ABOUT 100 MILLION people trekked to the polls Election Day, but in the end it came down to a handful of votes in one county in Florida.
While the nation held its breath and waited, it provided a remarkable opportunity to contemplate what for months had seemed only theoretical -- that one candidate would win the popular vote and yet not be elected president. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency has been hanging in the balance.
We have a long tradition in this country that says the person or team with the highest number of points, runs or votes wins -- except when it comes to electing our chief executive. How do we explain that to young people, who are already so disengaged from politics?
The blame for this democratic anomaly rests squarely with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. It is a clumsy device that was created in less democratic times by our Founding Fathers 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. States like Maryland that were locked up early were effectively ignored by the candidates. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- were pitched to swing voters in the key battleground states. Most other voters are left on the sidelines.
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. Far more than any potential ballot irregularities in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the tens of thousands of voters who supported Ralph Nader.
So what to do? The time has come to scrap the Electoral College and institute a national direct election.
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 that 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 $100 million. 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 other electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner. 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 runoff choices. In each round, your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate -- your first-ranked choice, if not eliminated, but otherwise your runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner. It's like conducting a series of runoff elections, but without needing voters to return to the polls.
The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs and improves on their benefits. The system is used in 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 presidential election.
Win, lose or draw, the challenge for both George Bush and Mr. Gore is to bring the nation together. The strained finish to this presidential election carries the alarming potential for further deepening national divisions. Democrats and Republicans 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.
For 2004, direct election of the president using an instant runoff would be the fairest and most efficient way to ensure that the nation's chief executive not only has won the popular vote, but also commands support from a majority of voters. It is time for Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore and our political leaders to join and push for a constitutional amendment that abolishes the Electoral College.
Rob Richie in Takoma Park and Steven Hill in San Francisco are the executive director and the western regional director, respectively, of the Center for Voting and Democracy and co-authors of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999).