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Keith Rankin's Thursday Column New York, New York

The announcement by Al Gore that Senator Joseph Lieberman will be his presidential 'running mate' points to a significant quirk in the US electoral system.

Lieberman, who should make an excellent vice-president, is apparently the first Jew to be a part of an American presidential ticket. Given the contribution of Jewish people to American economic and intellectual life, we may ask why it took so long. (Mind you, there's only ever been one woman, in 1984.) The bias remains in favour of men of Anglo-Celtic descent. (Spiro T. Agnew was one obvious ethnic exception.)

Certainly Lieberman represents Gore's pitch for the centre/centre-right vote in general. And, by choosing a reasoned critic of Bill Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky, Gore is trying to be his own man. (Gore of course has a personal reason to be disappointed with his boss. If Clinton had resigned, Gore would be campaigning as the sitting president.)

The great peculiarity of the American system is the "constitutional relic" ( known as the Electoral College.

Talk about making a simple election complicated. Instead of choosing the president on the basis of the popular vote, the people instead vote to decide which candidate their state will opt for. It's an incredibly brazen way of fudging the First-Past-the Post system to manufacture a majority.

There are 538 Electoral College votes in total. To become president, you need 270.

Each state has a quota of Electoral College votes. The state's population determines that quota. As a result, the biggest states - California (54), New York (33), Pennsylvania (23) - have the most impact on the result of the presidential election. It's no coincidence that the Republican convention was in Pennsylvania, a state that usually votes Democrat that could clinch the election for George W. Bush. Likewise, it's no coincidence that the Democratic Convention will be in California - a winnable state that sits on the Republican side of the swingometer.

If Gore and Bush both win 48% of the vote in California, but Gore gets one more vote than Bush, then that would give Gore 20% of the 270 votes he needs. At the state level, it's a "winner takes all" system, and the winner doesn't need to win 50% of the state's popular vote.

It is extremely rare for a third party candidate to win any Electoral College votes. Hence the Electoral College creates the illusion that there are only two candidates for president. It thus reinforces the two-party electoral duopoly. The president-elect is the candidate who wins over 50% of the Electoral College votes. Hence the illusion that he has majority support.

The most important state is New York. Because the US election is technically an election between states, because New York commands the second-greatest number of electoral college votes, because New York is the US equivalent of a "marginal electorate", and because FPP elections are determined by voters in marginal electorates, a vote in New York is worth at least twice as much as a vote in any other state.

Further, the Jewish community in a close election determines the vote within New York. It is very rare for the successful presidential candidate to win without winning New York's 33 votes. It is equally rare for the majority of Jewish voters in New York to not back the candidate who wins in New York.

One of the principles of democracy is one person one vote. That principle is followed in the US in a legal sense, but not in a true political sense. The votes coming from the Jewish community in Brooklyn more often than not determine who will be president. That doesn't necessarily lead to bad government. Rather, it's just bad democracy.

This quirk of the US presidential electoral system has a major impact on the global polity. No US presidential candidate can afford to support the Palestinian people in their ongoing standoff with Israel. If Gore wins the coming election, it is likely to be very close. Thus he must secure the highly leveraged New York Jewish vote.

I don't want to take sides in Middle Eastern politics. But I do want to note that it is wrong that the USA's disguised FPP voting system should play such a major role in resolving - or preventing a resolution of - the Israel-Palestine problem.

Yet there may be an irony. Joseph Lieberman, if he becomes vice-president or president, is one step removed from the cauldron of Israeli politics. He might just be the one person who has a chance of masterminding a lasting Middle-East peace.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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