With the US Senate based on the same flawed principles, reform of the electoral college is probably doomedby Tim Hames / December 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
American democracy has often been described as a sham but rarely as shambolic. The US political system stands accused (at home and abroad) of producing an ossified two-party structure and election campaigns which are too long, vacuous and expensive to offer a meaningful choice to citizens. Further proof, at least to reformers, of the profoundly unsatisfactory character of US politics, is the pitiful levels of turnout recorded even for presidential contests. This year an estimated 51 per cent of Americans headed towards the polls, a slight improvement on 1996 but miserable by international standards.
Most of these complaints are not, however, constitutional in nature. They are charges levelled against specific features of current politics which are not necessarily permanent fixtures. The constitution did not create the Republican and Democratic parties-and besides, two-party systems are hardly unique to North America. The constitution did not mandate lengthy campaigns, nor did it raise Jay Leno, David Letterman, or any other television talk-show host to their present exalted status. The constitution does not oblige presidential elections to cost billions of dollars, nor does it actively discourage adults from exercising their franchise. The constitution does, though, make the electoral college the critical device for determining presidential elections. It is for this reason that the great debacle of 2000 is so important. The recounts and court challenges in Florida only matter because they may ensure that a presidential candidate secures the White House with fewer votes than his main rival. That outcome confronts the US with a crisis of political legitimacy unknown for more than a century.
It cannot be said that we have not been warned. The electoral college came within a whisker of producing a deviant result in 1916 (had it done so, the US might not have entered the first world war), 1960, 1968 and 1976. After every near miss, part of the political class called for change. The same will happen when the new Congress assembles in January. But if history and politics are any guide the prospects for reform will be disturbingly modest. The US will remain burdened by an electoral system that is patently antiquated and contains the innate possibility of producing results which strain legitimacy-a model only for the Mugabe school of democracy.
The process of amending the US constitution is institutional torture. Any proposal must first be introduced into the House of Representatives and obtain the support…