Larger Lessons from the 2000 Election Fiasco

Douglas J. Amy
Mount Holyoke College

Unfortunately, with all the media attention on the problems with counting ballots in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, the main political lesson that is coming out of that fiasco is that we need better ballots and more reliable counting techniques. While this is certainly true, this focus on ballots only serves to obscure the larger and more important political lessons that must be learned from that election.

 The most important of those lessons is that we must finally get rid of that arcane and outmoded system, the Electoral College. Right up until election day, the defenders of the Electoral College, such as George Will, assured us that the possibility of electing the person who lost the popular vote was too remote to ever worry about. But the result of that election clearly showed that this kind of democratic disaster is all too possible. And not too surprisingly, observers from around the world were scratching their heads, wondering how the leading democracy in the world could elect a leader who came in second in the polls.

 Defenders of the Electoral College were quick to pull out the same tired arguments about how it preserves federalism, or ensures some power for small states. But none of these supposed advantages, even if true, could possibly justify the election of the losing candidate -- a violation of basic democratic principles. It is time that we joined all the other major democracies of the world and elected our president by popular vote. It's really just a matter of political common sense.

 There is another, less obvious, but equally important lesson that we must learn from this election fiasco: we can no longer put up with a voting system that creates the possibility for spoilers. These are third party candidates who take enough votes away from one major party candidate to ensure the election of the other major party candidate who wouldn't have won otherwise. Spoilers are a frequent problem in the Electoral College because most states use plurality voting systems, where the candidate with the most votes wins all the electoral votes.

In this case of the 2000 presidential election, the spoiler was Ralph Nader. It is now clear that if Nader had not run in Florida, Al Gore would have easily won that state and thus the presidency. As it is, Bush took Florida and the presidency, even though the majority of people in Florida (50.4%) actually voted against him -- either for Gore or Nader. As this case illustrates, spoilers allow the minority to rule, which goes against most people’s notions of how democracy should work.

The spoiler problem actually goes far beyond presidential elections and can affect any legislative or executive election that uses plurality voting. In fact, as interest grows in third parties in the United States, the incidence of spoilers has grown as well. For example, in New Mexico the Green party has experienced increasing support. This has had the effect of weakening the election chances of some Democratic candidates and thus working to the advantage of Republicans. A typical example of this occurred in a special election held in 1997 to fill a U.S. House seat. A popular Green candidate, Carol Miller, won 17 percent of the vote and thus threw the election to the Republican candidate, who won with only 42 percent of the vote. In the absence of the Green candidate, the Democrats would have won what had been traditionally their seat. Sometimes it is Republican candidates that are hurt by third party candidates. In the 2000 elections for the U.S. House of Representatives, it appears that at least two Republican candidates owed their defeat to the presence of Libertarian candidates on the ballot. But while the potential for spoilers has clearly grown in the United States, what has not grown is public awareness that there are other voting systems that easily eliminate this problem.

Ireland and Australia both use a system called "instant runoff voting," that allows people to vote for third party candidates, prevents the spoiler problem, and ensures that the winning candidate has the support of the majority of the voters. Here's how it works: Voters indicate not only their top choice of candidate on the ballot, but also rank their second, third, and fourth choices. If no candidate gets a majority of the first place votes, then the candidates with the least votes are eliminated one by one, and their supporters' votes are redistributed to their next choices, until one candidate wins with a majority of the vote. This system allows supporters of third party candidates to vote their conscience without having to worry that they vote will actually help to elect the candidate they like the least. And it ensures that the winner is supported by the majority of voters – which is not the case now.

And that is not the only alternative voting system worth our consideration. Most other Western democracies use another type of system, proportional representation (PR) voting, that also prevents spoilers in elections. In fact, proportional representation is even a better voting system than instant runoff voting because it actually allows third party candidates to get elected. Under PR rules, if a small party receives 10 or 15% of the vote, they receive 10 or 15% of the legislative seats. This voting system is thus much fairer to third parties and their supporters.

America needn't have to tolerate the political injustices and chaos that characterized the 2000 presidential election. It is unnecessary to put up with elections where the winner is determined not by the actual vote, but by the malfunctions of the voting system itself. We simply need to acknowledge that there are serious deficiencies with our voting systems and force our political leaders take a serious look at alternative systems that are not prone to these problems. Americans deserve to use the fairest, most reliable, and most democratic voting system; but we must demand it.