Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Whither the Electoral College


By Bill Kraus

The Electoral College system of picking a president is under fire, again. As it comes under close and critical scrutiny and as other options are proposed, Churchill’s aphorism about democracy being the worst system of government except for all those other systems comes to mind.

The assertion that there is something absurd about a national election that is basically contested in and settled by the results in only seven or eight states is hard to dispute.

Until the other ideas come under the microscope.

First, it is necessary to point out that it will take a constitutional change to go to the obvious proposal: the winner of the national popular vote wins the election.

Why the founders did not go this route is irrelevant. They didn’t. The Electoral College with its geographical and other quirks, which they chose instead, can only be changed if 38 states ratify the amendment to do this. Almost all of those 38 states are or feel favored by the Electoral College and don’t care that New York, California and Texas are ignored in presidential campaigns.

The obvious is unattainable.

There are, however, a couple of ways to skip going to college as it were.

The electors can vote any way they want to or any way their state tells them to. They can, in short, be told to ignore the results in their own states and vote instead for whoever wins the national popular vote.

Eight states with 132 electoral votes have already agreed to do this if and when enough states to get to the 269 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election have passed laws to this effect.

This is not an unmixed blessing. Campaigns would no longer focus on the seven or eight swing states. Instead they would target cities, high population centers. No one in Wisconsin who doesn’t live in the southeast corner, and maybe Madison, would ever see a presidential candidate again. They would be spending their time and money in New York, Los Angeles and Houston, where the votes are.

We just had a billion dollar campaign where TV spending was concentrated in a few states. How much would TV-driven campaigns cost if they had to be pitched to the 100 biggest TV markets? The mind reels.

There are other, sneakier ways to get around the winner-take-all, state-by-state format. They all come under the aegis of proportional representation instead of winner take all. The most likely is making electors cast their electoral votes by congressional district instead of by state.

Maine and Nebraska’s electors have been instructed to do this for years. This has gained some favor recently as gerrymandering by math as well as map has raised its ugly head.

Take Milwaukee as an example of how this would work again. Milwaukee would disappear from the campaigners and campaign spenders' schedule for sure. The rest of Wisconsin, where the congressional results are pre-ordained by decades of gerrymandering, will probably have seen its last presidential campaign TV commercial as well.

The national campaign pattern would be spotty but predictable. Only those congressional districts which have not been made safe for one party or the other will be in play, assuming there are any of those left.

As for me, I’m with Churchill. The Electoral College, winner-take-all system is the worst possible way to decide presidential elections except for all those other ways.

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