Powerful Drama of DemocracyThe electoral system used in United States presidential polls is confusing, and even political pundits sometimes struggle to explain it clearly. Primary elections, in which candidates from one party compete against fellow party members for the right to represent their party in the general election, are also unfamiliar to many people. The indirect and, one might say, undemocratic electoral college system of awarding the electoral votes of each state to the popular vote winner in that state, even if the victory is by the margin of a single vote, is not readily understandable either.
Under this system, a candidate can lose the nationwide popular vote while still winning the Electoral College vote and thus the presidency. Although the system has come under attack in recent years, branded a relic of the era of slavery that discounts the will of the majority, most Americans champion the electoral college as an ingenious part of a truly American-style democracy.
The United States is a federation of 50 states. Some single states are as large as some other nations of the world, and the distance from the East Coast to Hawaii spans five different time zones.
During the time before air travel and modern communications were developed, finding presidential candidates with national appeal was no easy task. Presidential candidates did not have sufficient access to information on the conditions or the pending issues of states other than their own.
But as communications developed and the electorate became more sophisticated, several changes to U.S. election practices developed, including the rise of primary elections. Such elections give voters more say in the selection of candidates by making their selection a decision by grass-roots party members and not political bosses. Even a person who fails to win the party leadership''s endorsement can become a presidential candidate, riding on rank and file support. Primary elections demonstrate that the power to choose the presidential candidates rest with the people.
The other objective of primary elections is to allow the presidential candidates to promote their policies and grasp the issues important to each state. In the process of touring the 50 states to compete over policies with the candidates of first their own and then of other parties, they come to acquire the experience and insight necessary to see the big picture of sentiment throughout the nation.
The next stage in the presidential race is an indirect election by the electoral college. This system was conceived for two reasons. The first was the 18th-century belief that the president should be elected not by a popular vote of the masses, but by an educated, elite group of people. The founding fathers of the United States put little stock in the popular vote.
The second reason was to attain equilibrium between the more populous northern states and the southern states with many slaves, who had no franchise. There were concerns that the choice of president would always be decided by the more populous northern states if the president were elected through a direct popular vote.
These two reasons are not readily justifiable today. The electoral college system nevertheless has been regarded as a tradition in the American electoral system since 1787. The system gives rise to a number of side effects, such as the presidential candidates giving up campaigning altogether in some states during the final days of the presidential race if those states are not hotly contested. Theoretically, it is also possible for the electors to turn on their parties and faithlessly vote for the candidate of other parties, but this has rarely happened.
If Mr. Bush''s lead over Mr. Gore is confirmed in the Florida ballot recount, he would become president despite having lost the popular vote. This would be infuriating for Gore supporters, but the electoral college system is thought to have its own merits, as it takes into account of the unique conditions and interests of each state.
Controversy bubbles in the wake of every election, no matter where it is held, and defects are always found. But a vote recount or legal fight to nullify the election results is not an appealing prospect unless there is clear evidence of systematic election fraud.
Hence, the interest of the rest of the world is focused not only on who will emerge as the victor, but on how much mature political restraint both the Bush and Gore camps will show. If Mr. Bush''s electoral lead is confirmed in the recount and Mr. Gore concedes, it would signal a victory of an American democracy that respects the rules of the game.
The recent presidential race bared the problems inherent in the electoral college system. The U.S. Constitution is noted for evolving constantly to adapt to reality. It would set a democratic precedent if public opinion forces politicians to set up new rules of the election game through constitutional amendment.
It is too superficial to view the U.S. election results as a division of American society. We should note Mr. Gore''s failure to win in a landslide despite the longest period of uninterrupted prosperity in American history. This can be seen as a voters'' veto of Mr. Clinton''s scandal-ridden presidency.
The current confusion in the U.S. presidential election is not a constitutional crisis, but a powerful drama of democracy.