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US voting system under attack

By Cao Chang-ching 曹長青

The Taipei Times
Tuesday, November 28th, 2000

The dispute over the US presidential election has been the focus of world attention for the past three weeks. The media in countries such as China, Cuba and Malaysia hurried to seize this opportunity to ridicule the American style of democracy, disparaging the Electoral College system. Many Americans have also begun to question whether or not the Electoral College system is indeed reflecting the democratic principle that one man one vote and the victory of majority votes win the election.

According to a poll of November 20th's Time magazine, 63 percent of Americans support the abolishment of the Electoral College system. The newly elected New York senator, First Lady Hillary Clinton, went so far as to say that she would put the abolishment of the Electoral College system her first agenda as senator. Should or should not the US eliminate the system, or at least make a constitutional amendment making the result of popular vote the decision of the presidency? According to Robert M. Hardaway, law professor of Denver University and the author of The Electoral College and Constitution, there were more than 700 motions made over the past 200 years demanding a reform of the Electoral College system; all failed. For the system designed by the founding fathers has been considered befit the nature of the US. It abides by the majorities and also respects the minorities.

Different from countries whose government power is centralized, the US is a federation of 50 individual states. Each has its own local government and laws. For example, patrol police of one state cannot cross the boundaries of another state on official business without an advance notification. Therefore, each state's rights and interest should be respected, and this Electoral vote system protects this nature.

The concern of American founding fathers' design of this system was not to emphasize the power of the central government, but rather to decentralize power, giving all states, big or small, equal capacity on the federal level. For example, California and Rhode Island each gets two seats in the Senate despite the fact that the population in California is about 60 times that of Rhode Island. As a matter of fact, equal rights and the Electoral College system was one of the conditions for many small states to join the Union.

The Electoral College system is indeed in conformity with the principle of one man one vote and the winner of majority votes wins the election, only the unit of measurement is not individual voter but state. This majority may not be a national popular vote majority, but the majority of each individual state. This requires candidates to pay attention not only to big states, but every state in order to gain majority vote from each one of them. Therefore, this Electoral College system not only suit the federalism nature of the US, but even more boldly embodies the democracy principle: complying with the majorities and respecting the minorities.

This Electoral College system is also like the basketball game, which winners are determined by number of games they win (electoral votes), not total scores they get (national popular votes). America's Electoral College system is indeed a good example for the future design of China's constitution, for many China scholars have suggested, based on its huge size and enormous population, a federation system for a future democratic China. For instance, if future China adopts the system of national popular vote, all candidates would focus on winning several big provinces, such as Sichuan (四川) and Shandong(山東), each has a population of more than 100 million, and never cares for the interests of small provinces like Ningxia(寧夏) or small districts like Hong Kong. This kind of system is not only unfair to small and rural places, but the stability of the federation may also be in jeopardy, for the rights and interests of small members of the federation will surely be neglected.

Another advantage of the Electoral College system is its swiftness of getting election result. The "winner-take-all electoral vote" practice can avoid prolonged county by county vote count, which will inevitably protract the delivery of a new president.

The recounting of several counties in Florida may take several weeks to finish, then it must take months to recount votes in 50 states in a close national popular vote contest. Obviously, the longer the procedure, the more potential political pests. According to the studies of Professor Hardaway, that almost every election has produced a president immediately after the Election Day in the past 200 years, and this year's is among the few exceptions.

The Electoral College system also can prevent the sprouting of splinter parties, hence guaranteeing the stability of federal system. Since "state" is the unit for calculation and the winner will take all electoral votes, there is only one winner in each state, no number two or number three, thus making small parties' effort fruitless.

Government in countries like Germany, Italy or Japan, whose cabinet was formed by many parties, all face the crisis of being toppled in the wake of "no-confidence vote." The government of the largest democratic country India also collapsed last year due to the frivolousness of many small parties. So, they had to hold a national election ahead of schedule, and the Bharatiya Janata Party had to form an alliance of 24 small parties in order to form a new cabinet.

Differently, there has always been the two big parties taking power in turns in the US, and never had small parties form an alliance to dissolve a cabinet. If a president was impeached or resigned or died, the vice president would succeed immediately, and there would be no need to hold a national election ahead of schedule, thus, guarantee the stability of the government.

Despite the polls that show majority of Americans wanting a reform or removal of the Electoral College system, it will be very difficult for the constitution to be actually amended. Contrary to the practice of Communist China who has released four constitutions, and further changed them seven times over the past 50 years, the Americans read their constitutions with reverence. In spite of several amendments, the Constitution has never been changed over the past 200 plus years.

Hearing the raising request to abandon the Electoral College system, Professor Hardaway said in an interview with Voice of America, this system has worked so effectively over the past 200 years, the Americans are really spoiled.

Cao Chang-ching is a writer and journalist based in New York.

2000-11-28

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