By Rob Richie
Published August 30th 2007 in TomPaine.com
It's that serious. Taking advantage of the frustration their supporters understandably feel about their powerless role in presidential elections, leading California Republicans are promoting an initiative to divide California's slate of 55 electoral votes. Rather than all electoral votes going to the statewide winner, each U.S. House district in a state would elect one presidential elector, while the statewide popular vote winner would take the two electoral votes corresponding to states' Senate seats.
That way, the Golden State's GOP would deliver a score of electoral votes to their party's nominee. When you see that some Democrats in North Carolina have advanced the same plan in order to pick up four or five electoral votes for their ticket, the plan may seem evenhanded.
In fact it is indefensible policy no matter how it is done—state-by-state or nationally. Allocation of electoral votes by congressional district may give more weight to a state's oft-frustrated minority party, but it breaks down in yielding accurate representation of the will of the nation at large. We should be seeking fair elections of presidents, not faceless electors. Through that lens the congressional district plan utterly fails two important criteria: 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. With a district-by-district vote in all states, Bush's electoral vote margin would have increased to 7.1 percent. That's an eight-fold distortion of an already distorted result. Bush's margin would have similarly increased if only California had enacted the district plan.
The 2000 result was hardly atypical. In 1968, Nixon's 0.7 percent lead over Humphrey in the popular vote translated to a 20.95 percent lead in electoral votes. With congressional district allocation, Nixon would have maintained that distortion, winning by 19.3 percent electoral votes. In 1976, under the district system Jimmy Carter would have defeated Gerald Ford by a scant two electoral votes despite a relatively comfortable 2 percent win in the national popular vote.
The congressional district plan also leaves most Americans as irrelevant spectators in presidential campaigns. In 2004, fewer than 87 percent of congressional districts were won by more than 4 percent, the margin where political activity might make a difference. In California, 50 of 53 districts were won by even more comfortable margins of at least 8 percent.
But good government isn't really the motivation here. Indeed, partisan meddling with the Electoral College is an old game. In 1890, Michigan Democrats adopted the district system to help their ticket; once partisan control flipped again, Republicans immediately restored the unit rule. Going back to 180l, 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 keep John Adams from winning any electoral votes.
With so few Americans able to hold their chief executive accountable, the current Electoral College system demands reform. Instead of pursuing partisan machinations, however, California should join my state of Maryland in the National Popular Vote agreement. This innovative, constitutionally sound proposal will guarantee election of the national popular vote winner in all 50 states and the District of Columbia once participating states collectively represent a majority of the Electoral College.
Only then will Republicans in blue states and Democrats in red states share an equal vote with their neighbors and their fellow Americans. From the battlegrounds of Ohio and Florida to the far reaches of spectator states like Alaska, Hawaii and California, let's vote together as Americans, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.