As the 2008 Presidential election heats up, we have been seeing all kinds of proposals – from the previously mentioned change to allow foreign-born citizens to run to changes to the electoral college system. The 2000 election especially brought the workings of the electoral college to our collective attention. A question I ask my modern history students is should this system be changed? I usually get a mixed response – some for it and others who think it should stay. I think those opinions could be generalized to the entire US population (for those who actually know how it works!).
A recent HNN article by Alexander Keyssar talks not about tossing the system, but of modifying it (although at the end, he makes it clear he wouldn’t mind completely tossing it either). Keyssar starts with the recent efforts of California Republicans to modify their system from the current “winner-take-all” system to a by district apportionment. Currently, whichever candidate wins the overall popular vote in California gets all their electoral votes. Democrats, who expect to win California in 2008, are violently opposing the movement. This is the way almost all states work their votes. The new method would distribute votes by which districts the candidate won (the number of districts is equal to the number of votes, if you weren’t aware – it goes with how many Congressmen you get). So if Candidate A won 10 districts, Candidate B won 40 districts and Candidate C won 5 districts (and yes, California really has 55 electoral votes), they’d each get that many electoral votes rather than Candidate B getting all 55. As a note, there are only two states currently using this method (Nebraska and Maine) while the rest use the “winner-take-all” system most of us are familiar with. You’ll note that I included three parties in my hypothetical situation. A major hurdle for any third-party candidate has always been the “winner-take-all” system, which makes it very difficult for a third-party candidate to get enough votes to get any electoral votes, if they manage to garner a portion of the popular vote.
Where did the “winner-take-all” method come from? Because it isn’t in the Constitution (you can check if you don’t believe me or Keyssar). It was actually a partisan decision according to Keyssar. At first, all the states used different methods:
In some, the legislatures appointed electors by themselves (without holding any popular election); others developed a winner-take-all system in which they held "general ticket" elections, granting the winning candidate all of the state's electoral votes; still others allocated the electors by district. Numerous states changed systems from one election to the next.
Keyssar reports that the most progressive thinkers favored the district plan (so pretty much that same one now being discussed in California), including Thomas Jefferson. But alas enter partisan politics:
Jefferson proved more than willing to let partisan advantage trump what "would be best." As the 1800 election approached, his Republican supporters in Virginia, mindful that their opponents in the Federalist Party had won five of the state's electoral votes in 1796, replaced the district system with "winner take all" -- thereby guaranteeing Jefferson all of Virginia's electoral votes. (Massachusetts, the home of Jefferson's rival, John Adams, retaliated by entrusting the selection of electors to the Federalist-dominated legislature.) A few years later, Jefferson, as president, backed away from supporting a constitutional amendment mandating a district system throughout the nation -- a strategy that would have eliminated the potential unfairness of having a district approach in some states and the winner-take-all system in others -- because "winner take all" appeared to be benefiting his party.
Indeed, "winner take all" became, and endured as, the primary method of choosing electors precisely because of partisan dynamics. Regardless of the broader democratic principles at stake, dominant parties in nearly all individual states had embraced the short-run advantages of "winner take all" by 1830; since then, few states have had an appetite for dividing up their electoral votes while everyone else was using "winner take all" -- in part because doing so would appear to lessen the state's clout in national politics.
There have been national movements to go to a district plan, but opponents of the plan have managed to keep it from getting the necessary 2/3 majority in both houses to make amendment status.
So what does this mean for us – the electorate? According to Keyssar, it means we have a system we never voted on and as we’ve seen recently (we all remember 2000) has some serious flaws. Since there is no constitutional framework, any state can change their election method and, of course, the largest states (like California) are tempting targets. The issue, he says, shouldn’t be what one party wants in one state, but a national commitment to make a change to fix the system:
If the Republicans truly believe that it would be fairer and more democratic to choose electors by district, then instead of introducing such plans piecemeal in states where they would benefit, they should introduce a constitutional amendment to create a national district system -- one that would apply to Texas and South Carolina as well as California. And if the Democrats truly want to prevent procedural "power grabs," they should sign on to such a proposal -- or offer a "proportional plan" or (better yet) actively back a national popular election that would eliminate the electoral college altogether.
He ends with the thought that if the parties committed to “fixing” the system, “they might even succeed in dissipating a bit of the cynicism that the electorate so frequently expresses about political parties that seem far more interested in their own welfare than the fate of the nation.”