The elections of 1960 and 2000 fill the nightmares of our two major parties with visions of voter fraud and voter suppression. Too bad they don't think more about the elections of 1824, 1876 and 1888.
More on the 19th-century elections later; first, the modern two.
The 1960 election produced the narrative that John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon with the help of fraud in Cook County, Ill. Historians disagree on the facts, but the story adds spice to the view that Democrats want as many people as possible to vote, even if they're currently dead.
The 2000 election created a different narrative. In Florida, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by a few hundred votes. But Democrats argue that Republican operatives had purged from the voting rolls thousands of African-American voters for the crime of having names vaguely similar to those of convicted felons. For the Democrats, that was another bit of evidence for their theory that Republicans want as few people as possible to vote.
As the 2012 election nears, GOP-controlled state legislatures in states such as Texas and South Carolina tremble in fear of fraud. So they want voters to present photo ID cards, and they want to rein in registration drives by groups such as the dread ACORN, a poor-people's advocacy organization.
Republicans imagined the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now into a force more sinister than international communism, more socialist than Obama, more evil than Osama. But its net result was a handful of phony registration cards that were unlikely to allow anyone to vote. It's one thing to forge a Mickey Mouse signature on a card, but another entirely for Mickey to show up and vote.
Now, back to those long-ago elections. The national popular vote winner lost: twice in the Electoral College, once in the House of Representatives. And there have been several other close calls. In 2004, a switch of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio would have made John Kerry our 44th president -- though Bush had 3 million more votes nationwide.
If that had happened, four years after Gore lost the presidency, with more than a 500,000-vote popular edge over Bush, we might have seen a bipartisan fervor to amend the Constitution and scrap the Electoral College. But it didn't. So, how do we fix this bizarre construct -- and why should we?
First, as an exporter of democracy, we should choose our leader by a simple majority of all those voting. Not by a creaky device built in part to give an edge to slave-holding states, to help get the Constitution ratified.
Second, our system distorts campaigns. The winner-take-all system most states use encourages candidates to focus time and money on a handful of battlegrounds, where a few thousand votes can win them all of a state's electoral votes. They ignore states like ours, where they're way ahead or far behind, and winning or losing by thousands more votes makes no difference. If the national popular vote mattered, they'd campaign here and address our issues.
Enter an idea called National Popular Vote. Fittingly, its starting point is the Constitution, which lets states decide how to allocate their electoral votes. NPV is creating an interstate compact, in which -- once states making up a majority of the Electoral College (270 votes) agree by adopting legislation -- member states pledge to give all their electoral votes to the national popular-vote winner. The College lives, but its ability to elect the wrong person dies.
So, instead of "fixing" the mostly imaginary problem of voter fraud, let's solve a real one: a system that every four years can deny us a president chosen by a majority of voters. Is that any way to run a democracy?