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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Electoral College reform

Can the Electoral College be changed without a constitutional amendment?

Obviously, the winner-take-all scheme currently in use in 48 states and the District of Columbia can be altered as Maine (since 1972) and Nebraska (since 1996) allocate electoral votes by congressional district. If a presidential candidate wins a district in those two states, he or she receives the EV from that area. Neither state, in practice, has ever split its votes.

So far as I know, not a lot of states are thinking about joining Maine and Nebraska. Given that congressional districts have been heavily gerrymandered, leading to few competitive districts, this "reform" would probably be a very bad idea for those who want to see a truly national presidential election rather than one focused on key swing areas. According to this AP story, in 2004, 52% of all campaign ads nationwide were concentrated in merely 3 states!

Some analysts note studies finding that the congressional district method, as well as state-by-state proportional voting, would actually increase the chance that the popular vote winner of an election would lose in the Electoral College. Avoiding that outcome is the primary motive for most people thinking about EC reform.

The June 16 Christian Science Monitor had an interesting story about a potentially better proposal gaining some political traction. First, however, correspondent Randy Dotinga documented the apparent need for change. In addition to the 2000 election, the popular vote winner failed to win the presidency in 1824, 1876 and 1888. Flip a relatively small portion of the national electorate -- or merely the Ohio electorate -- and the same would have happened in 2004:
"It's safe to say that there has been no aspect of what the founders worked up in Philadelphia that has received more criticism than the electoral college," says historian Rick Shenkman of George Mason University.
Congress has taken up numerous measures -- the Office of the Federal Register says about 700 proposals have failed in Congress.

The latest proposal, however, is not a constitutional amendment, which would be very difficult to achieve. Small states and swing states have much vested in the status quo and are unlikely to favor change. Note that these small states might not have as much invested in the current system as they think. The FairVote study cited by AP found that 11 of the 18 smallest states received no campaign attention during the peak of the 2004 election season.

In any event, the latest "state compact" measure is on the agenda in various state legislatures. Colorado's senate and California's Assembly passed a plan that would work this way:
"You give all your electoral votes to the national popular vote winner, and you do it collectively," [Rob] Richie [director of FairVote, a national, non-partisan electoral-reform organization] said last week. The U.S. Constitution leaves it up to the states to choose the mechanism for allocating their electoral votes.
Legislators in New York, Missouri, Louisiana and Illinois have introduced bills and supporters hope to have the measure on every states' legislative docket by 2007. Various "good government" groups support the measure, as does The New York Times. Former independent candidate John Anderson (yes, I voted for him in 1980 as he was arguably the politician that some people want John McCain to be) worked on a bipartisan advisory group that also approved the plan.

More technically, the measure amounts to a state compact that would only take effect if states holding 270 EVs approve a compact to achieve majority control of the Electoral College. Undoubtedly, the move would be tested in court if it ever came to be.

To reverse the 2000 outcome, of course, it would have taken only one state won by George W. Bush, such as Colorado, Louisiana or Missouri, to participate in such a compact. In 2004, had Kerry won Ohio, the result could have been reversed by a compact including California, New York, or Illinois.

As I've written before, I'm in favor of presidential campaigns that are truly nationwide, rather than centered upon a few swing areas. Why should a voter in New Hampshire or New Mexico have a vote worth many times the value of my vote? The state compact proposal would likely lead to candidates trying to attract as many voters nationwide as possible. Doesn't that seem like a good idea -- and a way to help overcome voter apathy as well?

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