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What Can We Do To Fix This -- and Should We?

by Susan Reefer, Dec 01, 2000
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During the past two weeks, our nation has been held in the grip of steely uncertainty, watching the developments in the contested Presidential election. The fact that two weeks after the polls closed we have yet to determine our next President has caught us off our collective guard. There has been a steadily mounting concern on the part of many Americans, confirmed by a constant stream of commentary, accompanied by a litany of legal opinions, encouraged by dozens of marches and protests.

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These concerns may or may not be assuaged once Florida's twenty-five electoral votes are ultimately awarded to one of the two candidates, thus determining the winner of the Presidential election.

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But in the meantime, while the recounts and the hearings and the maneuverings go on unabated, the questions have been posed: How could this have happened? What can we do to fix it? How can we make sure this never happens again?

Two New York lawmakers, or more specifically, one lawmaker and one lawmaker to be, think they have an answer. Senator Chuck Schumer and Senator-elect Hillary Clinton have two very different ideas about how to reform our current system.

Senator Schumer wants the Federal Election Commission to come up with a standardized ballot format. This proposal is in response to the controversial "butterfly" ballot that may have been confusing to some voters in West Palm Beach. Presumably, designing and printing and distributing ballots at the national level would avoid the confusion that may have occurred when designing and printing and distributing ballots at the local level.

Senator Schumer has a noble objective, to make our elections fairer, more accurate, more reflective of the national will. But I'm not sure that a national standard for a ballot design would be less confusing, just more consistent. And there are problems with this idea. Current state laws have differing standards for ballot access: some third-party candidates would qualify for the ballot in one state, but not in another. Providing for these differences in ballot access at the national level is inconsistent with the states' rights to decide how to conduct their own elections.

But Schumer's suggestion pales in comparison to that of Senator-elect Hillary Clinton. In a baby-with-bathwater flourish, which may or may not be a sign of things to come during her term in office, she suggested, quite simply, that we get rid of the Electoral College.

Hillary Clinton is not the first person to suggest this, of course. It has been long debated by many sound thinkers of varied political persuasions. The troubling thing about Hillary Clinton's suggestion is she seems to indicate the Electoral College should be eliminated not due to an argument of due process, or Constitutionality, or fairness, or representation, but simply because it failed to elect her favorite candidate.

That may be unfair. Hillary Clinton may have had it in for the EC all along, and been waiting for the right opportunity to take her stand.

But chances are, if this election hadn't been such a close contest; if the candidate with the most popular votes hadn't failed to win the Electoral College votes outright; if the razor-thin statewide margin of victory had occurred in Delaware (3EVs) instead of Florida (25 EVs); no one would have even paid attention, let alone agreed, with a suggestion to amend the constitution.

The Electoral College has taken a lot of criticism these two weeks. The assertion many people have made, the assertion implicit in Hillary Clinton's criticism, was the Electoral college was a bad system because it couldn't always be counted on to deliver the candidate with the higher popular vote percentage.

But that, in fact, is exactly why it is such a good system. The truth is, we don't have a national election in this country. We do have 50 concurrent statewide elections. The national popular vote total, while an interesting statistic, is an (almost) entirely irrelevant indicator.

It's true, the Electoral College of today is a marked difference from the one outlined in the Constitution. The framers of the Constitution envisioned a system in which independent electors would exercise independent judgement resulting in an independently elected President. Today, electors are party loyalists, who are bound by tradition, and sometimes even law, to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.

But one important factor has remained: votes are cast in blocks, by each state, in a winner-take-all format (the only exceptions being Nebraska and Maine, where votes are allotted by congressional district). The Electoral College, far from being an archaic tradition, forces candidates to campaign not for just for votes, but for votes in enough places to result in majorities in enough states to add up to the magic number of 270.

But these are just a couple of many suggestions that we've heard. And not all of the commentary takes place on the federal or Constitutional level. The close election in Florida has also resulted in a number of accusations by both Presidential campaigns: accusations ranging from simple arithmetic errors, to outright voter fraud. These accusations, directed for the most part at the local voter canvassing boards in several Florida counties, are probably unfair, and largely unhelpful.

All of this is illustrative of a larger issue, the issue of how we should be responding, collectively, in a reasonable manner, to the closest Presidential election in our nation's history.

My advice is this: relax. Sometimes elections are close. Sometimes they are so close that a winner is not immediately apparent. It is not a disaster; it isn't even a bad thing. When was the last time the nation was riveted by the details of self-governance? I have often been horrified by the indifference many Americans feel for our own electoral process. If nothing else, the past couple weeks have gone at least some way toward improving that situation.

That doesn't mean that we can ignore the very real issues of voter disenfranchisement, or the very real problems of inaccurate vote counting methods. We should take seriously the possibility that we need to improve and upgrade our voting methods.

Here in New York, although the Presidential contest was never in doubt, there were very close contests: on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the state senate race between incumbent Roy Goodman and challenger Liz Krueger has not yet been called. And there were some irregularities: reports of long-time voters not allowed to vote, broken machines, long lines, and shortages of supplies.

Next year, New York City is facing what will likely be some of the most competitive city elections in our history. We need to take steps now to ensure that in less than a year, the elections are held in a way that will ensure an accurate and legitimate outcome.

After all, having a close election in which every vote counts is not a bad thing, as long as every vote is, in fact, counted.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.


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