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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fixing The Electoral College

It seems that everybody is talking politics these days. Most of the discussions fall on the economy, government intervention, and health care. However, I'm not interested in rehashing these topics. Instead, I will try to help the mess that is The Electoral College.

The Electoral College, like most compromises, is far from perfect. Its design, like the bicameral Congress, was to put more balance between the large and small states. Since the disaster of the 2000 presidential election, recount, and eventual court case, there has been more talk of eliminating the Electoral College. (Admittedly, that talk has died off since George W. Bush is no longer holds office.)


[Side note: The following paragraph is very dry. It's just rehashing the past Electoral College controversies. If you know your U.S. history, even a little bit, then you can probably skip it.]

There have been a few instances where a presidential election has resulted in no candidate received the majority of electoral votes. In 1800 both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73 electoral votes each. This sent the election to the House of Representatives and led to the adoption of the 12th Amendment. In 1824, no candidate again received a majority and again the election went to the House of Representatives and John Quincy Adams became president. 1876 had Rutherford Hayes and Samuel Tilden fighting for the presidency. Several states were too close to call. Tilden only needed one to wind the office and Hayes needed all. The Electoral Commission awarded all the states to Hayes, who then promptly ended Reconstruction in the South. The next time there was an Electoral controversy was in 2000. (If you don't know this story, you are probably foreign, very young, or stupid. You can learn about it all here.)

[Still with me? Good. Let's keep going.]

Eliminating the Electoral College, for most people, means adopting a simple, popular vote. Tilden, Al Gore, and Andrew Jackson received more of the popular votes than their competition. (There isn't popular data for the 1800 election.) Why not just adopt the popular vote for elections then?

For the same reason that we have a bicameral Congress, we have an indirect way of electing the President. If not for the Electoral College, candidates would only need to focus on the most populous states and cities. This would lead to a smaller group of the population having a greater influence. On top of that smaller states and cities would have less influence and become disenfranchised. The question then becomes, how can we make the election fair for states big and small, and reflect the will of the nation as a whole? Well, two states already have a plan in place that fits this criteria.

The Maine/Nebraska Plan
  • Each state retains the number of electoral votes they have (which could change based on census data).
  • All of a state's electoral votes are no longer awarded on a winner-take-all system.
  • Each Congressional District within a state would have one electoral vote up for grabs.
  • The candidate who wins the plurality of votes statewide would get the remaining two electoral votes.
  • D.C.'s electoral number will remain the same, the same as the state with the fewest.
  • The candidate who wins a plurality of electoral votes wins the Presidency.
For example let's take Nevada in 2008. Nevada currently has five electoral votes and in 2008 all of those votes went to Barack Obama. If we apply the ME/NE formula to Nevada, then Obama wins four of those electoral votes and John McCain wins the 2nd District by a little under 3,000 votes and receives the other remaining vote. CQ Politics has a break down of how the 435 districts voted in 2008. If the entire country used the ME/NE formula, John McCain would have gotten 237 electoral votes (as opposed to the 174 he did under the current plan) and Barack Obama would have received 301 (instead of the 364 he got).

The result for 2008 would have remained the same, but the numbers would have shown how close of a race that it was. The popular vote was about 130 million for this election, Obama received approximately 54% and McCain had about 46%. Comparatively, Obama got nearly 68% of the electoral vote and McCain received about 32%. Under the ME/NE plan, Obama would have 56% of the electoral votes and McCain 44%. (Holy shit! That nearly mirrors the popular vote percentages!)

There is more to it than just mirroring the popular vote. 438 electoral votes are won on an individual basis, meaning candidates will have 388 more voting districts to try and win over. This could lead to a greater focus on local politics too. Another benefit is the idea that a candidate would take office with less of a "mandate" which could result in actual bi-partisanship. (A concept oft-talked of, but not seen since 1993.) Another important aspect is that each Congressional District has approximately the same number of citizens. This gives every district an equal footing (CA 16th district has the same influence and importance as SC 3rd) with all of them possessing one vote. It also eliminates "swing" states where candidates focus much of the election cycle.

There are some downsides to this plan. The biggest of which is redistricting. Every ten years, some states gain new districts, some lose districts, and many districts are redrawn. By putting even more importance on these districts, the redistricting process could become even more contentious than it already is and result in more examples of running off to Oklahoma and  Gerrymandering. If this problem could be handled, by say, having a non-partisan (or bi-partisan) board of district draftees, then there aren't many other problems that are holding this down.

Members of Congress or state legislators, please adopt the Maine/Nebraska plan for distribution of the Electoral College. It is a small issue, but it is something that needs to be fixed. Plus, you can point to it as something that you accomplished while in office. And people love to see that their elected officials have done something.

So, that's my plan for fixing the Electoral College. Love my idea? Hate it? Have a better plan? Let me know in the comments section below!

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