The 2000 presidential election was a slap in the face for a complacent nation. The utter failure of the fundamentals of our elections should have been a clarion call for change. Yet here we are in 2004, teetering on the precipice of an election that threatens to repeat nearly every flaw of four years ago.
All signs suggest a tightly-fought election. And given our failure to modernize elections, from voting equipment to voting systems, the presidency is far too likely to be decided by a judge than by voters and go to the candidate with fewer popular votes.
Let's review major defects exposed by the 2000 presidential election, how we failed to correct them and what we must do to be as proud of our elections as our military hardware.
The candidate with the most votes didn't win: The Electoral College is an 18th-century anachronism, opposed even at the time by the likes of Madison and Hamilton. It doesn't guarantee even a plurality winner, and this year led to most Americans being completely ignored in the presidential race because they did not live in a battleground state. It also invites electoral fraud; those inclined to steal an election can target their efforts on a few battleground states.
As recently as 1969 the US House overwhelmingly voted for an amendment to abolish the Electoral College, but this term there was not one piece of legislation even mentioning the phrase until a few weeks ago. Whether or not we again get a wrong-way winner, it's time to embrace Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s HJR 109 for direct election of the president by majority vote.
We couldn't count the ballots right: Who can forget the hanging chads, butterfly ballots, long lines and voter registration snafus of the 2000 election? The Republican-dominated Congress for one. It passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, but stopped at that halting first step.
HAVA accepts the chaos and disenfranchisement that flows from our decentralized election administration, where more than 13,000 jurisdictions across the nation run elections with little uniformity and not enough money.
The news is full of state and local decisions that will disenfranchise voters this fall. Florida and Ohio plan to toss out all provisional ballots cast by registered voters who were not informed they were in the wrong polling place. A Nevada judge rejected a lawsuit asking the state to reopen voter registration for citizens whose registrations were torn up by a Republican-backed voter registration firm.
Most voters in Ohio will use the thoroughly discredited punchcard system, while Florida voters will largely vote on new "touchscreen" systems developed by private companies with proprietary software that is poorly tested and regulated and lacks a voter verifiable paper trail. Against all international norms, states collectively have stripped nearly five million American citizens, disproportionately minority. And states have failed to register nearly one out of every three American adults.
The expected chaos and confusion has made work for swarms of lawyers ready to pounce on flaws. Once again state and federal judges could effectively pick the winner. To keep the decision in the hands of voters, we need to pass Congressman Jackson's HJR 28 for a clear constitutional right to vote and build a coherent, transparent electoral infrastructure with uniform standards and secure voting equipment and software developed for the public interest.
Our system breaks down with more than two choices: In 2000, the combined vote for Al Gore and Ralph Nader was more than 51% of the national total and more than 50% of the vote in Florida. But because it was divided between two candidates, George Bush won Florida and the presidency.
Third-party candidates like David Cobb and Ralph Nader add immeasurably to the debate of important issues ignored by poll-driven campaigns, but also threaten to spoil the race for John Kerry. States could have accommodated more choice and ensured a majority winner by passing statutes to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV). A few far-sighted political leaders like Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson Jr., John McCain, and Dennis Kucinich back IRV, and now San Francisco's breakthrough IRV elections this fall could spur a wave of reform.
Action on these three areas would bring presidential elections up to 21st-century standards. But that's just the beginning. From universal voter registration to fair candidate access to our public airwaves to full representation electoral methods for electing our legislatures, providing full access, competitive choice and fair representation to all voters must be the nation's business.
In the wake of the likely ugly sequel to Election 2000, let' s push for real change.
Robert Richie is executive director of FairVote-The Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). Steven Hill is FairVote's senior analyst and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (www.FixingElections.com). Email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you know of or experience electoral fraud, call the national fraud hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE