to reach 270 college votes. So, that is mostly where they campaign - basically ignoring the rest of the country.

"In a close election where we all have a stake in the outcome, it's really only voters in 10 or 12 states that matter," says Rob Ritchie, director of an electoral college reform organisation called National Popular Vote.

"The rest of us are just spectators."

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Way back in 1789, the framers of the US constitution were a bit nervous about "democracy".

They decided to put a buffer between the people and the position of highest power.

"Back then, our framers thought democracy was a dirty word, the rule of the mob," says Himelfarb.

"They thought the electors would be the most sophisticated and well-informed."

Nowadays, the electors have no power at all - they are usually party officials who get to go to Washington a few weeks after the election just to "certify" the result.

The framers also never anticipated the rise of a two-party system.

They figured that in every election there would be four, five, and maybe more candidates for president, representing different regions rather than different ideological orientations.

They may have assumed that the electoral college would prevent any of these "sectional" candidates from winning outright.

When that happens, the US house of representatives gets in on the act and determines who shall become president (but that is a blog for another day).

Undemocratic outcomes?

Bush won the White House in 2000 but
not the popular vote [Reuters]
The effect of the "winner takes all" system of the college is to give many voters a sense of disenfranchisement.

If you are a Democrat in heavily-Republican Texas or Idaho, you may feel that your vote does not count for much because you know that your state's electoral votes will almost certainly go to the Republican candidate.

The same is true if you are a Republican voter in, say, Massachusetts or Maryland - those states almost always give their electoral votes to Democratic candidates.

Because the apportionment of electoral votes does not correspond exactly to the states' population, the system occasionally fails - leading to some profoundly un-democratic outcomes.

Four presidents in US history have won the electoral college after actually losing the popular vote.

The last time that happened was in 2000, when George Bush became president even though Al Gore got 600,000 more votes.

If the electoral college were abolished, presidential campaigns would be far different than what they are today.

"We would see candidates campaigning in population centres [such as Houston or Chicago] and no longer making trips to states like New Mexico, New Hampshire and West Virginia which are swing states but have few people," Himelfarb says.

Changing the system

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Polls show about 70 per cent of Americans think the college is an anachronism that should be altered or abolished.

But because it is embedded in the constitution, it is nearly impossible to do so.

An amendment to the constitition has to be passed by two-thirds of both houses of congress and two-thirds of the states in their legislatures.

Little states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, and bigger swing states such as Ohio andf Florida, like all the attention they get under the current system, so there would likely not be enough states agreeing to a constitutional amendment to get over that two-thirds threshold.

Several states, however, are now working together to change the system.

As Ritchie explains: "A state, by passing our national popular vote plan, says 'we are giving all of our electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in all 50 states once it is decisive'."

That plan would take effect only when the states agreeing to the idea control a total of at least 270 electoral votes.

Until that time, Americans are stuck with an 18th-century system for their 21st-century elections.

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