On Election Night 2012 I was in D.C. doing the rounds of various media outlets. At one stop I found myself in a small cramped office of foreign journalists reporting to countries all over Europe and Asia, some as far as Korea. The conversations in the unventilated suite defaulted into election night chatter: "Two-seventy is impossible without Wisconsin." "Florida has 29 electrical votes, but their demographics are changing." "If Romney wins Ohio, he still needs Pennsylvania, but if Obama wins Ohio he doesn't need Pennsylvania."
At one point in the evening someone with a British accent turned to me and said: "Your elections are way too complicated."
It occurred to me that I was in a room full of people reporting to countries far older than ours, all with far (far) younger democracies. The U.S. is still a young country with the oldest constitution still in use. And this juxtaposition is made painfully apparent on Election Night.
The U.S. Constitution specifies an indirect election of the president. This was a compromise between Congress electing the executive office-holder and direct popular vote. A popular vote would mean the sparsely populated (think slave states) wouldn't get the same representation as all the white male land owners states. So the Electoral College was settled upon. Which is why today Alaska has three electoral votes even though its population is smaller than Staten Island's - it's because of slavery.
It's also why you've been dutifully voting since the second you turned 18 (provided you're under 54 years old) and you've never actually directly voted for the leader of the free world.
Does this now make sense some 200 years after ratification? Now that we no longer have a slave-based economy and the franchise has been extended to women, the answer is, "No." It now means Ohio with its 18 electoral votes gets to be the belle of the ball every four years and states like California and New York with their combined 84 get largely ignored by the two national candidates. It means your vote in Florida has more value than your cousin's vote in Wyoming.
But it really means our system is overly complicated, fragmented and largely viewed with suspicion by voters. Because the way we vote for a president is antiquated and convoluted it leads to distrust. Local lawmakers can disenfranchise voters in national elections as we saw with the arbitrary voter ID laws in battleground states. There were concerns (think hysteria) that voting machines owned by Mitt Romney's son in Ohio would deliver the election to the Republicans. The group Anonymous (or someone claiming to be Anonymous) took credit for thwarting Karl Rove's alleged attempt at stealing the election. Then on Fox News the panic was over voter fraud.
There were long lines, lost ballots and chaos on Election Day. Different voting precincts with different rules and sometimes different philosophies on who should cast their ballots we're highlighted in the national media. What it all leads to is a voting result which have a whisper of illegitimacy. There's a lingering doubt as to if the elections were fair and therefore the result valid. And it's partisan: The Left will say that of George Bush stole the election, the Right about Obama.
We could solve this issue by modernizing elections. Not only tossing out the Electoral College and letting Americans directly vote for a president, but making the requirements uniform (i.e. universal suffrage). This would make voting in Oregon just as relevant as a voting in Cuyahoga County.
A census is constitutionally required every 10 years and we don't leave it up to each state to compile it. But we leave our national elections up to (in some cases) the county officials?! Federalize federal elections. We have national standards for schools and milk safety but we can't vote the same way in every state?
We can change this. And there's no better time than three years and 11 months before the next presidential election begins.