Whether you like the Electoral College and its record of choosing a president, well, that depends on whose Al is Gore-d.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave us all a wake-up call. It ruled that it was perfectly legal to compel a state’s electors to vote in favor of whichever candidate they pledged to vote for when they agreed to become an elector.
But the necessity to pass such a law points out the flaw in the process. Although this is a democracy – or at least a democratic republic – the public does not directly elect its president and vice president. The public chooses electors and the real choice is left up to the Electoral College, whose members are apportioned to the states based on their population, plus their two senators.
At first glance it gives a huge weight to states with big populations, like California, Texas and New York. But under careful study, it can also do the same in reverse. Small states – because the process adds in the universally awarded senate slots – have disportionate weight in the final march to 270 electoral votes which are necessary to make it the White House.
In four elections – 1876, 1884, 2000 and 2016 – the winner of the popular vote was not sent to 1600 Pennsylvania. The mere face that this un-democratic outcome has happened twice in the last five elections should be enough to convince us that a system designed over 200 years ago has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped.
The question then becomes, what do we replace it with? The most common answer is to simply declare the candidate with most votes the winner, but that’s not the right way, either.
Imagine a three-cornered race, as we had in 1968, 1992 and 1996. Imagine that the two reasonable honorable candidates of the Democratic and Republic parties each polled 32 percent, but the third candidate – a total honyocker of historic goofiness– got 34 percent. That person, who has been rejected by 66 percent of the sane voters in the nation, then becomes the Chief Executive.
So a horse race among more than two viable candidates is full of danger. In the 1970 election in Chile, a three-cornered race put Marxist Salvador Allende in the presidency because he had narrowly finished first.
A big backlash grew against Allende, perhaps aided a bit by our CIA. He was killed in what was archly described as a “self-inflicted air strike.”
That led to the rise of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In 1973, he led the armed forces to a coup d’etat that overthrew Allende and introduced a vicious dictatorship that lasted until 1989. Chile went from being one of the most free and open societies in Latin America to one of the darkest and most repressed.
What, then, is the solution? Simple. Make it a two-step process. Move Election Day back a month to the first Tuesday in October. The campaign is too long, anyway. If a candidate wins a simple majority, or gets a plurality with at least 40 or 45 percent of the vote, that candidate is the winner.
But if no one reaches that threshold, the two vote-getting candidates face off in the “final” election.
Now, this idea is not perfect. It does not eliminate the possibility of the election of a bad president. It may require that voters go to the polls twice, or cast ballots by mail or electronically on a short turn-around.
To make it all work, a national election system would need to be created to replace – or at least augment – the current 51 diverse systems.
Choosing a president and vice president is the single biggest decision citizens can make. That decision can echo for decades or even centuries. It’s past time to come up with a process that’s as fair and democratic – small “d” – as possible.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts is posted each Wednesday. He does not ever plan to run for the presidency.