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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making America's Votes Count

All electoral systems have flaws; in Britain, political parties can win power on a minority of votes because of the first-past-the-post winner system in individual constituencies. But it is remarkable that the United States should be heading into a presidential election in less than two weeks' time that could well produce as close, bitter and bizarre a result as in 2000. Then, George W. Bush gained half a million fewer votes than his challenger, but won after a month of recounts and court challenges gave him the electoral college votes of Florida. Yet there has been no real reform of the system that produced that fiasco four years ago.

The malfunctions in the U.S. electoral system mainly have consequences for Americans themselves. The gerrymandering of so many House of Representatives districts into safe seats makes the two parties in Congress more ideological and less open to reasonable compromise on legislation. But quite apart from underscoring the irony of the United States promoting democracy around the world and organizing elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, the system's flaws can have an impact abroad. Similar to the effect of gerrymandering on Congress, the electoral college system dramatically narrows the presidential contest to a few states considered worth contesting. They include the steel-making states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, which is why Bush was prepared to anger U.S. trade partners around the world by imposing tariffs on steel imports during his first term.

Born out of the United States' 18th-century founders' nervousness about direct democracy, the electoral college system still nominally acts as a filter between the people who elect it and the president whom it elects. Each state gets a number of electors equal to its Senate and House delegation, and their votes generally all go to whichever candidate carries their state. But this winner-take-all system effectively disenfranchises all those who voted for the losing candidate, and the bigger the state, such as California and New York, the bigger the disenfranchisement.

At least there is a glimmer of reform in Colorado, whose citizens will vote on Nov. 2 on a proposition to cast the state's electoral college votes proportionally.

More pernicious is the way state legislatures draw congressional district boundaries so that instead of the voters choosing their politicians, it is increasingly the politicians who choose their voters. Sometimes this is brutally imposed by one party on another, as in Texas. Sometimes Republicans and Democrats reach a cozy accommodation, as in California. Only a few states such as Iowa let an independent commission decide electoral boundaries.

The upshot is that only a handful of the House of Representatives' 435 seats are really up for grabs, and it therefore barely functions any longer as a weather vane for public mood swings.

Registering such swings is particularly hard in a close election, such as 2000 and probably this year, when the margin of counting error may exceed the margin of victory. Simple paper ballots and manual vote counting has become impossible when U.S. voters are asked to make presidential, congressional, state and judicial choices. But Florida 2000 showed the importance of having some paper trail to back up vote-counting machines.

Clearly there is little momentum for change. If ever the United States was going to undertake real electoral reform, one might have thought it would have been in the wake of the 2000 election. Perhaps another fiasco might do the trick.

This comment appeared as an editorial in the Financial Times.