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Saturday, 16 December, 2000, 13:28 GMT
Pressure mounts for electoral reform
Ballot box
Legislators do not want another election hanging by a chad
By BBC News Online's Kevin Anderson in Washington

Washington is filled with talk about the deep divisions brought about by the election, but if there is an issue that Republicans, Democrats, and most Americans for that matter agree upon, it is that something must be done to improve the electoral system.

The closest presidential election in history has highlighted glaring inadequacies in voting methods and raised new questions about the Electoral College.

Electoral experts believe that outright abolition of the Electoral College is unlikely, but they also believe that the punch card ballot might be seeing its last election.


The Electoral College has long been a source of debate.

The National Archives says that in the 200 years that the system has been in place more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or abolish the Electoral College.
Green Party candidate Ralph Nader
Electoral College opponents says it blocks third party candidates like Ralph Nader

This year before the election, Illinois Senator Dick Durban, a Democrat, and Representative Ray LaHood, a Republican introduced legislation that would amend the Constitution and end the Electoral College.

The Electoral College has some vocal critics. The League of Women Voters and the American Bar Association call the system archaic and unnecessary.

David Enrich heads a group called Citizens for True Democracy that advocates a constitutional amendment to replace the Electoral College with a system of direct presidential elections and instant run-off elections.

He calls the Electoral College "grossly unfair and anti-democratic".

"In this election, the Electoral College is poised to overturn the popular vote," he says, adding: "It will have harmful effects on the legitimacy of American government and the legitimacy of the presidency as an institution."

He says the Electoral College caused the candidates to focus on 10 to 15 swing states to the exclusion of the remaining 75%.

The unfair nature of the Electoral College is depressing voter turnout. "There is a problem when half of the people don't feel they have a stake in voting."

'Every vote does count'

But Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, says the election and the Electoral College had the effect of reminding Americans that every vote does count.
A George W Bush rally
Electoral College supporters say it encourages candidates to campaign in smaller states

If a mere 269 people in Florida had voted differently, it would have changed the outcome of the election.

The Electoral College also forces candidates to speak to regional and local interests, he says.

Without the system, "it would be one great big national media campaign. Candidates would go from tarmac to tarmac in the most populous places with no interest in local regional activities."

Walter Berns testified in front of a House of Representatives committee in 1997 in support of the Electoral College. He says the system provides clear and immediate winners - usually.

This year, however, it produced "this interminable recount."

But both he and Mr Gans say that with a direct national election, there would have been recounts in every state of the union, causing the process to go on much longer.

Mr Berns, a constitutional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that the Electoral College helps preserve the two-party system.

Without it, "there would be a proliferation of presidential candidates".

In a run-off, he fears that there would be very public "wheeling and dealing" as the two candidates in the run-off bargained with the losing candidates for their support.

Mr Berns adds that the Electoral College pushes parties to be moderate.

"One complaint of the two-party system is that the two parties are tweedle dee and tweedle dum, and there is some truth to that," he said.

But he adds: "That means that parties tend to move to the centre, and the radical extremes have no chance. There is something to be said for that."

Chance of passage?

While Mr Enrich agrees the Electoral College makes it more difficult for third-party candidates, he does not agree that this is positive.

"It absolutely locks out any independent candidate."

Although passing a constitutional amendment is very difficult, Mr Enrich believes that "the 2000 election provides a golden opportunity for the Electoral College to receive scrutiny it almost never receives."

Ballot recounts in Florida
Federal standards for ballots are likely

Mr Gans believes that abolition of the Electoral College has little chance of passage, but he said it would be possible to improve the system.

Nebraska and Maine do not use the same winner-take-all system employed by other states. He believes that this might address the problems of candidates only focusing on swing states.

No more chad

More likely, however, are changes to the methods of voting.

"There will obviously be some attempt to find a better system of voting," says Mr Berns.

And Mr Gans says: "I think it is very likely that we will get standards for a federal ballot."

The ballot guidelines would standardise such things as:

  • size and type
  • printing the candidate's face on the ballot as well as his or her name
  • the order or selection
  • the size of where you put your mark

He also believes that legislation might define the type of equipment and provide money to modernise voting systems.

"We will find something to prevent hanging chad," Mr Berns said.

Arkansas Republican Asa Hutchinson has already introduced legislation that would provide millions of dollars to improve election equipment and methods.

But apart from what is politically likely, Mr Gans says his fondest hope would be legislation to stop television networks from declaring winners based on exit polls and sampling.

"They should just report results," he says.


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14 Dec 00 | Americas
Recount anger set to continue
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