Wednesday, January 14, 2004

The New Electoral College

I was going to build up to this piece by piece, but actually I find that writing about electoral systems is, well, kind of boring. So, here's my proposed solution to the US Electoral College, without benefit of exhaustive analysis. Note that I'm not claiming that this is an original solution, although I'm not actually aware of a specific proposal that has all of these proposed elements.

1. All the "faithless elector" problems are removed by simply mandating by law in each state that the vote cast will reflect the majority vote. There's no legal basis for an elector to cast any other vote; the EC is just a ceremonial position (although I think, for other reasons, an important one).

2. Each Congressional District has one electoral vote, which is cast for the candidate who receives the majority of votes. If no such candidate exists, the district casts no vote.

3. Each state receives electoral college votes only for its number of representatives in the House, not for the Senators. That is, each state has two fewer electors than under the current system. The District of Columbia receives one elector, although if it were up to me, it would be retroceded to Maryland already.

4. If no candidate receives a majority of possible electoral votes (including districts that cast no vote due to no candidate having reached 50%), the candidate receiving the most votes wins.

Why is this a good idea? First, restricting the scope of electoral elections to congressional districts accomplishes two things. It makes elections more compelling for individuals, since it is more likely that their vote will count. Two, it fundamentally changes electoral strategy such that candidates will be encouraged to make incursions into what is now hostile territory. For example, Democratic candidates will visit Salt Lake City and Raleigh-Durham, trying to strip off a vote or two from otherwise solidly Republican states. Similarly with upstate New York and much of California. Overall, this is a tiny net positive for Republicans, since they would get more from solidly Democratic states (NY, Penn, and Cal) than the Dems would pick up from Republican states (a few in Florida, one or two in NC, a fair number in Texas). If this change had been in place in 2000, Bush would have defeated Gore by a slightly larger electoral margin.

Yet Texas brings us to a potentially fatal flaw in this plan, which is the gerrymandering of CDs. This approach would be unworkable with the current, extremely political districting. Only when congressional districts are assigned by nonpartisan professionals, as they are in Iowa, would this approach be a good idea.

The net positive for Republicans of the per-CD vote is offset by the removal of the two electors per state, since overall that benefits Republicans. More small states (Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho) vote reliably for Republicans. Also, and more to the point, the small state bonus is extremely undemocratic. While avoiding one-person, one-vote is okay for building consensus among disparate interest groups, a 13-fold difference between a Wyoming voter and a California voter is beyond the pale. If this change alone had been in place, Gore would have defeated Bush.

There's an argument that this would hurt small states, but this misses the whole point of electoral strategy. No one campaigns in Wyoming anyway, because it's solidly Republican. Candidates don't go where the votes are, they go where they can most efficiently reach undecided voters. Swing states, or rather swing districts, will still exist, and they will still receive the attention of the candidates.

Will this happen? Well, no, almost certainly not without another Constitutional Convention. For all that it's more fair, too many states would perceive it as a loss of influence. I can' t see Wyoming ratifying an amendment that removed two-thirds of its electoral votes. And intensely partisan states, such as Texas, where Republicans dominate the state government, would never make a change that gave votes to the other side.

But we'll need a Constitutional Convention to absorb Canada, so it's not too soon to start thinking of a new system.

Enough of this. Tomorrow, Onward!