An electoral system that gets better with age

To an outsider, America's languid voting habits are distinctly odd. Americans have it in their power to control the election of the most powerful political leader in the world. Yet this cavalier crowd often squanders its votes by not even bothering to show up at the polls.

Foreigners and domestic critics tend to ascribe this lassitude to the age of the US system. If only, they say, the US introduced modern proportional representation to replace its creaky first-past-the-post regime, or changed its campaign-finance system, then voters would come to life again. And why retain the old elitist electoral college, which can - as it may well be doing this week - give the presidency to a candidate who lost the popular vote?

On Monday, National Public Radio carried one typical reform proposal, outlined by an angry German listener. The contributor argued that he ought to be able to run for president, since he knew more and cared more about the outcome than American ignoramuses.

But as this week's astounding events show, the view that America's ageing electoral system is sapping the nation's attachment to democracy is utterly wrong. The age of the system is one of its virtues. Quaint electoral institutions may appear to obscure the value and purpose of democracy for modern-day voters. But they can have a wonderfully rejuvenating effect on the body politic, reconnecting citizens with their government.

Consider the sudden star status of the hoary electoral college. This arrangement, whereby representative electors are - at least in theory - free to pick the president they choose regardless of the popular will, may on the face of it seem outrageously outdated. What place does an arrangement originally intended to keep Virginia plantation owners in power - and blacks, women and the unpropertied out - have in modern America?

Yet in this election the old electoral college is demonstrating not merely one, but several charms. During the campaign leading up to Tuesday's election, the arrangement forced the candidates to try to meet the needs and desires of individual states, rather than mass-tailoring their campaigns to a homogenous national electorate. America, notes Michael Greve of the American Enterprise Institute, is a country of states with enormous variety, a land where 50 flowers bloom. "Because lawmakers had to win states and not merely voters, they had to pay attention to the states."

Even the rare divide between the popular vote and the electoral college - with the former appearing to favour Al Gore and the latter George Bush - has a civic merit. The system's elaborate nature means that people have to pay close attention. Come December, electors will convene in their state capitals and cast their ballots for the new president. Should there be a tie - highly unlikely - the newly elected House of Representatives will make the final decision in January.

The seriousness of this process and the tightness of the election mean America that will now be impelled into the vigorous political discussion the cynics had previously deemed impossible. By yesterday morning, after a night of electoral turmoil, various news and political websites froze over, overwhelmed with hits. Suddenly many Americans are becoming familiar with history that some foreigners doubted they would ever care about.

In coming weeks the world may hear more about Jefferson v. Burr (the 1800 contest) and Cleveland v. Harrison (later in the 19th century) than it had ever dreamed of. Most importantly, the formal nature of the process following the popular vote will encourage reviews of voting in Florida and beyond. Many Americans will be angry if Mr Gore fails to become president despite a popular victory.

Yet Elizabeth Garrett of the University of Chicago's Law School says that, if Bush becomes president, "that will happen peacefully and with dignity and that will be a great thing". This is not because Bush is the better candidate but because the nation will have shown its commitment to the rule of law in respect of the electoral college.

The electoral college is not America's only antique but useful political institution. There is also impeachment. Those who devised the process by which presidents can be removed from office did so at a time of violent political parties and overweening monarchs. As a result, they envisaged a highly charged show trial for the president in the Senate.

In more mundane times, such high theatre can seem wildly inappropriate compared with legislative votes of no confidence elsewhere in the world. Yet in the two 20th-century cases of Congress either considering or taking up impeachment, the process did much to invigorate the modern republic.

In the case of Richard Nixon, the very discussion of a trial - Nixon resigned before things got that far - encouraged many younger Americans to insist that personal integrity must be part of federal government. In the case of Whitewater, the impeachment drama also taught some lessons. One was that assailing the executive was a dangerous step. Voters this week did not wholeheartedly endorse the Republican impeachment of President Clinton. Republicans have only narrowly retained control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate. However, the exit polls showed that voters took seriously the president's lack of honesty.

None of this is to say that electoral reform is never necessary. This week's likely split between popular and electoral college votes may well stimulate proposals to change the arrangement. It could even lead to Congress's debating a new constitutional amendment. In other words, America will continue to reform itself gradually and gently, according to the rule of law. You can't get more democratic than that.

© Copyright 2000 Financial Times

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