Monday, March 06, 2006


Time to graduate from the Electoral College

Recently, The New Yorker ran a story about a group that is trying to do away with the Electoral College. The group, Campaign for a National Popular Vote, isn’t trying to change the Constitution (which would be extremely difficult and politically infeasible), but is trying to use the constitutional power of states to appoint electors in the manner they wish.
Here’s how the plan would work. One by one, legislature by legislature, state law by state law, individual states would pledge themselves to an interstate compact under which they would agree to award their electoral votes to the nationwide winner of the popular vote. The compact would take effect only when enough states had joined it to elect a President—that is, enough to cast a majority of the five hundred and thirty-eight electoral votes. (Theoretically, as few as eleven states could do the trick.) And then, presto! All of a sudden, the people of all fifty states plus the District of Columbia are empowered to elect their President the same way they elect their governors, mayors, senators, and congressmen.
I’ve always waffled about the Electoral College and its role in selecting the U.S. President. I do understand the reasoning behind it – it ensures that smaller aren’t ignored during the campaigns. If the Electoral College were abandoned, goes my reasoning, then big states like California and Texas will decide the elections. But then Hertzberg points out that if a state is solidly red or blue, it’s ignored, whether it’s small or large. Thus the battle for the presidency takes place in the battleground “purple” states where neither candidate is highly favored. Because of the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, if you happen to live in one of other, non-battleground states, your vote doesn’t really matter:
The worst of [the Electoral College process] is the death of participatory politics in two-thirds of the country. If you live in a spectator state, it might be fun to persuade your neighbors to vote your way, or ring their doorbells, or hand them leaflets. But it can’t make a difference. And it doesn’t matter which side you’re on or which color your state is. Widening your ticket’s margin of victory or narrowing its margin of defeat is equally pointless. In this sense, our Presidential campaigns are not only not national; in most of the country they’re not local, either. They’re just not.
This makes sense. And this argument has entirely convinced me that it's time to do away with the Electoral College. And I think this article doesn’t go far enough describing the problem the Electoral College creates: not only do some states (like Ohio or Florida) decide the presidential elections, certain counties within those states do. And these counties are usually middle-right of the political spectrum. Do you wonder why the American left has steadily gravitated rightwards over the past decade? It’s because presidential candidates are trying to win the votes from a few, select conservative-leaning counties in Ohio and Florida. Imagine, then, presidential campaigns liberated from their subservience to a handful of Midwest suburbs. The Democrats could work to regain and electrify their base. We could finally tackle issues that are popular with the majority of Americans – national health care, election reform, gay rights, choice – most of whom sadly live in “spectator” states. And getting rid of the Electoral College would prevent illegal voting tactics that would ensure a candidate’s election – like, say, putting easily hacked electronic voting machines in key counties, or adding Miami’s inner-city African American voters to felon lists on the eve of elections. And, of course, that’s probably why the Campaign for a National Popular Vote will meet with stiff opposition. But still, the movement has a chance.
For fifty years, polls have consistently shown that seventy per cent of the public favors direct election. Nevertheless, the National Popular Vote plan will meet with a lot of resistance, some of it from battleground-state politicians. But in all those spectator states there are scores of millions of voters, and thousands of politicians, who would like to get in on the game. They might prefer to see our Presidents elected not by red states and blue states and purple states, and not by big states or small states, but by the United States.
Perhaps Montana should be in the vanguard of this movement.
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