How we elect our Presidents has been a subject matter of some controversy in recent years. When the Framers of the Constitution crafted that document, they were cognizant of the fact that densely populated areas could swing a national vote, unfairly skewing the result. The Framers believed the President should represent the majority of the states, weighted by their populations. This gave rise to the Electoral College.
The Electoral College. When that phrase is uttered, it evokes images of the 2000 Presidential election, where the winner of the popular vote, Al Gore, lost the election. Even before the 2000 election controversy, however, some favored changes to the Presidential election process. Some even went so far as to propose the Electoral College be scrapped for a purely popular vote election.
Each state legislature decides how its electoral votes are counted. All but two states use a "winner takes all" approach. Under that approach, the candidate who wins the popular vote in a state, wins all of that state's electoral votes. Is this really the most democratic way to elect a President? The advantages of a "winner takes all" system would seem to accrue to the politicians more than the people. Let's consider some of the advantages for the politicians.
The Advantage of the Current System to Politicians
Under the current system, political campaigns can focus on just a handful of key "swing states" at the expense of the rest of the nation. Candidates vying for Florida or Ohio's electoral votes aren't as concerned about California or Texas voters because they are safely assumed to vote for one particular party's candidate.
When the structure and process of the election elevates the needs of a handful of states over the remainder, democracy is not served. Clearly, the only beneficiaries of the current system are the voters in those key swing states and the politicians themselves. Everyone else can be ignored. Indeed, voter turnout is suppressed in the majority of the country because most people don't live in swing states. A Democrat voter in Texas or a Republican voter in California, for example, are less likely to turn out to vote, if they believe their vote is of no consequence.
The rhetoric of politicians that "every vote should count" is belied by the fact that the Electoral College creates a bias where some votes "count" more than others. This needs to be remedied in the interest of furthering democracy.
The Requirements of any System for Electing a President
- the new system should encourage voter turnout
- the value of any one vote in any one state should be made as close to equal as possible
- competition for electoral votes should be up for grabs in every single state
- the Presidential election should be made as local an election as possible
The New Electoral College
The Electoral College is comprised of 538 electors. The electors equate to every representative in Congress: 100 Senators + 435 Congressmen and women. In addition, for purposes of the Electoral College, Washington, D.C. is given three electoral votes, rounding out the total to 538.
The states of Nebraska and Maine have instituted a change to the way they award electoral votes the whole nation should adopt. Essentially, the winner of the popular vote in each Congressional District in those states is awarded a single electoral vote. The winner of the popular vote in the state overall, is awarded two electoral votes. This satisfies all four requirements noted earlier.
Under this new construct, the concept of "key swing states" would all but evaporate. Candidates for the Presidency would have to focus on the entire country, not just a handful of states. A Republican could no longer assume Texas was Republican any more than a Democrat could assume California was Democrat.
Furthermore, voting in states that have historically swung to one or the other party, could experience a surge in voter turnout. Why? Well, if we examine California, for example, Republican voters, see their vote for President as meaningless and wasted in a state that has voted Democratic for many years. Keep in mind, most of the states in the country are not swing states. On Presidential election night, everyone knows how each will vote in a winner-take-all system, save for the handful that are competitive.
In the new construct, however, we will be voting within our Congressional district for the electoral vote to be awarded to the winner of the district popular vote. This creates a greater incentive for all voters to turn out.
Ultimately, the consequences of this proposal will be to empower voters locally. That was the dream of Thomas Jefferson. Voters will have a clear line of sight from the vote they cast to the Electoral College itself. Our American democracy will be stronger, voter turnout will increase and accountability will only improve.
Let's look at an example of how this would work in one state. We'll pick Maine.