Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Could this be the end of the Electoral College?

It looks like California is looking to make an end run around the Electoral College. It plans to tie its 55 electoral votes (by far the most in the country) to the national popular vote. Similar proposals are in the heavily populated states of New York and Illinois, plus the moderately populated state of Missouri.

What this would mean is that if a presidential candidate wants those large states' electoral votes, he or she will have to pay more attention to the popular vote. If California (and these other states) pull this off, it'll be a good first step toward popular election of the president. This is a much more workable solution, since an actual change to the Electoral College would require a Constitutional amendment. The beauty is that this is entirely constitutional, too: all states are permitted to decide how their electoral votes are allocated.

The Electoral College is the way it is because President Jefferson didn't trust the people to elect a decent president all the time. The electors were to be informed, upstanding men who would overthrow the will of the people in case they chose some lunatic to rule them.

Jefferson's 1804 model was based on the 1787 compromise that gave every state two senators, regardless of its population. That grew from the complaint among smaller states that the larger states would overrule them in Congress if representation were done in a proportional way. The Senate was created to let both sides have their cake and eat it, too.

It's a bad deal, but abolishing the Senate is more or less out of the question, and a dubious solution, at best. However, now that we have popular election of Senators, and since we've always had it for the House of Representatives, why not have the same for the president? People in smaller states complain that their votes for president won't be worth two to six times as much as the votes for those in larger states, so they won't get their voices heard because candidates won't campaign in those states, they say. But think about it: if a state is competitive, a candidate is going to go there. Period. Bush and Gore both went after New Hampshire's four electoral votes in 2000 because things were down to the wire. Neither made a play for the 32 votes in Texas and the 31 votes in New York because their outcomes were foregone conclusions—never mind that there were Democratic voters in Texas and Republican voters in New York who might have bothered if they felt their votes would have counted.

During presidential elections, the trend already is for candidates to work largely to energize the suburbs for themselves. Democrats work to get urban areas energized; Republicans work to get rural areas energized, and they fight over the suburbs. This Electoral College change would mean that there would be a point for Democrats to campaign in cities like Indianapolis and Oklahoma City, instead of just ignoring those places because the states overall go Republican. And it would mean that there would be a point for Republicans to campaign in upstate New York and downstate Illinois, instead of just ignoring those places because the big cities in those states render the towns and rural areas there irrelevant. Downstate voters in Delaware wouldn't be wagged by what goes on upstate in Wilmington; Pennsylvania would be more than just Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; Illinois would be more than just Chicago; Alaska, Wyoming and Nebraska wouldn't be irrelevant!

Furthermore, according to the original Electoral College model, the states were supposed to let their own electors make up their own minds. But state parties ran roughshod over that model, instead setting things up so that all electoral votes cast in one state would go for the same candidate (originally done so that a presidential candidate from Virginia wouldn't have to suffer the humiliation of losing even one of his state's electoral votes.) These days, how many states still follow this model? None. Maine and Nebraska follow something similar to it, but theirs are still slanted toward the statewide winner. No one liked the model enough to stick with it, and I don't blame them.

It's been tinkered with to the point that it's become irrelevant, and a stumbling block to the expression of the will of the people. It's time for the Electoral College to go.

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