Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Revamping the Electoral College

I remember having discussions with friends during the last election/travesty in 2004. My main sticking point with the process by which we choose our leaders (besides the ludicrously petty and unethical atmosphere of campaigning that has become the norm....swift boat vets for truth, I'm looking at you...) is the way the electoral college is set up.

N.B. This is NOT an argument for getting rid of the electoral college. Read on.

Now don't get me wrong, I support the electoral college. It's an important embodiment of the federal nature of the government, representing that states as entities, etc etc etc. I understand why a straight direct vote doesn't work. However, I think the "winner takes all" method of dividing electoral votes is neither necessary, nor in line with the fundamental principles the college and its architects envisioned for this great democracy.

The current system gives the whole of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the greatest percent of the popular vote. That means a 51%/49% split gets represented as a 100% win. This is a perennial gripe in states like my native NY, who are largely red outside of the NYC area and select other cities. In fact, a look at the final returns from the last election shows that few if any states are all or nothing for one candidate, and the overwhleming majority are very close to 50/50 splits, with a point or two making the difference.

( is a great non-partisan resource for straight data without spin/influence.)

So we wind up with a situation where a state is "red" or "blue" based on a couple percentage points, rather than an overwhelming mandate from its citizens.

The inherent problem is not the college itself, which ensures that states are not completely overshadowed by spatial distribution of population by region, etc. This is a worthwhile and necessary thing. however, the "winner takes all" way of dividing the electoral votes IS NOT NECESSARY TO SERVE THIS PURPOSE.

The assumption I hold to be false is that a state can only vote one way or the an individual. I cannot split my vote, so the traditional thinking is, that as a state is an entity under the federal system, either can it. I completely disagree, because that concept runs smack dab upside the head of the more fundamental concepts of the man, one vote, et al. A state is an entity as far as interaction with the national government over spheres of influence, but I would hold that it is not a voting entity. Even under the current system, the "state" as an entity is not deciding a vote, it is merely reporting the result of the outcome of the REAL voting entities, the people. If the political subdivision as entity theory was sound, then each successive level of government would in effect represent its own voting entity. Each municipality, each county, each senatorial district, and so on, each with their own electoral college, etc. This is not the case. Certainly the state as an entity in our federal system is unique from these poltiical subdivisions, but not, I would argue, in the sense that it represents a voting entity. Its uniqueness derives from the general division of regulatory powers. As the election is for a national office, and as the standard unit of voting is "one man", the state's unique status in the federal system in terms of regulatory powers does not impart on it a presumptive right to supercede the individual citizen's expressed right to exercise their vote. In essence, under the US federal system, I would argue that the true division of government is among three parties, the national/federal government, the state governments, and the individual. This is the trinity, as it were, or centuries of legal precedent in other realms. For some reason, however, when it comes to the electoral college, the state usurps to some degree the rights held by the individual.

So we are left with two competing interests:

1) the states' interest in the original intent of the electoral college, i.e., to ensure that the non-uniform nature of population distribution is mitigated to some degree by ensuring that every state has at least SOME (though NOT equal) say in the electoral process, as is also mirrored in the setup of the Senate to a more pronounced degree, and;

2) the indivudal's interest in exercising their vote on the national level without impedance by the state, i.e. to have their vote count at the national level, and not be lost in the winner takes all decision made on the state level.

While this would seem to represent an either/or argument for the existence of the electoral college in general, I would argue that the two aims are ONLY incompatible under the current "winner takes all" system. I would also go further to argue that that system is not necessary to meet the interest of the states, and is the antithesis of meeting the interests of the individual.

So what to do?

Proportionate Representation (the Purple State Solution)
My idea, which has undoubtedly been thrown about for centuries before it popped into my humble head, is for states to divide their electoral votes based on the outcome of the total vote in that state. Any remainder would go to the "winning" party of that state.

