If the U.S. electoral system were a computer, what would it be?
Maybe one of those retro Radio Shack TRS-80s geek hobbyists collect. Perhaps the Model-T of desktops, the 128K Mac. Or, for sci-fi fans, it could be a demented HAL 2600. ("Open Florida's pod door, HAL." "I'm sorry, Al; I'm afraid I can't do that.")
After Tuesday's bizarre Election Day, though, I doubt any of us are under the delusion we're dealing with state-of-the-art technology when it comes to the democratic process. If anything, the way the United States elects the leader of the free world has more in common with ENIAC -- the world's first computer, which had 17,458 vacuum tubes, rather than Intel, inside -- than the 1GHz-plus desktops any of us can buy off the shelf these days.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for democracy. But, seriously, isn't the electoral system due for an upgrade?
By any measure, Election Day 2000 was buggy as hell.
In Florida, hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Democrat supporters voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake because of badly designed ballots. Don't forget Al Gore's concession-that-wasn't or those already infamous exit-poll results for the Sunshine State. Ralph Nader's third-party spoiler role that delivered key states to the GOP. Or the quirk of state-by-state electoral votes that is poised to put a candidate (George W. Bush) in the White House who may not have won the majority support of U.S. voters.
As the smoke clears -- and assuming Bush takes Florida -- political partisans will have a field day. Gore supporters will blame Nader. Bush supporters will (correctly) point out that, majority vote or not, 271 electoral votes still adds up to the presidency. And Nader and Clinton supporters will blame Gore for running a sheepish campaign.
Such finger waggling is pointless, though. To my eyes, the quirks are the fault of the system, rather than the candidates. It's not Bush's fault if the electoral-college approach doesn't reflect the popular vote. It's not Nader's fault if the nature of the first-past-the-post ballot system turns third-party candidates -- like Ross Perot in 1992 -- into spoilers. It's not Buchanan's fault if a badly designed ballot paper pumped up his vote. And it's not any of the candidates' fault that voter turnout has been in serious decline since the 1960 election.
Blame the system.
Rather than indulge in recriminations, it's time Capitol Hill and the Federal Election Commission started looking at ways to improve this ENIAC of a electoral system. Here are a few tweaks I'd like to see:
Dump the electoral voting system and elect the president by popular vote.
Fast-track electronic voting. E-voting was piloted on Tuesday, and (judging by the explosion in GOP primary turnout it fueled in Arizona) it has the potential to increase voter turnout dramatically.
Look into preferential voting. First-past-the-post voting not only makes it "Mission: Impossible" to be a third party; three-horse races can lead to the bizarre situation where a candidate with less than 50 percent of the vote (such as Bill Clinton in 1992) can end up in the White House.