Proposed reform of Electoral College wouldn't make voting any more fair

By Rob Richie
Published September 6th 2007 in San Jose Mercury News
Some leading California Republicans and North Carolina Democrats want to play games with presidential elections. Their potential actions are just one more nail in the coffin of an increasingly outmoded Electoral College system.

Of course they have a right to be frustrated. Under the Electoral College system, presidential campaigns ignore their states, and the other major party keeps winning all their state's electoral votes.

But in this case, partisanship is trumping principle. Their "solution" is to award the statewide popular vote winner only two electoral votes; the rest would be awarded according to the winner of each congressional district.

Sounds fair, right? In reality, it is a partisan powergrab designed to shift the Electoral College balance toward their party. California Republicans would boost their presidential ticket by the same number of electoral votes up for grabs in Ohio, and North Carolina Democrats would win four or five more votes for Democratic candidates — enough to reverse the election in 2000.

Even if done nationally, dividing states' electoral votes by congressional district is a mistake that fails two fundamental criteria of a democratic system: representation of the national will and equal relevance of all Americans.

In 2000, for example, Al Gore won the popular vote by 0.5 percent while George Bush took the presidency with a 0.9 percent victory in the Electoral College. Under the district-by-district vote, Bush's electoral vote margin would have increased to 7.1 percent. In 2004, Bush would have won three more electoral votes than John Kerry in Michigan despite losing the state.

Such distortions are typical. In 1968, Richard Nixon's 0.7 percent lead in the popular vote would have turned into a 19 percent win in electoral votes. In 1976, under the district system, Jimmy Carter would have defeated Gerald Ford by only two electoral votes despite a 2 percent win in the national popular vote.

The congressional district plan also would keep most Americans as irrelevant spectators in presidential campaigns. In 2004, more than 87 percent of congressional districts were won by margins greater than 4 percent. In California, 50 of 53 districts were won by even more comfortable margins of at least 8 percent.

But good government isn't typically the motivation for such proposals. Indeed, partisan meddling with the Electoral College is an old game. In 1890, Michigan Democrats adopted the district system to help their candidate; once partisan control flipped again, the state immediately restored the unit rule.

Back in 1800 when most states either didn't hold popular elections or divided their electoral votes, Virginia supporters of Thomas Jefferson hastily adopted the unit rule to shut out John Adams from any electoral votes.

With a shrinking number of battleground states, the Electoral College system demands reform. Because we need a fair election for president not for faceless electors, the solution is a single national election where every vote is equal no matter where it is cast, as used to elect nearly every other office in America.

To their credit, North Carolina Democrats are debating whether to join Maryland in the National Popular Vote agreement. This innovative proposal goes into effect once the participating states collectively have at least 270 electoral votes — meaning enough to guarantee the election of the national popular vote winner.

Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed California's entry into the National Popular Vote agreement, perhaps due to pressure from fellow Republicans interested in the congressional district power grab. If truly seeking to represent the interests of California and the nation, he should support the bill and help us have a national popular vote decide the presidency in 2012.

Only then will Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states share an equal vote with all Americans. From the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida to the far reaches of spectator states like Alaska, Hawaii, North Carolina and California, let's vote together as Americans, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.