Thursday, October 23, 2008

Time to get rid of the electoral college?

I was never the most popular kid in school. I was too talkative. I was that over-anxious kid in class who was way too interested in raising his hand and proving he was smart. Of course, that's my own personal issues, but makes me a bit surprised that I am starting to wonder whether it is time to get rid of the electoral college and replace it with a popularity contest.

A couple days ago I saw a headline on either MSNBC, Huffington Post, or Politico where a columnist was writing about this very topic. I'll admit that I didn't take the time to read the article then and I can't find it now. So instead to bone up on the topic I bit, I read this semi-slanted, but historically interesting piece put out by the Federal Election Commission. Discounting its obviously biased omission about the 2000 election not electing the victor of the popular vote, it is definitely worth a read if you want to get a sense of why we have the electoral college in the first place. To try to summarize it as best as I can, basically the decision was made for three reasons: (1) the country wanted to safeguard against states essentially voting for a popular son; (2) the forefathers didn't trust political parties; and (3) citizens at that time believed that gentlemen should not campaign for office, and as the author of the piece, William C. Kimberling points out, the saying of the time was: "The office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office."

So with that as a backdrop and without going into details about the various iterations that the electoral college has gone through, we have our current system which gives each state a handful (or in a few states' cases quite a few handfuls) of votes based on the number of representatives in Congress that state has. In other words, it is a popularity contest that is, for the most part, based on 50 1/2 "people" deciding who is president, with each of those 50 1/2 people being more important than the next.

But a goofy thing happened on the ole trip to the electoral college store: Political parties got big. And TV, radio, and the Internet made it convenient not to campaign everywhere. And states got awfully partisan. To the point that now, presidential politics is basically a game fighting over usually 9-12 states. In some years, you might see an election where a few extra states are in play, but usually (and for at least the last 3 election cycles) you see the same states in play. Those states are: Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Florida. And all the other states? Well unless you have a $1000 or more plate fundraiser being held in your state, no visits for the real average Joes of the country.

Which is where the problem is in my mind. Because most states are either safely blue or safely red, the locus of power in the country ends up being in these 9-12 states that swing back and forth. Now, I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but I really wouldn't be surprised to see that politics ends up seeping itself into a presidential candidate's mind when voting on bills. You think that maybe Ohio or Florida sees a pet project go its way based on a later plan of a candidate to campaign there?

So, seeing Obama and Biden and the Clintons and McCain and Palin going to the same places, again and again and again, this campaign season, it has gotten me to wondering. And my wonderment takes me to these questions: Is this truly a problem? And is there a simple solution?

And interestingly, the thought that is percolating in my head arose after watching the way Obama has campaigned this season. A funny thing happened in the 2008 election: Obama forgot or didn't realize that there are red states and that there are blue states. He forgot to read the memo that says in presidential politics, you forget about the red states and focus on the 9-12 purple states. Instead, Obama branched out. Now, I suspect that the only reason he was in a position to do this was: (a) because the primary season was as long as it was; and (b) because he's raised nearly $600 million this campaign season. Name recognition and loads of cash make that sort of strategy feasible.

But it did something else: It started energizing Democrats in states that hadn't been terribly energized in the past 40 something years. Think about this: with 12 days before the election, multiple polls show Obama ahead in states like Indiana, Colorado, Montana, Virginia, North Carolina, and Nevada.

Think about that while at the same time understanding this: The last time those states voted for a Democrat were:

  • Indiana = 1964
  • Colorado = 1992
  • Montana = 1992
  • Virginia = 1964
  • North Carolina = 1976
  • Nevada = 1996

It isn't like any of these states are exactly bastions of Democratic voters. But Obama is competing there. And guess what each of those states have in common? Democrats have actually campaigned there this campaign season.

So what we actually see is that people get a whole heckuva lot more excited about a campaign when candidates actually show up in the state. Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that the only correlation between this new interest is based solely on the visits and not the fact that we have huge domestic issues, a war that has been an extremely divisive issue over the last six years, a historically unpopular president, and a wildly dynamic Democratic candidate. But the campaigning there can't have hurt.

And here's the point: If candidates can boost electoral participation based on simply visiting a state, isn't that a good thing? And wouldn't we ensure that candidates would visit more places if a state's votes weren't a foregone conclusion? Since 2000, this country has taken huge steps forward trying to make sure that voters aren't disenfranchised, instituting early voting in many states, offering additional finances to states to update their voting machines, and a larger focus from both major parties in GOTV efforts and registering new voters. Wouldn't one of the next step be to make sure that every vote actually counted? You know, by making presidential politics a popular vote? Every other elected office in the country is decided by the popular vote and we seem to do okay there.

Now is the time to get rid of an outdated campaign system that doesn't really count many of our votes. Now is the time to force campaigns and candidates and the political parties to not consider any state or any vote is a foregone conclusion. Now is the time for the political parties and the presidential candidates realize that if you are going to represent all of America then all of America deserves to see you in its states before it puts you in the highest office in the land. Now is the time to get rid of the electoral college.


JB said...

For those of you interested in where I got the state voting information, I meant to include the site, but forgot. When looking up this info, I always rely on Dave Leip's fantastic site, I highly recommend it for its accuracy and useability. Enjoy!

The Premature Curmudgeon said...


I) You write them long - perhaps almost too long for blogging.

II) My own personal checklist for presidential characteristics are:

1) ability to inspire
2) long-term vision for the country
3) intellectual curiosity
4) intellectual ability

I would argue that (1) is somewhat equivalent to popular (note: you might not have guessed, but I wasn't popular in high school, or middle school, either (although somewhat in grade school)). So maybe the fact that we run a popularity, "Who would you rather have a beer with?" contest isn't such a bad thing.

III) For what it's worth, I think we ought to abolish the Electoral College and elect via popular vote.

Jeff W