Is there a case for electoral reform?

A Common Sense look at America's electoral system

Dateline 20 May 2005

There are frequent calls to reform the Electoral College. There have only been a handful of elections in which the winner in the popular vote loses in the College, but there were three consecutive elections (1992-2000) in which the winner had less than half the popular vote. Should America abolish the College and elect the President directly? There are arguments both ways, but it is probably foolish to rehearse them all. A constitutional amendment would need to be ratified by three fourths of the states, and the smaller states are unlikely to vote against their own interests.

There are reforms to the College which could be implemented by without a constitutional amendment. Maine and Nebraska split their Electoral College vote, and a proposal for California to do the same is now gaining ground. The Maine/Nebraska solution is that each candidate wins one Electoral vote for each congressional district he carries, with a bonus of two for carrying the state. In practice, neither Maine nor Nebraska has actually split its vote: Bush carried all Nebraska’s districts last November and Kerry carried all of Maine’s.

Last year Colorado rejected a plan to split its vote proportionally. According to the voting expert and Wall Street Journal columnist, John Fund, the main argument against the proposition was that candidates would start to ignore the state. This has sense. Colorado is a swing state, and in nearly all elections the losing candidate would be guaranteed four of the state’s nine votes. To win the whole block of nine votes, candidates will fight hard. To win one extra, not so much. But Fund is right to point out that in large, safe, states like California and New York the calculation is the reverse. If New York’s Electoral votes were cast proportionally the losing candidate would normally win about a third of them. One third of New York's 31 Electoral votes is more valuable than all of Colorado’s nine. Yet under the current system, who cares about New York? Any time New York looks close it is because the Republican candidate is well ahead nation-wide.

New York could also reform the way its elects Congressmen. Currently the candidate with the largest number of votes in each district is elected. Many municipalities use instant runoff voting to choose mayors, under which the voter marks all the candidates in order of preference. Votes cast for minor parties are then reapportioned until one candidate has more than 50% of the vote. There are other more radical options. Ireland uses a system called Single Transferable Vote. Voters still number candidates in order of preference, but the districts are much bigger, and usually elect four, five or six members of parliament, allocated proportionally between the parties.

The result is that minor parties end up with some representation – a key issue in New York, with its strong tradition of minor parties. It also addresses the plight of those who support the second placed of the major parties – Republicans in New York City and Democrats upstate. Even in the most Republican parts of the state, there would usually be at least one Democrat elected for each of the multi-member districts, so Democrats in the North Country would not feel completely disenfranchised.

Copyright (C) Quentin Langley 20 May 2005

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