Imagine if, after the conclusion of the Super Bowl or the World Series, it was announced that the winner didn't really win. That instead the championship would be given to, well - the loser. That's exactly what might be happening right now for the highest elected office in our land.
The blame for this democratic anomaly rests squarely with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. a clumsy device that was created in less democratic times by our Founders and has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our constitution.
Under the ponderous Electoral College method, each of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual contests. What's more, since the rules are Winner Take All and heavily tilted toward the largest states, it means that a presidential candidate need only win the highest numbers of votes even if less than a majority in the right combination of states to win enough Electoral College votes to capture the grand prize.
The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. Most states are effectively ignored by the candidates, as they are seen as non-competitive. Nearly all campaign energy and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern - are pitched to swing voters in the key battleground states.
The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that the presidential winner does not need to reach a majority of the popular vote. As a result, a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate.
So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come.
There are important questions to resolve, however. What if, for example, the highest vote-getter only received 35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility also presents problems of legitimacy. To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support.
Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be more than a hundred million dollars. Weary voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.
Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a single election. The most efficient and inexpensive method is instant runoff voting.
Instant runoff voting simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third choices. The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs, and improves on their benefits. The system is used in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland and likely will be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.
If George Bush ultimately is elected, his challenge will be to bring the nation together despite his loss in the popular vote. Already lawyers and partisans are raising charges and countercharges, and the potential for deep national divisions are rising. Al Gore and George Bush need to move beyond short-term partisan and parochial interests, and work together to resolve this dispute in a way that is best for the country.
Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of The Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C.