This cliffhanging election has exposed the flaws in the US constitution

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The Independent Online

There have been only 17 amendments to the United States constitution since the original 10, the "Bill of Rights", were ratified in 1791. Americans rightly revere their constitution, and are loth to change it. However, it is healthy not only to have a written constitution but also to revise it periodically so that it remains a living, relevant document, as Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, wanted.

There have been only 17 amendments to the United States constitution since the original 10, the "Bill of Rights", were ratified in 1791. Americans rightly revere their constitution, and are loth to change it. However, it is healthy not only to have a written constitution but also to revise it periodically so that it remains a living, relevant document, as Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, wanted.

Whatever the final tally of votes, Tuesday's unprecedentedly close election raises the spectre of America electing a president who secured fewer votes than his rival. This is such a gross betrayal of the fundamental principle of democracy - to say nothing of being so undermining of the authority of a president so elected - that it requires a 28th Amendment.

All the conservative arguments against change have fallen away. The Electoral College is now an entirely nominal legacy from the age of horse-drawn conveyances and delegate democracy. Americans argue, as if by reflex, that the College protects the interests of the states of the Union, because smaller states have more College votes than is justified by their population. But if they look at this issue afresh, they should see that states' rights are protected by the Senate, in which all states regardless of size have two senators, and that the need to guarantee the democratic legitimacy of the office of president is more important.

It is true that the party forming the government in Britain in 1951 and in February 1974 won fewer votes and yet more seats than its rival. That is a difficulty for our democracy, and one reason why this newspaper supports electoral reform, but it is less easily soluble because our executive rests on a parliamentary system. The US has no such excuse: electing a single executive post is not conceptually or mathematically complex. There is no need for any distorting filter between "We, the People" and the president they elect.

The only constructive function of the needless complexity of the US election system is to make election night (and, in this case, the few days thereafter) more entertaining. Making election night boring and clinical is a small price to pay, however, for ensuring that the most powerful leader in the world is the candidate the US electorate actually wanted.

This brings us to the second point raised by the Bush-Gore election, namely the effect of minor-party candidates. If Al Gore were denied the presidency by the intervention of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, that is not the fault of the US electoral system. The voters know that the candidate with the most votes wins, and those who voted for Mr Nader knew that they could not, therefore, influence the choice between Mr Gore and George W Bush. The fact that they might have preferred the Democrat to the Republican - the "bad" rather than the "worse" as one Naderite put it - could not be taken into account, a fact that led to angry exchanges between Democratic and Green activists.

But - and this is a point that applies well beyond the insular confines of US democracy - there is no reason why voting systems should not allow voters to express relative preferences for several candidates. Allowing people to use their first-preference vote to express their true feelings ought to ease the corrosive sense of alienation engendered by choosing tactically between unpalatables. With turnout still shockingly low in the US, this ought to be considered urgently there.

Congress should pass a 28th Amendment, repealing the 12th, which revised the rules for the Electoral College in 1804, and declaring that "the President shall be elected directly by all citizens of the United States entitled to vote", and that, if no one secures a majority, one of the two leading candidates should be chosen according to the preferences expressed by all the voters.

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