Failing Electoral College

Failing Electoral College

As California Republicans seek to game the dysfunctional Electoral College, a campaign is rising to establish a national popular vote.

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The Electoral College is one of American democracy’s most troubling eyesores–and it’s getting worse. It gives voters unequal power based on where they live, can defeat the winner of the national popular vote and sidelines the majority of Americans, who live outside the dozen or so swing states. It also creates great opportunities for gaming the system–just ask California Republicans, who recently endorsed a proposed June 2008 ballot measure to divide California’s slate of fifty-five electoral votes. They want the California winner–certain to be a Democrat next year–to take only two electoral votes, with the rest distributed according to who wins each Congressional district. If the measure is approved, Republicans would be guaranteed an Ohio-sized bloc of electors in a state they haven’t won since 1988.

Democrats will spend millions to defeat this power grab. They have a strong case; allocating electoral votes by Congressional district is a misguided, undemocratic approach whether it’s done state by state or nationally. In California, for example, only three Congressional districts were within an 8 percent margin in the presidential vote, hardly enough to draw candidates. On the national level, Congressional district allocation has a massive Republican bias due to Democratic votes being more concentrated in urban areas–in 2004, George W. Bush carried 59 percent of districts with 51 percent of the popular vote and in 2000 won 52 percent of districts while losing the popular vote to Al Gore.

Fortunately, we have the perfect vehicle for action: National Popular Vote (nationalpopularvote.com). Its founder, John Koza, refused to accept the conventional wisdom that nothing could be done for the landslide majority of voters who support electing Presidents by a national popular vote. His plan promises to make 2008 one of our last state-by-state elections for President.

The Constitution provides a road map for Koza’s proposal. First, as California Republicans well know, states have plenary power over how to award their electoral votes; indeed some used to skip holding popular elections. Second, states can enter into binding interstate compacts: for example, the Port Authority agreement between New York and New Jersey and the Colorado River Compact. Putting those powers together, the National Popular Vote plan involves states entering into a compact to collectively award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. It would take effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes–that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President. The Electoral College will exist, but as a quaint relic: All focus in campaigns will be on who wins the national vote because that candidate is guaranteed to be President.

Since National Popular Vote’s launch last year, its plan has passed legislative chambers in Arkansas, Illinois, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois and North Carolina and won full enactment in Maryland. More than 360 state legislators from many states have agreed to sponsor the legislation, and endorsers include FairVote, Common Cause, the Asian American Action Fund, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Latino Congreso, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and former members of Congress like Republicans Tom Campbell and Jake Garn, Independent John Anderson and Democrat Birch Bayh.

FairVote’s Presidential Election Inequality report powerfully demonstrates the case for reform. Many states’ status as mere spectators is becoming entrenched, with the number of truly competitive states declining. That means fewer and fewer voters cast a meaningful ballot and have their concerns heard. In 2004 voter turnout was ten points higher in the twelve closest battleground states than in the twelve most lopsided states, and young adults in swing states were a third more likely to vote–a disparity sure to widen in 2008. In an eerie echo of the Electoral College’s early years, when it favored slave states, a white person is now 50 percent more likely to live in a swing state than is a person of color. Rural states with small populations are also poorly represented, with only one of our thirteen smallest states competitive in 2004.

Louisiana is the poster child for how the current system affects policy. When hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, federal reaction was widely applauded–a far cry from the calamitous failures after Katrina struck New Orleans. It’s no coincidence that Florida is the quintessential battleground. In the final five weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign, the four major candidates for President and Vice President made sixty-one campaign stops in Florida out of 291 nationally. Of $237 million spent on TV ads in that period by the campaigns and their backers, more than a quarter was spent in Florida. In contrast, Louisiana–like most states–earned no campaign visits during those final weeks and a measly $203,000 in TV ads. No campaign consultant studied Louisiana voters; indeed, Bush’s campaign team didn’t poll a single person outside eighteen battleground states in the thirty months leading up to the election.

Establishing a national popular vote has remarkable popular support: 70 percent in recent polls, with particularly high support among independent swing voters. Arguments in favor of the current system are at best dated and at worst elitist and defeatist. By strengthening the voting power of all Americans and treating all voters equally, the National Popular Vote plan rests on a key pillar for any lasting reform: equality. Candidates for national office should have incentives to speak to everyone; parties should have every incentive to build in all states; volunteers should be empowered to take action wherever they live; and all Americans should have the power to hold their President accountable, whether they live in the hills of Utah, the plains of Kansas, the streets of Chicago or the coasts of Florida. Only a national popular vote will do.

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