WASHINGTON — Four years after a dead-heat presidential election came near to producing a constitutional crisis, it's odd what stands out in my memory. Not the butterfly ballots and the hanging chads; those were mechanical failures, and quite fixable. Not Florida's partisan secretary of state, its on-again off-again recount efforts, nor even the U.S. Supreme Court's delivery of the state — and the election — to George W. Bush. Those were human failings of the sort that matter only in very close elections.
What I remember most starkly is the fact that very nearly half of the Floridians who bothered to register and go to the polls (and who managed to survive the challenges of confusing ballots and human roadblocks) might as well have stayed at home. Approximately 3 million Floridians delivered all of their state's 25 electoral votes to Bush. The same number of voters less 537 — the size of the official margin — delivered nothing.
How could anyone imagine that to be fair?
Florida sticks in my mind, of course, because by the time it came to Florida, it was known that that state held the election in the balance. The flaw, however, was not Florida's but the winner-take-all electoral system used by 48 of the 50 states in presidential elections. Millions of Texas Democrats and New York Republicans had their votes similarly disregarded. If you didn't vote for the winner, your vote didn't count.
And here we are headed toward what may be another close election. Isn't it time to fix the system?
As a matter of fact, several repair efforts are under way. Maine and Nebraska do not follow the winner-take-all rule. (If their system had been in place in Florida, supporters of George Bush and Al Gore would have been arguing over which candidate should get 13 electoral votes and which one only 12.) Enacting some form of proportionate allocation of electoral votes makes sense to me. Interestingly, it's up to the individual states to do it, though at the moment, only Colorado is considering the change.
One of the more interesting electoral reforms is taking place in San Francisco, where voters next month will select their top choice for a seat on the city's Board of Supervisors — but will also have a chance to mark their second and third choices.
If you think this doesn't sound like much, you ought to talk to Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy and my frequent guide on voting systems. Three things about the rank-voting system appeal to Richie. First, it increases the likelihood that any particular voter will have helped to elect a candidate to office, a fact Richie believes may help to reduce voter apathy.
Second, it makes it possible for a voter to support a dark-horse candidate — say a third party hopeful — without helping his least favorite candidate in the process. Say John McCain is on the ballot, and he is your first choice. Under the present system, a vote for McCain would be a vote taken away from your second favorite, Bush, and in effect a vote for John Kerry. Under a rank-order system, either your first choice wins or your vote goes to your second choice.
But what really excites Richie about the system is that it tends to drive candidates and campaigns toward coalition-building and civility. "The present system leads candidates to sharpen, even exaggerate, their differences with their challengers," he says. "The result is a sort of polarization that marginalizes moderates of both parties. But the candidate who thinks he may need your second-choice vote to win will tend to reach out to — or at least not antagonize — voters whose first choice is someone else."
The people simply aren't as polarized as the system paints them. Florida wound up being a red state, though virtually half of its voters were blue. The truth is, with a small handful of exceptions, the states are various shades of purple.
Wouldn't it be a good thing for our politics to acknowledge that fact?
William Raspberry's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.