Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Graduating the Electoral College

Before you read what follows, please be aware it no longer represents the author's views. I wrote this article well before December 2012, when Republican legislatures in swing states tried to enforce the described practice on their own states. I assumed, falsely I now know, that congressional districts were delineated fairly, giving both major parties an equal chance. Sad to say, both parties have a bad recent history of gerrymandering, making the system I describe in the following article even less fair than the system we have now. Therefore, I repudiate everything you are about to read.

Nebraska made history in 2008 when, instead of giving all its electoral college votes to one Presidential candidate, it kicked one to the minority winner. Nebraska is one of only two states to use the “Congressional District Method” to apportion electoral votes (alongside Maine), though no state has split its vote in living memory. Until Omaha gave its electoral vote to Barack Obama, the “winner take all” system dominated voting cycles for generations.

Instead of celebrating a history-making event, registered Republicans in Nebraska’s nominally nonpartisan legislature began debate on a bill to reverse this law. As long as other states don’t practice this method, it’s not fair, they whined, that Nebraska gave up one vote that would have made no difference in the overall election. Though this method wasn’t overturned, Nebraska’s subsequent redistricting ensured a Republican majority in all congressional districts.

Yet this divided system seems desirable to me. Because Nebraska has such a system, Democratic candidate proxies like Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama visited a state that would otherwise have been a solid Republican lock. A state that was overlooked in the 2000 and 2004 election cycles was treated like its vote actually mattered. Even if one insignificant vote got diverted, the benefits to Nebraska voters seem inestimable.

More states could benefit from dividing the vote in this manner. Many states that seem secure for one party—like Texas, Louisiana, or Arizona for the Republicans, or New York, Illinois, and California for the Democrats—actually ended the last few election cycles divided by less than ten percent. What’s more, the respective voting blocs are generally concentrated in geographic regions: mainly cities for Democrats, more rural areas for Republicans.

In 2008, national media considered California, Oregon, and Washington such a lock for Democrats that they called all three states for Obama before any voting precincts reported in. But all three are dominated by large coastal cities with Democratic bases. The rural inland counties, as well as cities like San Diego with substantial military populations, trend significantly Republican in all three states. Rural populations stand hostage to rich urban centers.

America’s Founding Fathers created a bicameral Congress apportioned on two different standards so that large cities and populous states could not run roughshod over smaller agrarian regions. Yet giving a state’s entire electoral representation results in exactly this power imbalance. Republicans in Umatilla, Oregon, or Democrats in Austin, Texas, might as well not vote for President.

Imagine, though, if all US states divided their electoral votes like Nebraska does. Instead of taking entire states for granted, candidates would have to campaign by the congressional district, stumping for votes at ground level. This would make a Presidential bid much more labor-intensive for the candidates and their organizations, but since it would diminish the influence of statewide and national media blitzes, it would also help offset big money.

The last several Presidential contests have turned on “battleground states,” a list that has fallen significantly in recent election cycles. Most media agreed on a core list of thirteen swing states in 2004, yet by 2008, six states split narrowly enough to count as battlegrounds. This is a momentous drop-off since 1992, when seventeen states split narrowly enough to be worth fighting for. Too many states’ elections results today are foregone conclusions.

The same cannot be said for congressional districts. As Omaha proved in the last cycle, a city or region can shift suddenly when it feels its interests or regional identity are jeopardized. Omaha, a non-unionized industrial city, usually meets the Republicans’ core demographic. But with a growing minority population, and a labor base that has been decimated by offshoring less prestigious jobs, Omaha felt the McCain-Palin platform threatened its heart.

Despite perennial grumbling, America has never abolished the Electoral College. Considering the difficulty in amending the Constitution, it’s unlikely to ever be abolished. And small states like Nebraska, which sees its Presidential voting presence nearly doubled by the Electoral College system, gain from the continuation of the system. While far from perfect, the Electoral College certainly enhances the character of America’s federal structure.

Nevertheless, splitting the Electoral vote according to the Congressional District Method will advance America’s democratic principles. It will prevent Presidential candidates from taking entire states for granted. It will forestall hasty calls like we saw in Florida in 2000. And it will force candidates to meet voters where they live, instead of depending on corporate cash for media extravaganzas. In short, dividing the Electoral vote will unify America’s voting process.


  1. Dividing a state's electoral votes by congressional district winners would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country's congressional districts.

    The district approach would not provide incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates' attention to issues of concern to the state. With the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all laws (whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts (the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race was competitive in only 3 of the state's 53 districts. Nationwide, there have been only 55 "battleground" districts that were competitive in presidential elections. With the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, 2/3rds of the states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, 88% of the nation's congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

    Awarding electoral votes by congressional district could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

    Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

    Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

  2. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), without needing to amend the Constitution.

    The National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It changes the way electoral votes are awarded by states in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states). It assures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, in 2012 will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been just spectators to the presidential elections. That's more than 85 million voters.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    States have the responsibility and power to make all of their voters relevant in every presidential election and beyond.

    Unable to agree on any particular method, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method for selecting presidential electors exclusively to the states by adopting the language contained in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

    The powers of state governments are neither increased nor decreased based on whether presidential electors are selected along the state boundary lines, or national lines (as with the National Popular Vote).

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

  3. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state, ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only the current handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    Now presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. When and where votes don't matter, candidates ignore those areas and the issues they care about most.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE --75%, ID -77%, ME - 77%, MT- 72%, NE - 74%, NH--69%, NE - 72%, NM - 76%, RI - 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT - 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

    In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and enacted by three jurisdictions.

  4. In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

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