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Archive for Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Election illustrates need for reform

November 15, 2000

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— Clearly, America needs a modified national electoral system, and we recently proposed such a modification. First, what is the problem? Is it the Electoral College? Is it the absence of a standard national ballot and a standard national voting machine? Is it the absence of federal scrutiny at the polling places? Is it the absence of sufficient security for the ballot boxes? Or is it the election process itself?

The answer is: all of the above. But most of all, it is the last item, the election process.

The election that continues to fall below the radar screen is the election of 1860. In that election the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, ran against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, National Democrat John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky (the sitting vice president), and Constitutional Union candidate John Bell of Tennessee.

In the final tally, Northern Democrat Douglas received 29 percent of the popular vote and 12 electoral votes. Southern Democrat Breckinridge received 18 percent of the popular vote and 72 electoral votes. Bell received 14 percent of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes. However, Lincoln won it with 180 electoral votes, but only 39 percent of the popular vote. He was not even on the ballot in the South.

The result was civil war.

We should digress here for a moment. The arguments about causes of the war being slavery, states rights, high tariffs or all of these would not have been relevant if a nationally accepted candidate had won the presidency. True, slavery would have been prolonged, but 623,000 young American soldiers and uncounted civilians would have remained alive. And we should note how easily subsequent generations blithely discount the importance of lives in past generations.

So we must ask what issue would be worth a civil war in our generation. The answer is that no issue needs to rise to that level if the election process is designed to unify rather than divide. Certainly, the current election is not about to provoke such a conflict, but the system's flaws reveal the latent potential for future disunity.

And this brings us back to 1860. If the two candidates receiving the largest number of popular votes had been allowed to take part in a runoff election, who would have won? Almost certainly the winner would have been Douglas. And his running mate was Herschel V. Johnson of Georgia, which was in line with the geographical balance of tickets and/or cabinets that had been the practice of all preceding administrations. But Douglas was no proponent of slavery and his election would have hastened that institution's demise, almost certainly without resorting to war.

But what of the Electoral College? The answer is apportionment.

Electors should be apportioned by the percent of the popular vote, as, in fact, they are in several states today. A candidate receiving 25 percent of New York's popular vote would receive 25 percent of that state's electoral vote using a rounding-off method. In other words, a candidate entitled to 14.4 electoral votes would receive 14 electoral votes. In this manner the best of the electoral vote system and the best of the popular vote system would be in play.

Spoiler candidates such as Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader could have their day and test their strength without affecting the final outcome anymore than Breckinridge or Bell would have under a run-off system in 1860. So, if such a system were in place today, would America be worrying about one candidate or the other taking office against the will of the majority? We think not.

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