A creature of antiquated compromise between the united states
Flunk the Electoral College
This 2008 article is adapted from the new book, "A Return to Common Sense: 7 Bold Ways to Revitalize Our Democracy." The author is the executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a think tank and advocacy organization focusing on democracy. He was the chief speech writer for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999. Posted June 12 at AlterNet.
By Michael WaldmanFor a long time, the Electoral College seemed like a quaint anachronism with little real impact, little more than a question on the citizenship test and a subject for political thriller novels. Then, of course, came the 2000 election. The aftermath of that contest has forced campaigns and ordinary voters to focus more on the system. Rather than taking it as a distorting given, though, we can do something about it.
The Electoral College is the exploding cigar of American politics. Four times, the candidate who won fewer votes nonetheless has become president. (Political scientists, with rare concision, call this the "wrong winner" problem.) In 2000, Al Gore got half a million votes more than George W. Bush, a wider popular vote margin than John F. Kennedy had to best Richard Nixon -- but with Florida, Bush won the Electoral College, 271-266.
Near misses are even more common. In 2004, Bush won the popular vote, but a switch of 60,000 in Ohio would have elected John Kerry. In 1976, the election would have been thrown into the House of Representatives with the shift of a few thousand votes in Delaware and Ohio. And when the House chooses, each state gets one vote, giving empty Idaho the same say as crowded California.
But the truth is, the Electoral College warps competition and subverts political equality even when it does work.
Because most states are reliably "red" or "blue," candidates focus nearly all their efforts on a few "swing" states. As a result, many voters never see a campaign ad, receive more than a perfunctory candidate visit, or experience the mass mobilization and get-out-the-vote fervor of a real campaign. The corn farmer living in Iowa (one of the Sweet Seventeen) is coveted by both parties and showered with goodies such as ethanol subsidies. But just next door, the wheat grower in Republican South Dakota is insignificant to presidential candidates. Ditto the hog farmer in Nebraska, the potato grower in Idaho, and the rancher in Oklahoma.
Imagine, by contrast, a system in which every vote counted equally. Candidates would be forced to appeal to the broadest groups of voters, forced to campaign where people actually live, forced to focus on turnout.
It is far more important that citizens have their voices heard than that states do. Gun owners or women or students or evangelical Christians live all over the country -- but only the ones in Ohio or Florida get wooed and get organized.
Why not change the Constitution? That solution is obvious and elegant. The greatest strides toward democracy often have come through amendments. In fact, five of the Constitutional amendments have changed who can vote and how. (Most recently, the voting age was lowered to 18.)
Yet it's hard to pass an amendment. However, we can circumvent the Electoral College with an approach called National Popular Vote. Instead of states giving their electors to the candidate who wins the popular vote in their state, states could agree to give their electors to the candidate who wins the popular vote in the whole nation. If enough states to total a majority of electoral votes sign such a compact, then it would take effect. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits it.
Maryland became the first state to sign the compact, and New Jersey the second. Other states are expected to follow suit. Once they do, NPV would make a huge difference in forcing public officials to represent a much broader segment of the populace.
JJS: Losing the Electoral College is necessary. And gaining reforms like campaign finance reform, and equal access to the media, debates, and ballots for all candidates, and ranking of the voterís top three candidates, and proportional representation of parties by votes garnered is also needed. Most European nations already have these democratic features.
Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.
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