If you claim you haven’t had the following conversation in the past month, you’re lying: You’re with your friends, and the subject turns to politics. Somebody is almost certainly from California, Montana or some other solidly red or blue state. They’ll mention who they plan to vote for, then write off that vote because “it won’t count anyway.” It will be treated as a joke. I can only speak for myself, but when I laugh at that joke, it’s to keep from crying.
There’s no way to soften this: The electoral college robs 80 percent of the country of a chunk of what it means to be American. In 1787, the system was implemented largely to placate southern states whose populations consisted of a majority of slaves; as a popular vote would force the southerners to choose between enfranchising their slaves and losing their political influence, they pushed instead for representation by electors. You read that right: We have electors for the least humanitarian of reasons, and even then, they haven’t been relevant since the Civil War.
You may have known this already, and it won’t surprise you that I’m in favor of drastic reform. To me, the history isn’t the most interesting part of the issue. What’s fascinating is that everybody agrees the system needs to change, but nobody can seem to agree on how. Five people will put forth five different solutions, and each has its own logic, merits and flaws.
The simplest: Abolish the college and elect the president by a national popular vote. Proponents of this solution say it would be a better representation of the national will, and in a sense they’re right. As things stand right now, the math shows that a candidate could win the White House with 22 percent of the popular vote by coming in one elector ahead in all but the ten largest states.
A sign of this solution’s popularity is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which nine states have signed. Once the Compact is signed by a majority in the College, every member state will grant their electors to the winner of the popular vote instead of the winner of that state’s majority. At press time, they’ve got 49 percent of that majority.
I’m not a fan of this solution––it’s too drastic, and it only shifts the problem. Right now, the system is broken because it only requires candidates to campaign in a dozen swing states; a national popular vote would only result in a different dozen––this time, the most populous. Your vote would count, but the president could still be elected without even having pretended to care about the issues that concern you.
In the end, the problem is not the entire institution of the Electoral College: It’s the winner-take-all system that 48 states have adopted for no apparent reason. I can see no justification for this beyond an unwillingness to do math. This law allows the winner of Texas, California, New York or any other large state to gain a massive block of electors that does not even begin to represent his support in that state. The ideal fix needs to address this multi-state law without going overboard.
Thus, among all the options, I endorse direct proportional awards: If Barack Obama wins 60 percent of a five-vote state, give him three votes and give Mitt Romney two. It’s simple, it puts an end to disenfranchisement and it gives candidates an incentive to care about their poll numbers all across the country. Every state is valuable; under this system, we’d no longer have both sides of an issue ignored because the candidates all assume the state is a lock. Even if a Republican has a minute percentage in a large blue state, it’s still worth his time and money to campaign for those three votes––as it would be in a small swing state under the current system.
It’s heartening to see that the debate gets revived every four years, but it would be even more heartening to see some action. This issue has strong bipartisan support, and the necessary amendment could do what constitutional amendments were invented to do: fix a gaping hole in our democracy.