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Popular vote? Better not count on it

President George W. Bush raced the insurance adjusters to the scenes of the three hurricanes that have struck Florida this season. The people of western North Carolina are still waiting for him, even though they were hit nearly as hard by Frances and Ivan.

Is that because North Carolina's electoral votes are in the bag for him while Florida's are not?

The nation that brags the loudest about democracy has become one of its worst examples. No emerging democracy wants to do as we do.

When black South Africans finally won the right to vote, they waited happily in lines that seemed to stretch for miles. It is impossible to imagine Americans doing that. What would be the point?

The winner-take-all evil of the Electoral College makes it as useless for Republicans to vote for president in California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island or New York as for Democrats to do so in Texas, Kansas, Wyoming or Utah.

At day's end Nov. 2, their votes may have been counted, but they won't count where it matters: in the electoral vote.

Eighteen times, this archaic system has produced a president with less than a majority of the total popular vote. Four of those times, the candidate with the most votes lost. That chapter of history should have ended when the 19th century did, but it happened again just four years ago.

As for "electing" the U.S. House of Representatives, the Economist _ a British journal, I should point out _ neatly summed it up this week under the headline, "Pyongyang on the Potomac?" All but 29 of the 435 seats were decided when the district maps were drawn.

The most important election this year is about making the right to vote mean something again. It's the referendum on a Colorado initiative, Amendment 36, that would split the state's nine electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote, starting now.

Colorado is considered a safe state for Bush, so the likely result of Amendment 36, if it passes, would be to award five electoral votes to him and four to John Kerry. Had that been in force four years ago, "Re-elect Gore in 2004" would be more than a sardonic complaint.

The race does not look so close this time, so the immediate consequence of Amendment 36 would more likely be to set the most encouraging example since Michigan Democrats installed proportional voting in 1892, only to see the Republicans erase it four years later.

But if the presidency should hang on a split vote in Colorado, the final call would be made once again by an unelected elite for whom the framers never envisioned a role when they provided for indirect election of the president. It would depend as it did four years ago on the doubtful integrity of the Rehnquist majority of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Constitution says that electors will be chosen in whatever manner the state legislatures decide. For a time, as many as nine legislatures chose them directly, not bothering with any popular vote. Colorado's legislature has chosen winner-take-all popular election, the same as all other states but Nebraska and Maine. If Colorado's voters decide otherwise, the question would be whether the U.S. Constitution allows them to.

It happens, however, that Colorado's own Constitution specifically empowers the people to act as their own legislature through the initiative process. It would be enormously arrogant of the Supreme Court to ignore that, though after Bush vs. Gore, anything is possible.

This may be why Colorado was chosen for the test. By all accounts, the people there are not nearly as concerned about what the Supreme Court might do as all of us non-Colorado commentators seem to be.

The main opposition group calls itself Coloradans Against A Really Stupid Idea, which in my book is a stupid name that's based on the stupid argument that Colorado no longer would be worth fighting over if the winner couldn't win it all. The same was said of awarding electoral votes by congressional district, which is why only there are only two small, sensible states that do.

But if you think about it, proportional representation would make every state worth fighting for. Not just every state, but every part of every state. That's because the proportional allocation would be in rounded whole numbers, which could be affected, one elector here and another there, by shifts of only a few hundred popular votes.

What's even more important is that everyone's vote would count.

An obvious risk is that some minor candidate could earn enough electoral votes to put the election into the House of Representatives. That could hardly be worse, however, than to continue casting so many millions of votes that, however accurately they are counted, won't really count at all.