Example: California's total vote comes out as 58% democrat, 42% republican. California has 55 EVs. Ordinarily that would mean the Dems pocket all 55 EVs. However, under a proportional representation setup, the electoral votes would be split up as Dems 31.68 (58 % of the 55 EVs) and Republicans 23.31 % (42% of the 55 EVs). To stick with whole votes, the sum of the remainders is given to the higher percentage. The Dems got a higher percentage, so they would recieve 32 votes, and the Reps, 23.

Under this system, the actual "voice" of the voters in any given state, and at the national level, is more truthfully represented. Because the NUMBER of EVs a state gets doesn't change, the states' interest regarding representation is still entact. Essentially, California still casts the electoral votes, it just doesn't have to cast them all for one person. The substantial chunk of republicans in california whose voice rarely is heard becomes important.

I believe this system is vastly superior to the current system because of the following benefits:

1) The one man, one vote concept is held true at all levels, while at the same time keeping the original intent of the EC intact.

2) many states (like NY, CA, TX, etc) are perenially won by the same party, leaving the voters of the other party with what essentially amounts to no say in a national election, contrary to the individual voter being the essential unit of said national election. Republican voters in NY don't often get the chance to influence a national election, as the state almost invariably goes blue.

3) The national election and campaigns truly become national, with each candidate having to fight for votes in every state, not just "battleground states". To be truly successful, a candidate now has to appeal not just to one select set of demographic categories or regions, but to all of them.

4) related to #4, the venemous and increasingly polarized partisanship of a winner takes all system in which "red and blue" states is the determining factor is diminshed in effectiveness. In a sea of purple states (red AND blue) a more moderate/centrist approach becomes more viable.

5) As per the original intent of the EC to mitigate some degree of the spatial disparity of population distribution on the national level, a proportional system would help ensure that the same mitigation takes places on the state level. States seldom have uniform population distribution, and party affiliation in most states closely mirrors spatial distribution. Therefore, the same fear the states/regions had about representation on the national level at the outset is valid for individuals within a state. A republican farmer in upstate NY suffers the same isolation from the decision-making process on the state level (in terms of the national election) as some states feared they would. While the electoral college serves to partially mitigate that, and the Senate allocation continues to do so, there is no such protection for the individual within a state, under the winner takes all system. There is greater protection under proportional representation, because it essentially renders spatial distribtion moot.

6) a Two-party system has lead to a considerable entrenchment and polarization of the platforms of the two parties and the nation. The ability to gain EVs without winning a state will open the doors for greater participation by third parties, and thus greater participation for the constituents who support them.

In essence, proportional representation offers a more valid accounting of the will of both the states and the nation. Since states by defintion in our federal system, are separated by their regulatory spheres, not a status as a voting entity, and as they are already represented in that capacity in the Senate, the states' interests are not diminshed. If anything, proportional represnetation serves the same goal on the state level that the EC in general serves on the national level.

I realize this is a mental exercise, and not much else. We are firmly entrenched in our current system, and greater minds than I can probably tear my argument to shreds. However, to me there is an underlying spirit to the great American experiment in democracy. That spirit is one of equality under the law, and the unalienable status of each indivudal in relation to his government. Even against a sea of rhetoric and semantics in support of "winner takes all", I cannot help but feel it is wholly unable to be reconciled with this fundamental American spirit.

Cliffs notes: I think the "winner takes all" system of allcoating electoral votes from states (in which all votes go to the winning party regardless of what % they won by) is antithetical to the fundamental concepts the country was founded on, and am arguing that electoral votes should be divied up by the % a party won in a given state, with any remainder (less than full electoral vote) going to the "winning" party of that state. I argue that this supports both the fundamental prupose of the EC as well as the fundamental role of the individual in the national election. In the spirit of transparency, I am an independent, consider myself fairly moderate, and will be voting for Obama this election. However, what I have suggested here is not for the benefit of a political party (in fact, this system would favor the republicans currently), but for the nation as a whole.

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