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Reform America, Inc.

Reform America In The News

Electing Change

Professors and everyday citizens recommend changes to keep the Florida fiasco from happening again.

By , Savannah Morning News
November 11, 2000

Alexander Hamilton once wrote that our method of choosing a president was "peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder."

Sorry, Mr. Hamilton, but the two words that seem to characterize the 2000 presidential race best are "tumult" and "disorder."

"In the past, you go to sleep, you wake up, and you have a president," said Pronolia Chavis of Savannah. But with all the lost or miscounted ballots in this race, "it makes me wonder, why vote?"

"I think all of the complications are kind of ridiculous," said 15-year-old Whitney Hattaway, a sophomore at Savannah Arts Academy.

Ridiculousness aside, this is the kind of stuff political scientists live for.

"It makes for great classroom discussion," said Dwight Tays, chair of the Department of History, Politics and Philosophy at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn.


But it's also frustrating. Professors and students were milling around the halls of the University of Georgia's political science department Thursday. It was drizzly and miserable outside, and tensions inside were high, said political science professor Loch Johnson.

Supporters of Bush, supporters of Gore and supporters of neither were angry about the slow pace of the Florida recount, the missing ballots, the skewed ballots, all the little things that usually don't matter in an election, but now could turn the very tide of the country's future.

Discussion in political science classes, in coffeehouses and at kitchen tables have centered on the apparent ┬│cracks in the system┬▓ brought to light by this too-close-to-call election. Here's a sampling of what people are asking:

Q. What's up with the Electoral College? Do we need this thing anymore? Did we ever need it?

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

"The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications," Hamilton wrote in the "Federalist Papers" in 1788.

The "Federalist Papers" were written and published to urge New Yorkers to ratify the proposed United States Constitution, which was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

"Remember, the Republic was just a fledgling democracy," Tays said. "The colonies had just won their freedom. States were very jealous of their independence."

The system was always based on an elitist notion that a lot of people wouldn't make wise choices for the presidency, Johnson said.

This passage from the "Federalist Papers" seems to fit that notion:

"A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations," Hamilton wrote.

"Hamilton basically makes the argument that you can't trust the people," said Daniel Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

As the ballots in Florida were being recounted Thursday, more and more people were adopting the opinion that the Electoral College today is "a useless appendage on the body politic," Johnson said.

Q. If we decide the Electoral College needs to go, what should we use instead?

The popular vote determines every other elected office, said Tays, so why not just use that?

Some have argued that changing to a popular vote system would turn the presidency in to a "popularity" contest. Candidates would focus campaigning on large cities and ignore America's rural areas.

But they do that now anyway, Johnson argued. Most of the time and money in presidential elections is spent in states with big populations and, therefore, a large number of electors.

Instead of just abolishing the Electoral College, Franklin suggested modifying it to a system already in use in Maine. Candidates would win individual congressional districts, and each elector would vote for the candidate who won each district. Each state gets a number of electors equal to its representatives plus its senators, so the candidate who captures the most districts in a state would get the "bonus prize" of the two electors representing the senators.

"This would keep a bit of that 'regionality,' " Franklin said.

But it wouldn't solve the problem of the missing or skewed ballots in Florida.

Q. What went wrong in Florida? If the ballots were misleading in some counties, why can't we make one standardized, easy-to-follow ballot for the whole country?

"They've gone through two counts now," said Jim Brown of Americus, who was playing with his daughter, Madison, in Forsyth Park Friday.

"Florida's just messed up," added 14-year-old Terrell Gibbs.

A national movement to standardize balloting is likely to result from the events in the Sunshine State, Johnson said. There is no current federal regulation of voting. Each state does it differently.

"What we had Tuesday was really 51 simultaneous elections," Tays said. That number includes the District of Columbia, which ran its own election. "That is a state responsibility, a state power, granted by the Constitution."

