In a nation with 100 million likely voters, the result of this
year's presidential race may be decided by fewer than a million.
Those are the undecided voters in swing states with lots of votes
in the Electoral College. Elementary math explains why both Al
Gore and George W. Bush are paying much less attention to most
of the South, New England and the Mountain West, as well as California,
New York and Texas. These places are reliably Republican or Democratic,
and there is not much point in contesting them.
So big swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin,
Missouri and Florida have been the object of the candidates' messages,
carefully tailored to local voters.
In some ways, Mr. Gore has proved more adept than Mr. Bush at
aiming micro-messages at swing voters in swing states. The vice
president's call for opening the strategic petroleum reserve and
his attacks on Big Oil appeal to Midwestern voters worried about
high heating bills this winter. His support for expanding Medicare
to cover prescription drugs is intended to appeal to elderly voters
in Florida, the one big Southern state in play.
Earlier, Mr. Gore went after another important electoral bloc
in Florida, Cuban-Americans, by disagreeing with the Clinton administration
in the Elian Gonzalez case. Though usually outspoken on the environment,
Mr. Gore has been careful not to stress this theme too heavily
when he is in the Rust Belt, where it is not popular with manufacturing
workers. He has just as carefully avoided making an issue of gun
control, which is unpopular with many Reagan Democrats in the
While Mr. Bush is spending most of his time in swing states,
too, he has not, like Mr. Gore, cobbled together an ad hoc platform
that makes specific promises to specific swing voters. The one
exception may be Latinos, whom Mr. Bush frequently addresses in
Spanish. A number of big swing states have large Latino populations.
In obsessively courting undecided voters in a few places, the
candidates are doing more than neglecting the interests and values
of Americans who do not pay high heating bills. They are neglecting
issues of concern to the nation as a whole.
The federal government spends far more on old people than on
children, for example, but neither candidate will point that out,
for fear of offending elderly swing voters. What should have been
a great debate about the long-term reform of Social Security has
lately been replaced by the wedge-issue politics of prescription
In a close election, time spent on issues of concern to every
American is time lost in addressing the particular interests of
the minuscule number of Americans who will choose the next occupant
of the White House. This is a bad way to elect the president,
who should have support from a wide variety of regions, religions
and ethnic groups.
Can anything be done, short of replacing the Electoral College
with direct election of the president -- a virtually impossible
reform that would require a constitutional amendment? Fortunately,
it is possible to transform our presidential elections, while
keeping the Electoral College and without amending the Constitution.
All we have to do is change the way that the states allocate their
Today all but two states -- Nebraska, which has five electoral
votes, and Maine, which has four -- give all of their electoral
votes to the winner of the state's popular vote. If every state
were to divide its electoral votes among the candidates on the
breakdown of the popular vote, presidential politics would be
For example, even if a majority of Californians and New Yorkers
preferred the Democratic candidate, the division of their electoral
votes would give a Republican candidate an incentive to make lots
of visits to these states and to listen to voters' concerns there.
For the same reason, a Democratic presidential candidate, instead
of writing off Texas and even vilifying it, as Vice President
Gore has done, would court the states' substantial minority of
Democrats and independents. A candidate who stressed a few themes
of national importance might rack up more electoral votes nationwide
than a rival who focused on a few important states.
Every state legislature has the power to switch from the winner-take-all
system to a division of its electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine
each give two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular
vote, while allocating the remainder according to the winner of
the popular vote within each congressional district.
Another method would be to assign electoral votes according to
the proportions of the popular vote each candidate won.
Critics of such reforms point out that they would increase the
possibility that no candidate would receive a majority of the
electoral vote, especially in a three-way race in which no candidate
received a majority of the popular vote. In that event, the election
would be thrown into the House of Representatives, with each state
delegation assigned a single vote. (Yes, our Constitution really
is that weird.)
To avoid this crisis, states could adopt a different way of allocating
electoral votes. On Election Day, voters would be asked to rank
candidates in order of preference, marking their first, second
and third choices. Then, when votes were counted, if the first
choice didn't emerge in the top two, a second or third choice
would get the vote.
This so-called instant-runoff system would make it extremely
unlikely that any electoral votes would go to third-party candidates.
Most third-party candidates, like John Anderson in 1980 and Ralph
Nader today, have geographically broad but thin support. And candidates
with regionally concentrated support, like George Wallace in 1968,
have a greater chance of creating a constitutional crisis by piling
up electoral votes under the present winner-take-all system than
they would have under an instant-runoff system.
If states switched from the current system, then presidential
candidates would begin hunting for electoral votes all over the
country and paying attention to a greater variety of groups and
The state legislatures should get to work now, so that in 2004
or 2008 we can have a chance to elect a president of the United
States, rather than a president of the swing states.