Bill proposes a new formula for picking a president

March 07, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON --Much is being made in the Republican camp of a review by the Miami Herald and the Knight-Ridder chain, which owns the Herald, of 10,644 previously unexamined "undervotes" in the presidential election in Florida's Miami-Dade County.

Supporters of Democratic nominee Al Gore claimed after the election that they would have made him the winner.

It turns out, though, that Mr. Gore would have picked up a net of only 49 votes had they been hand counted -- far short of the 537-vote Florida margin for George W. Bush in the official certification. This result, the Republicans say, should put an end to Democratic laments that the election was stolen from Mr. Gore.

Others, including old Bill Clinton cheerleader James Carville on "Meet the Press" Sunday, say a truer yardstick will come in a statewide re-examination by eight major news organizations of about 180,000 Florida "undervotes" that could not be fully read by voting machines and "overvotes" with more than one vote indicated.

Whatever that outcome, the dispute will go on. Either way, the real issue of fairness to voters will remain -- the fact that the man elected to the presidency through the Electoral College ran second in the popular vote. Mr. Gore received half a million votes more than Mr. Bush -- 539,947 to be precise --but was denied the White House because the anachronistic Electoral College remains embedded in the Constitution.

On a percentage basis, it is true, that figure was only about one-half of 1 percent of the total vote. But tell that to the half a million souls who think they had the right to believe that if their man ran first across the nation, he would become the nation's leader. Others argue that Mr. Bush won more states and more counties in more regions than did Mr. Gore. But the president of the United States is supposed to be president of all the people, not of the most states, counties and regions.

A respected Republican congressman from Iowa and Bush supporter, Rep. Jim Leach, has introduced a bill in the House that would be real election reform. It would abolish the Electoral College but keep electors and create new categories of them in a way that would all but ensure that the popular-vote winner nationwide would be elected.

Each state would continue as of now to have one electoral vote for each U.S. senator and representative, plus three for the District of Columbia, or a total of 538, allocated in one of two ways.

First, each state legislature could have its electors awarded according to the popular vote statewide or in each congressional district (this is already done in Maine and Nebraska).

Or, two of each state's electoral votes would go to the statewide popular-vote winner and one electoral vote to the popular-vote winner in each congressional district.

Then, on top of that, an additional two electoral votes for each state and the District of Columbia -- 102 in all -- would go to the candidate who had won the most electoral votes by the other methods.

If no ticket had a majority at this point -- which would be most unlikely -- the old procedures of the House selecting the president and the Senate choosing the vice president would apply.

In the House, each state delegation would have a single vote, unless a majority was not reached. Then each congressman would have one vote. In the Senate, each senator would have one vote. In the House, a quorum would be two-thirds of the states; in the Senate, two-thirds of the senators.

This proposal would to some degree support the notion that presidential candidates and their running mates would be less likely to ignore the states with fewer electoral votes, and indeed might draw them into individual congressional districts usually skipped now.

The 102 "bonus" electors awarded to the national popular-vote winner would be just under 16 percent of the total number and nearly 32 percent of the electors needed for election. Thus, the new system would just about guarantee that the candidate for whom most Americans cast their ballots -- Democratic or Republican -- would become president.

Wouldn't that outcome be preferable to another Florida fiasco of uncertainty and bitterness, and a questionable public mandate for the occupant of the White House?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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