But states and the two main political parties could agree to standardize the visual presentation of ballots in the future, Johnson said. That would be easier than making it a federal mandate by changing the Constitution.

Howard Fienberg is a research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service in Washington, D.C.

"I think that we do as much to make ballots as idiot proof as possible," Fienberg said. "Obviously, we need to do a better job."

Q. Are there usually so many irregularities in an election, or was what happened in Florida an oddity?

The Internet has been abuzz with theories about what happened to certain ballots in Florida that weren't counted. One e-mail to The Savannah Morning News even claims it's a plot devised by Russia's KGB and the Democratic leadership. That's not too likely, said Franklin, who attributed the problems to good, old-fashioned human error.

"You start to see how messy this election process is," he said.

And these sorts of problems aren't uncommon in elections, experts say.

"In every election, in every precinct, if you use paper ballots, some are thrown out," Tays said. "As long as you have human beings conducting elections, errors are going to occur."

Fienberg agrees.

"Elections usually are a logistical nightmare anyway, but it most cases (irregularities) would slip by and candidates have decided it's not worth it to challenge," he said.

Q. What about absentee ballots? Isn't it easier for people to abuse the system using them?

Maybe, said Thomas Bryer, the director of a Washington, D.C.-based group called Reform America.

"Just by the nature of it being removed from the polling station, there's more chance that there's fraud being committed. But overall, I don't think that's happening."

Bryer said it's important to have a system for absentee balloting, but there are probably ways the process could be improved. One suggestion: letting people vote on a machine for a limited period before the election, so senior citizens aren't rushed and people traveling don't have to bother with a mail-in ballot.

Q. Is it time to standardize the voting method, so that everyone follows the same procedure and doesn't get confused by ballots or machines or punch cards?

In theory, it makes sense. But practical concerns can't be ignored.

"(This election) is sort of a damnation of the way that we're voting overall," Fienberg said. "I think it's going to require people to go back and rethink how we're having people voting on the day of the election, what they actually do when they get in there. Are they pulling levers, filling in blanks, punching holes? Centralization certainly isn't a bad idea. I don't know if it's feasible."

Fienberg believes standardizing voting and counting procedures is more important than standardizing the ballot itself.

"It's possible that differences (in voting procedures) create some irregularities across the board," he said. "Certainly I'm in favor and have become more in favor of at least standardizing the way we vote across the country, whether it means making everything more archaic, or we go to something slightly higher tech."

Q. What about centralizing the system so that one government body oversees all voting?

A. Even if that could be done, analysts aren't sure Americans would want it.

"I don't know if there is necessarily a better way," Fienberg said. "You start to raise the hair on the back of peoples' necks when you start talking about taking away local control of the vote, even in cases where it seems logical to do that because of local corruption issues."

Q. Suppose we wanted to change the Constitution, to abolish the Electoral College or mandate federal regulation of the ballots. How do we do it?

The provisions for electors are set out in Article II of the Constitution, so doing away with it would take ... well, an act of Congress. Actually, the Constitution would have to be amended, and that requires a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate, PLUS the amendment has to be ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states within seven years.

That could be exceedingly difficult, especially with the U.S. House and Senate narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Q. Since the House and Senate are so narrowly divided between the two parties, does it really matter if a Democrat or Republican is in control of the White House?

Better believe it, Johnson said. The next president will probably get to appoint three or four Supreme Court justices, who shape the interpretation of laws in America. The president can also appoint federal judges.

The president doesn't always have to approve everything he does with Congress, either. There are all sorts of executive orders and executive agreements that can be done without Congress. The president can order air strikes without congressional approval. Plus, the president can veto bills passed by Congress.

Whether or not a president has a "mandate" to govern, presidential authority can't be denied, Tays said. The president always has national media's ear and the country's attention.

"Whoever occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has a huge bully pulpit," Tays said. "His voice will be heard."

Features writer Erik Tryggestad can be reached at .
Reporter Kate Wiltrout contributed to this story.

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