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Nichols: Election overload, for a bizarre primary system

POSTED: March 19, 2008 5:01 a.m.

The current election process for our next president has almost overwhelmed me with too many debates, too much mail, phone calls, relentless newspaper and television coverage.

Maybe by the end of Super Tuesday, we will know names of the two national candidates, but we will still have more elections in the remaining states.

Next, the Democratic Convention will be held in Denver from Aug. 25–28 and the Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minn., from Sept. 1-4. These conventions will certify the nominations of the party, but will contain no surprises.

When I took my students abroad on travel study tours, I tried to arrange counterpart meetings of my students with local students in Russia and China. Similar meetings were requested when we visited Cuba (but were denied. Castro did not permit his students to talk with American students).

The sessions in Russia and China raised many questions. The most difficult question asked me by foreign students was: “Why do you Americans have such complicated processes to elect your president?”

The serious candidate must qualify, raise money and establish campaign headquarters, filled with some professional (paid) staff and many volunteers. This requires good organizational skills, useful later in the White House.

The serious candidate must carefully map out strategy, select which states to visit, and how often, and allocate campaign timing to obtain maximum exposure in the media and public.

The American campaign process, chaotic as it is, presents the candidates with many challenges, many places to make major mistakes, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, offending some voters while appealing to others.

The election process is thus an obstacle course, the winner of which should be the sharpest, the most fit of the survivors of the race for the White House.

I voted early last week. My ballot was misleading. It had names of the candidates for the party primary. My vote was actually for a slate of delegates who will go to a convention and have promised to vote for the candidate I like.

Then, after the conventions ratify the party’s nominee, we still do not get to vote directly for the candidate, only for electors who meet next Dec. 13 in each state capital and cast the state’s electoral votes (equal to number of senators and representatives of that state, ) One needs 270 electoral votes to win.

It is possible to win in the electoral college even though the candidate might have lost the popular election like Harrison, Hayes and, most recently, Bush in 2000. Al Gore received 48.38 percent of the national votes, as compared to Bush with 47.87 percent. Bush won 271 of the electoral votes after the 25 electoral votes from Florida were given to him..

Are we the American voters too stupid to vote directly for our president? Must we have primaries to elect smarter people to go to conventions to nominate the candidates on our behalf? Then do we have to elect other smarter people to be electors from our state to cast the real vote for the president?

Back in 1787, when the Constitution was drafted, many Americans were illiterate. Most voters did not have much information about national candidates. Newspapers did exist, but circulation was limited.

With horse and buggy transportation, candidates had only limited access to voters. If we voted directly, the biggest state with more voters would always win, and the little states had no chance of sending a native son to the White House.

I wish we could modify the system to eliminate the electoral college and have national direct presidential elections with a runoff election if no candidate received over 50 percent of the national vote.

To modify the electoral system we would have to amend the constitution with two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures approving. That is not likely to happen as the big states like the system, as do many of the small states.

I do not know why Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first. However, they would not vote to change and lose their advantage.

Our system is not very democratic. But with good people as candidates who use their brains effectively to work the system to their ultimate victory, the system can provide us with the leaders we need. If we cannot improve the system, we can select better human beings who enter it. Our future is always at stake.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesville times.com.



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