Thursday, July 29, 2010

End Run Around The Electoral College

If you've lived in Texas for the last thirty years or so, you've probably noticed how your vote in presidential elections didn't mean much. Or maybe you didn't notice because you don't know any different. If you're under fifty or so, it's been this way your entire voting life. The reason is because of our Electoral College system that awards all of a state's electoral votes to the winner of the vote in that state. Texas has been so reliably Republican for decades that presidential candidates pretty much bypass the state during the quadrennial campaign for the White House.

After the jump, why that just might change.

The election of 2008 was unusually exciting for Texans because the Democratic nomination was up for grabs at the time of the Texas primary election. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton crisscrossed the state, holding rallies and running television and radio commercials, stuffing mailboxes and burning up the phone wires with robocalls. Texas mattered! How invigorating. Then, once the party conventions were held, Texas was forgotten again. John McCain won Texas' 34 electoral votes with hardly an appearance in the state except for occasional stops to raise money at $1000 a plate dinners.

Could this change? The news out of Massachusetts this week describes one way that it could. Massachusetts became the sixth state to pass a National Popular Vote (NPV) law that would award that state's electoral votes to the candidate who won the most votes nationally. The law would take effect once enough states joined the compact to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote would win the Electoral College vote as well. A voter in Texas would become just as important as a voter in a swing state like Florida or Ohio.

We're a long way from getting the requisite number of states to join this interstate compact for it to take effect. And there are powerful arguments against the reform that will be hard to overcome. Let's examine a few.

One is that it's an end-run around the Constitution. Well, kind of. But the Constitution gives a lot of latitude to the states. Article II, Section 1. "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors". Legislatures have used this power to appoint electors in different ways in different states and in different ways in different eras. The Founders designed in enough flexibility to allow for significant evolution over time. NPV could be another stage in that evolution.

Another argument is that the chaos that was Florida in 2000 would be immeasurably worse if we had a national popular vote. But Florida in 2000 demonstrates that our current system has no solution to the problem of razor-thin elections, either. Remember, the Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the recount in Florida. NPV may not solve that problem, but it does solve other problems, like the fact that the current system periodically awards the White House to the candidate who loses the popular vote.

Another argument is that a national popular election invites fraud at every polling location in the country. But if every polling location in the country today does *not* invite fraud, then it's a flaw in our current system. If there's no reward for fraud, it's because those votes today have no value (like your vote in Texas). The way to stop fraud is to stop fraud, not remove the incentive to vote for everyone in one of these "safe" states.

Yet another argument is that NPV would increase the importance of cities over rural districts. Some fear that candidates would ignore whole states like Wyoming and North Dakota. But under the current rules, those states, both reliably Republican, get ignored anyway. More importantly, if cities are where most of the people are, why shouldn't we expect and even want candidates to focus their attention there? How is it fair to have a system that gives a voter in Wyoming *more* weight in deciding elections than a voter in, say, Chicago? Besides, the fear is probably overblown. If, as some predict, NPV leads to nationalized elections, more money will be spent on national advertising and voters in all those out-of-the-way rural towns will end up seeing more of the candidates, not less.

Perhaps the best argument against NPV is that it would increase the influence of money on our elections. With the current system, candidates can focus their time and money on a few battleground states, the swing states where the vote is evenly split. That gives the less well funded candidate a fighting chance to get his message out. With NPV, this strategy goes out the window and candidates have to wage a much more expensive nationalized campaign. That favors the moneyed interests over the insurgent candidate. NPV is likely to further entrench the haves and disadvantage the have-nots. I think that's bad, but others might either favor that or take an impartial attitude.

Where you come down on this question depends on how firmly you believe in one-man, one-vote (the way the House is apportioned), or one-state, one-vote (the way the Senate is apportioned), or some hybrid of the two (the way the Electoral College is apportioned). There's no one right answer. Massachusetts' vote gets us one small step closer to the one-man, one-vote principle. And that can't be all bad.

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