10/11/2011 11:46 am ET Updated Dec 11, 2011

Why We Remain Stuck With the Electoral System

Here we go again. Every four years, as the presidential primaries loom, we are reminded that we employ a completely outmoded method of selecting our chief executive. To my students, some of whom will cast their first votes in November of 2012, it's clear that direct election of the president would be more democratic, more reliably representative of the popular will, and more encouraging of political diversity. So why, they wondered, haven't we (grown-ups) resolved this problem?

Inertia certainly plays a role. As one student pointed out, altering the Constitution requires some effort. True enough, but early 20th century progressives managed to get four amendments ratified in less than 10 years, so the barriers are not insurmountable. And the second of that set, the 17th, added to the Constitution in 1913, gave the people the right to vote for their Senators. Until then the state legislatures had selected them. My class thought we should celebrate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 17th Amendment with a new one instituting direct election of the president.

Another student suggested that the so-called "swing states" would receive less attention from the candidates if the president were elected by a straight popular vote. Also true. Those states are distinguished by having relatively large numbers of electoral votes and shifting political allegiances.

The phrasing of an amendment abolishing the electoral system needn't be too complex. "The President of the United States shall be elected by the people thereof" would get the main idea across. A provision for run-off elections and the deletion of one paragraph in Article II and the repeal of the 12th Amendment (which adapted the electoral system in 1803 to account for political parties) would also be necessary.

And speaking of political parties, we won't get much support for this project from the Democratic and Republican organizations. The electoral system works quite effectively to help them maintain their monopoly on American politics, and they don't seem eager to give it up.

The "winner take all" system of allocating electoral votes currently in use by 48 states sets an extremely high bar for third parties seeking to establish themselves nationally. They have a hard time showing their backers a payoff on election day. My class was amazed to discover that almost 20 million Ross Perot supporters went to the polls in 1992, and the electoral vote count was 370 (Clinton), 168 (Bush) and 0 (Perot).

When Americans are tempted to show their displeasure with the Democrats and the Republicans by voting for a third party, the standard refrain from the majors is, "you're wasting your vote!" The electoral system lends weight to that claim.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC), currently receiving a lot of attention, is a work-around. If adopted by enough states to represent an absolute majority of the electoral votes, it would prevent another embarrassment of the Bush/Gore sort, in which the candidate with the most popular votes lost the election. NPVIC states would award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This the "big two" can support because in the end presidential elections will still be determined by electoral rather than popular votes.

After George W. Bush's electoral victory in 2000, some grumbled that the Green Party supporters had handed the election to Bush by "stealing" votes from Al Gore. That anyone could seriously argue we owe our votes to one of the major parties is, of course, absurd, and further evidence of the degree to which we accept Democratic and Republican dominance of the political process. The irony is that Gore did win the popular vote, but thanks to the electoral system, that wasn't enough.