The Electoral College: Consider The Alternatives

It may be imperfect, but it doesn't look so bad--in light of the flaws in other systems

The Electoral College--hardly noticed by most Americans before Nov. 7--now looks to many like an anachronism. A candidate who wins the popular vote--as Vice-President Al Gore did this year--can still end up losing the election because of the state-by-state nature of the Electoral College contest. So let's replace it with a direct popular vote for the President that truly registers the will of the people, right?

Not so fast, say political scientists who have compared dozens of alternative voting systems around the world. They range from runoff elections--used by countries such as Brazil to give voters a clear choice between the two front-runners after an inconclusive first-round vote--to "approval" voting, a system used by 13th century Venetians and now by techies at the U.S.-based Institute of Electrical & Electronic Engineers. Winners in approval elections are those who garner the greatest number of approvals from voters who simply rate all candidates as either acceptable or unacceptable.

No voting system is perfect, though--an observable fact that Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth J. Arrow even demonstrated mathematically nearly 50 years ago. In correcting one injustice, another is created. Picking a voting system thus becomes a matter of figuring out which flaw bothers you least. "It's actually a very deep theorem," says Columbia University political scientist David Epstein.

If the Electoral College were abolished, most people imagine that it would be replaced with a direct vote in which the highest vote-getter becomes president. Such a system is known as "plurality" voting because the winner doesn't need an outright majority--just more votes than anyone else gets. But plurality voting can produce undesirable results when the field is splintered. A candidate who is highly disliked by a majority of voters can win by capturing the support of a small bloc of loyalists. Examples: the combative Pat Buchanan, who won the 1996 Republican primary in New Hampshire; twice-indicted Edwin Edwards, elected governor of Louisiana in 1991; and Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who became governor of Minnesota in 1998.

Runoff elections, one way to deal with the potential unfairness of a plurality-voting system, can backfire, too. There are circumstances in which a reasonably popular candidate could get eliminated on the first ballot, even if he would have beaten the eventual victor in a head-to-head race. What's more, voters can decide to vote strategically, choosing someone who's not their favorite to avoid handing the election to a candidate they don't like.

"INSTANT RUNOFF." Over the centuries, governments have tried to fix those flaws with systems that allow voters to express a fuller set of opinions about all the candidates in the race. Ireland and Malta use something called the "single transferrable vote," invented in the 1850s. The single transferable vote is also used to determine finalists for the Academy Awards, among other purposes. When it's used to pick a single person--as opposed to, say, filling the seats in a legislature--the system is known as "instant runoff voting." This year, it was used for the first time to elect the mayor of London.

Voters rank all the candidates from top to bottom on a single ballot, and a computer conducts several rounds of internal "voting" based on those rankings. Candidates with the fewest first-place picks are cut after the first round and their votes are reassigned to voters' second-place choices, and so on until the computer spits out a winner. Many voting experts favor instant runoff voting. In fact, it's used to pick the president of the American Political Science Assn., according to the Takoma Park (Md.)-based Center for Voting & Democracy, which advocates the method.

ODD RESULTS. Where you stand on instant runoff voting depends on where you sit. The method is often popular with parties that lose votes to "spoiler" candidates, since standard plurality voting tends to hand the election to their more unified opponents. In New Mexico, for example, the Republicans have won several recent elections with less than a majority, including a Congressional seat this year, after a strong local Green Party siphoned off votes from the Democrats. So New Mexico Democrats have been seeking a constitutional amendment to permit instant-runoff voting. In Alaska, where the GOP lost votes to an independent party, the issue of instant-runoff voting is on the ballot for 2002.

But instant-runoff voting can sometimes produce odd results. Under certain circumstances, says Steven Brams, a political scientist at New York University, a small bloc of voters could actually cause someone to lose by making him or her their top choice. How? It's hard to explain without a flow chart (which Brams is happy to provide), but the basic problem is that the system is exquisitely sensitive to the order in which people rank their less-favored candidates. And it's instant-elimination, so if you're last on one ballot, you're out. Asks Brams: "Is the possibility that more first-place votes can hurt rather than help antithetical to the very idea of democracy?"

Brams favors approval voting, in which participants vote for as many or as few candidates as they consider acceptable. "You simply have to decide where you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable," Brams says. The system would force candidates to broaden their appeal so they'd be at least acceptable to a wide range of voters, he says. In the 2000 election, for instance, there probably were many Gore voters who considered Bush acceptable, and vice versa. Under approval voting, the election would have revolved around which of the two was acceptable to the greatest number of voters. Among organizations using this method to elect officers is the Mathematical Association of America.

The trouble with approval voting is that by making mere acceptability the standard for victory, it could cause a candidate to lose even if he or she was capable of beating each other candidate one-on-one. Which is why other researchers, including University of California at Irvine mathematician Donald Saari, favor the so-called Borda Count, the system used for ranking college football and basketball teams. You score all the candidates, assigning the most points to your favorites. The winner is the one who gets the most total points from voters. Yet even Borda counts have their own problems, which people like Brams are happy to detail.

Beyond the mechanisms, there's a critical human element in the decision on which voting system to adopt. Since elections are so crucial to democracy, it's important not to pick a system that works brilliantly on paper but may strike voters as a little too weird. Partly for that reason, Epstein argues that the current system--that antiquated Electoral College--really isn't so bad after all.

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