Hillary versus Trump has been such a celebrity train-wreck, we have thus far given a pass to the culprit forcing us to choose between 2 horrible candidates:
The election system.
Then we had the vice presidential debate. Pence and Kaine subjected us to Trump and Hillary sans their bigger-than-life personas, forcing us to acknowledge their awful essence. And now substantive issues have completely disappeared from the campaign with the latest released tapes and transcripts. Regardless how the election ends, the next 4 years will be more of the same.
The time has come to ask: What can we do to ensure this never happens again?
The electoral college is ingenious in its design. Assigning electoral votes equal to each state’s number of Representatives and Senators protects small-state citizens from irrelevancy. And an all-but-forgotten feature positions the electors in a final line of defense to prevent the country from falling sway to the destructive allure of the demagogue.
But the system is flawed in its execution. The electoral vote is winner-take-all in every state but Nebraska and Maine. Most states are solidly Democrat or Republican, so candidates focus nearly all their resources on a handful of “swing” states that make up only 1/3 of the population. Meaning 2/3 of our citizens’ votes—in small and big states alike—effectively don’t count.
And then there is the 2-party monopoly. Republicans and Democrats spend no time responding to challenges from 3rd-party candidates, because everyone knows a votes for them is meaningless.
Calls to do away with the electoral college and move to a direct popular vote are misguided, for the reasons stated above. And removing the electoral college does nothing to bust the 2-party “trust.” Fortunately we have a way to keep the College and reform the system.
First, states must end winner-take-all and award electoral votes proportionate to the popular vote. This is crucial to guaranteeing all voters that their ballots do indeed count.
But it presents a challenge. A proportional system increases the odds that no candidate will reach the required 270 electoral votes. And it does nothing to increase the viability of so-called 3rd-party candidates. So the states must implement a second, companion change: ranking, instant run-off voting.
In this system, voters rank their preferences for president. Assume a ballot with 4 candidates. You cast your vote for Candidate 2, Candidate 4, and Candidate 3, in that order. The polls close and the votes are tallied; if a candidate receives at least half the 1st-choice votes, your state’s election is over and electoral votes are awarded according to each candidate’s share of the 1st-choice votes.
If no candidate receives at least 50% of the 1st-choice votes, we move into the instant run-off. The last-place candidate, say Candidate 2, is eliminated, and ballots like yours that had ranked that candidate as the 1st choice are reassigned to those voters’ 2nd choice.
In this example, your 1st-choice vote is now assigned to Candidate 4. The votes are re-tallied. If a candidate has now reached the 50% threshold—say Candidate 4 has 55%, Candidate 1 garners 35% and Candidate 3 receives 10%—the contest is over, and electoral votes are awarded proportionately. Otherwise, the cycle is repeated.
This approach is utilized in a number of local elections to deemphasize partisan politics. Employing it for the presidential election means your vote for a 3rd-party candidate is never wasted. If your first choice doesn’t make the run-off, your vote still counts, now cast for your next-favorite candidate.
By combining ranking, instant run-off with proportional electoral voting, we ensure every vote counts, the 2-party monopoly is broken, and one candidate is likely to win the minimum necessary number of electoral votes.
And we keep the electoral college in place. Until this election we might have dismissed as outdated our Founders’ fear of a tough-talking demagogue riding a wave of populist discontent to the Oval Office. Is that Trump? That it’s debatable proves the continuing value of the College with its electors as a final line of defense.