By Martin Dyckman
Published August 27th 2007 in St. Petersburg Times
The Republicans thought it was a bad idea when Gov. Lawton Chiles proposed in 1991 to split Florida's presidential electors by congressional districts, as Maine and Nebraska do. The Democrats, still in control in Tallahassee back then, let it drop, a decision they may have rued nine years later when George W. Bush took all 25 Florida electors, and the White House, with a plurality of only 537 votes out of nearly 6-million cast.
But the Republicans are gung-ho for this "reform" now that it has surfaced in California. No wonder. It would give them at least 20 of California's 53 electoral votes - 20 more than they could otherwise hope for next year - and make it drastically more difficult for any Democrat to win the presidency ever again.
"This proposal, in effect, creates a new state the size of Ohio that would award its electoral votes to a Republican candidate," the Sacramento Bee explained. "And it subtracts from the Democratic electoral tally the number of votes equal to Minnesota and Wisconsin combined."
Howard Dean, the Democratic Party's national chairman, sensibly warned the Democratic-controlled North Carolina legislature off the districting concept this year. Trouble is, the genie is out of the bottle.
In fact, the Maine-Nebraska model (which still awards two electors to the statewide winner) offers a huge advantage to the Republicans nearly everywhere. A current white paper by FairVote (www.fairvote.org ), the public interest group founded by John Anderson, explains that Democrats nationally are disproportionately concentrated in relatively few districts. This owes only in part to deliberate gerrymandering of districts, which of course is another strike against the idea. It's bad enough that legislatures can featherbed themselves; we don't want them rigging the presidency.
The FairVote analysis of the districting scheme magnifies the chance of popular vote losers winning the presidency. Gerald Ford might have done so in 1976 and there would have been a larger electoral majority for George W. Bush in 2000.
FairVote is just as critical of another so-called reform, in which a state's electoral votes would be divided proportionally according to the candidates' popular vote percentages. One reason is that the shares would have to be rounded; electors are constitutional officers, and you can't fractionalize an adult any more than you can split a baby. This would tend toward throwing the elections into the House of Representatives, as George Wallace was hoping in 1968.
Both "reforms" magnify the two worst aspects of the status quo.
- A voter in a small state would still be worth more than one in Florida, California or Texas. Ironically, "equal protection" was the Supreme Court's pretext for shutting down the 2000 Florida recount.
- The campaigns would continue to be fought in a handful of competitive constituencies. In 2004, notes FairVote, only 13 states were "in play."
There is only one way to make everyone's vote worth the same. The presidency should go to the national popular vote winner, as advocated by both Carter and Richard Nixon. (Throw in an instant runoff and you dispose of the Wallace-Perot-Nader-Bloomberg problem.)
Congress will never get us there but the states could. Maryland this year was the first to adopt the National Vote Plan, which instructs its electors to vote for the candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. This takes effect once enough states have joined to make up at least 270 electoral votes, a majority.
This is what California Democrats have proposed as an alternative to the Republican-led (and financed) districting initiative. They had better hurry. The Republicans plan to get theirs on a primary ballot before the 2008 general election.
Yet the National Vote Plan has its detractors. They are the usual suspects: kingmakers and ethnic groups in a few swing states, along with traditionalists who extol the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.
That "wisdom," let it not be forgot, included the perpetuation of slavery, no suffrage for women, and a hearty suspicion of their fledgling fellow states as well as of the ability of the people to elect a president for themselves. That all belongs to the past.
The founders' true genius, it has turned out, was to devise a Constitution that could be reinterpreted, and if necessary changed, with changing times. We need to take advantage of that before the Electoral College flunks yet again.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Times.