A Proposal for Modest Revolution: A Proportional Electoral College

                The electoral college is an unpopular beast. After the 2016 election I had moments of frustration, wondering why we give such disproportionate voting influence to the worst among us. But the problems with the system are not that it helps one party win. Obviously only one half of the partisan divide would think that is a problem. The simplistic objection is that the electoral college produces a different result than the popular vote. That objection ignores the fact that no one ever said it was supposed to match the results of the popular vote. We don’t elect our presidents directly, we never have elected our presidents directly, and the founding fathers didn’t want us to.

                It is precisely the point of our federal system that we don’t just put things up to a popular vote. Particularly, the bicameral system of our legislative branch was created to make a compromise between the powerful, populous states, and the smaller ones. The fact that each state, per the compromise struck between the Virginia and New Jersey plans, gets two senators no matter its size, means that mathematically, the inhabitants of those states get more per capita power in government.

                That is no accident. It is a conscious feature of a system where sovereignty derives from the states. It is also designed to prevent presidential candidates from ignoring the populations of those smaller states. This is the motive for the electoral college. It has become fashionable to blame the motives of southern slaveholders for the system. The argument derives from the fact that southerners gained voting power by the apportionment system that multiplied the slave population by 3/5 when determining the population of states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery, leaving this as an historical footnote. The argument seems to be aimed at creating guilt by association despite the lack of any logical connection between the two ideas. It is the kind of argument that only helps when one is preaching to the choir.

                Similarly, the mention (I won’t dignify it by calling it an argument) of the 1876 election brings no logical argument against the electoral college. An electoral tie was only broken when Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the south. This was a terrible result and it doomed the promise of Reconstruction to miserable failure, but it has no connection to the electoral college. It speaks of dreadful corruption in the latter years of the nineteenth century, and of the moral cowardice of the Republicans, but only damns the college by association. Only someone who hasn’t been paying close attention or is already convinced would agree that this bolsters arguments against the electoral college.

                So how does the college work? Each state gets a number of electoral votes that equals its number of congressmen. Basically, we hold a general election in the state and whoever wins that election is given all the votes in the state. The only exceptions to this are Maine and Nebraska. They use a modified system where the general determines who gets the two votes based on the senators. Then an election in each congressional district decides who gets the vote for that district. In theory this should break up the winner take all approach of the other 48 states, but in these two limited cases, the effect is more or less the same.

                The electoral college as it stands is a system where the votes of smaller states count for more than they otherwise would. That was the intent. It is a feature not a bug. Where I see the problem is in an entirely unintended effect. With even the slimmest margin giving all the votes to one candidate, the candidates have no incentive to campaign in states they are guaranteed to win or lose. Conservatives in California, and Liberals in Georgia have no incentive to vote in presidential elections. All of the campaigning is concentrated in a few battleground states. Since these states are all or nothing, and most of the states aren’t significantly in play, candidates focus on getting more turnout in contested states. They tack farther and farther to the extremes of their parties every year. Winner take all systems also discourage third party candidates who have no chance on garnering any electoral votes whatsoever. This is how you get Trump and Sanders. Do you want to get Trump and Sanders?

                So, what could we do to change this short of abandoning the electoral college and relegating the less populated states to irrelevance? Let’s consider two ideas. First, we could have all the states adopt the Maine/Nebraska model. This would produce a situation where even in large, purple states, candidates can earn partial credit for winning in at least some of the congressional districts. The only bonus for winning the overall by a slim margin would be the two votes for the senators.

As an example, let’s see how this would have changed the 2016 election in Florida. The actual result was that 49.0% went for Trump with 47.8% going for Clinton. The winner by 1.2% took all 29 votes for the state. What would happen under the Maine/Nebraska system? Unfortunately, voting results were tallied by counties, not by congressional districts, so I’ll have to use the results in the elections for representatives. I admit that could introduce problems if the personality of the candidate was an issue, but it should indicate how a district leans. There are 27 congressional districts in Florida. 18 of these went red and 11 blue. Thus, using the congressional elections as a proxy, Trump would get 2 for the overall win and 18 for the districts, leaving 11 electors for Clinton. Trump still wins, but the result is a lot more proportional. This already feels a lot fairer, but the problem is that it leaves us in a situation where there is very little incentive to campaign in the middle. Each candidate would be best left to play to a few battleground districts, and we have the same problem on a state scale that we had at the national level. There is also the problem that districts are gerrymandered to often quite unjust results.

Which leaves us with my second idea. What if we took the overall vote, then allocated the electors based on the percentages? Applying the 2016 results, we would now award 14 votes to both Trump and Clinton. Rounding would be necessary, but I can’t see any reason why that shouldn’t be done based on the standard rules we all learned in grade school. We round Trump down from 14.239 to 14 and Clinton up from 13.862 to 14. I also can’t see any reason why we should treat the two senator votes differently, but if a state so chose, they could certainly do so. One major difference in the Florida case would be that Gary Johnson would have garnered one electoral vote. I certainly didn’t think he was a strong candidate, but at least this system could open the door a crack to a candidate from a third party. I can’t see how that could be anything but healthy.

One of the healthiest results though would be to give an incentive for the major party candidates to campaign everywhere. For example, under the system I am proposing, Trump would have picked up 17 of California’s 55 districts. He did this despite the largest margin of defeat since 1936. How would his campaign have changed if he had seen even the possibility of picking up a few more of them? Would he have hammered away about a wall if he seen even a glimmer of catching a few more California voters? This system would have to force candidates to tack toward the middle, toward reasonable policies that appeal to a broad cross section, and away from the lunatic fringes that have become so loud in 2020.

Is it possible to have such a system? Of course. The primaries essentially function this way. A win in a state isn’t absolute. That is where the similarity ends though. The delegates aren’t awarded in the proportional way I propose and the process is more like the Maine/Nebraska system. It seems to produce candidates who skew toward the extremes. Still, the biggest problem for adopting such a system is that the state legislatures decide how to allocate electors. That is laid out directly in Article II of the constitution. So, any sweeping change would either have to be done by appealing directly and individually to the states, which would take forever, or through the amendment process. There are already proposals afoot to pass amendments abolishing the electoral college. Why not get the ball rolling on something that would produce a leveling effect and a widening of democracy instead of allowing the population centers to place a stranglehold on government?

I’m certainly in.

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