In a documentary about reporters covering the 2000 presidential race, the representation of the weeks following November 2nd, when courts ruled and Florida politicians applied makeup and the nation obsessed about chads (and not the war-torn African nation where the attention might have done some good), was a single minute of video in which the sound of news reports was overlaid on a clip of a pigeon eating a burger, in fast motion. The point was that the reporters were too burnt out to care -- however dutifully they covered the events, their off-time was spent autisticly filming wildlife eating their food -- but it might as well have been that the whole thing was really amazingly stupid.
Wait, wait! I know your objections; don't leave yet.
First, you think it's pointless to write (or read) an editorial about this electoral fluke in 2004, when all but MoveOn.org has forgotten and the nation is beset with unemployment, terrorism, and/or administrative suck. Consider, Adlai Stevenson fans: it could happen again. The popular and electoral pluralities could again be different; the winner could once again lose. 4 years ago Gore's national popular victory (of only a couple hundred thousand, but a victory still) rested on unprecedented get-out-the-vote drives in inner cities, artsy suburbs, and other Democratic enclaves. But landslide blue state victories aren't any different, elector-wise, from skin-of-the-teeth squeak-throughs, and so therefore Dubya. Q.E.D.
(To be fair, there were plenty of camel back-breaking straws, from Nader costing Gore New Hampshire to Buchanan-backing butterfly ballots to poor districts' decrepit polling places, but there's no evidence some or all of those won't be back for a second run, along with troubles yet unimagined.)
Second, you may actually support the current regime, the Electoral College As We Know It. The College might have been useful when going to Detroit involved camels and cholera (and slaveowners wanted the votes of 3/5 their property without 3/5 of their property actually voting) but in a modern industrialized society it's absurd on its face.
The most common argument in the College's favor, the one regurgitated by high school civics teachers who think papal infallibility applies to the founding fathers, is that it protects the interests of people living in low-population states (by giving them more votes apiece). But geography is arbitrary: there are any number of ways to divide up the electorate. Punks in Ypsi have more in common with punks in Chicago than Ann Arbor frat boys, and punks are a small minority, too -- does that mean we should give them more votes as protection from the yuppie noise ordinances and restrictive dress codes of an uncaring majority? I like NOFX, but I don’t think they should wield supreme electoral power.
More seriously, what about African-Americans? They’re solid, demographically; it's at least as hard (with rare exceptions) to change your apparent race as to move to another state. And they're not only a minority, but one that's been systematically oppressed for most (some would say all) of American history. Should we give them more votes? And if so, how many more -- the current system parcels out the extras semi-randomly on the basis of population density. Washtenaw county has more people than Wyoming but a small fraction of the electoral votes; if there was a mad cow outbreak on the eve of the election and 500,000 North Dakotans stayed home from the polls, the tiny cabal of zombie farmers who voted would control disproportionately massive political power. And who wants a zombie president?
A more nuanced objection to a straight popular vote (the norm in every other democracy in the world) focuses on the nature of the television market. 30-second TV ads have become central to American campaigning, and it's cheaper and easier to buy them once, in a large city, than 50 times at 50 different rural networks; hence, say the naysayers, candidates will pander to metropoli and shut out the townsfolk. Ignoring for the moment that cities are hugely heterogeneous and hardly comprise a faceless, monolithic constituency (similar-voting demographic groups are scattered like gerrymander static from sea to shining sea), is the only solution to the problem of an ad-obsessed campaign culture giving people in smaller TV markets more votes? It’s utterly, unwaveringly mad, head-explodingly backwards, something out of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Brazil.
It's mad, I tell you! Mad!
Democrat that I am, Kerry winning the electoral vote and losing the popular has appeal; maybe something would actually get done. But considering entrenched interests, terrifying Islamists with beards, and the quixotic difficulty of amending the constitution even when there's near-universal agreement that it's necessary (as with the last decade's several failed attempts to grant suffrage to people living in Washington, D.C.), I won't be holding my breath.