Monday, January 12, 2004

Electoral College, Good and Evil

Okay, a little break for a post-New Year's cold.

Let's consider, for a moment, the effect of moving to a general election system. Wind your mental clocks back to November of 2000. Sure, as election night draws to a close, it looks like Gore is going to be the next president. But what's that, you say? Voting irregularities reported in over 10,000 precints in 31 states? Recount! Except instead of just being a recount in one state, in a few counties, it's every county, every state. Because to make up a half-million vote deficit, the Bush people will look under every rock in the country. Not just precincts where the vote count was close, because it doesn't matter. Imagine the Florida scenario in your home town. Worse, such a system, to put it politely, invites creative vote reporting. When a state is boolean win-or-not, there's little incentive to cheat, except if the vote is within such a small margin that cheating might both change the outcome and remain invisible. Such margins aren't impossible, but at least they're rare.

This is the unfortuante flip side of depressing voter turnout: a winner-takes-all system might make voters less likely to turn out, but it also makes voter fraud less attractive and limits the scope of post-election investigations and recounts. It's a deep philosophical policy question of whether this is a good tradeoff to make. On one hand, anything that depresses voter turnout is implicitly bad for democracy, right? And yet the logistical problems of running elections are real, and as we've seen, contribute in their own way to damaging faith in democracy.

Could a perfect voting system remove these concerns? Possibly, but such a system doesn't seem a likely reality anytime soon.