There's something else troubling about the way we elect presidents--something beyond the personal attacks, the derelict voters and the influence of big money.
It is the fact that so many of those who do vote don't have their votes counted.
Florida is a good example of what I'm talking about--not because that state turned out to make the decisive difference in this week's election, but because more than 2 million voters--nearly as many as will go to the winning candidate--had no say in the outcome. All of Florida's 25 electoral votes will go to the other guy.
That's the unavoidable consequence of the winner-take-all system that prevails in all the states save Maine and Nebraska.
At the end, of course, any contest for a single office is a winner-take-all affair. But why should it be that way in the states? Why should more than a million-and-a-half California supporters of George W. Bush see all 54 of the state's electoral votes go to Al Gore?
In short, what is wrong with apportioning each state's electoral votes in accordance with the way the state's electorate voted? (A better question, no doubt, is why not ditch the electoral college system altogether and go to direct elections?) Politicians as different as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon backed a constitutional amendment to have all the states go to a proportional system. Obviously, nothing came of the proposals.
Why? Robert Richie, who heads the Center for Voting and Democracy, says it's probably because the political party that would be favored in a winner-take-all state is usually the party that runs the state. The party with the power to change the system has no incentive for doing so.
By the way, it isn't just the "wasted" votes that bother me. Bush hardly campaigned at all in New York--and for the same reason that Gore neglected Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska: His opponent had the states locked up, along with 100 percent of their electoral votes. Indeed, Bush was criticized by some GOP strategists for wasting time and resources campaigning in California. A proportional system would have changed all that. If Bush had thought he had a realistic shot at, say, 20 of California's 54 electoral votes, you couldn't have kept him out. Similarly with Texas, long ago conceded to Bush, but where Gore supporters managed to produce some 40 percent of the vote--enough to be worth about a dozen of Texas's 32 electoral votes. In fact, those votes were worth nothing.
The problem goes beyond tactics. The winner will become president of all the people, including those who never had the chance to see, hear or question him, tell him about their particular situations, or otherwise impress themselves on his consciousness. Nor is it just in presidential elections that the winner-take-all system effectively disenfranchises minority voting blocs. A significant number of states have black populations of sufficient size to elect a member of congress. But because of population distribution and the way congressional districts are drawn (by state legislatures) they aren't able to translate their numbers into political results. North Carolina, for instance, went from 1901 to 1992 without having a single African American member of its congressional delegation--and then only after a painstaking redrawing of the districts that later was overturned by the Supreme Court. It wasn't that blacks didn't vote during all those decades; it was that the winner-take-all districts rendered their vote impotent.
Proportional voting (perhaps a "super-district" scheme like the one advocated by Richie's Center for Voting and Democracy) would give effect to minority votes while also making it overwhelmingly likely that white and black politicians would actively solicit those votes.
This week's presidential election was so close--both in the electoral and the popular vote--that it's likely a proportional voting arrangement would not have changed the outcome. But that's hardly an argument against considering such an arrangement.
Neither "wasting" votes nor the calculated neglect of minority voting blocs can be good for our democracy. Winner-take-all is, well, a loser.