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Richard Davis: Ways to make the Electoral College more fair

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 12:05 a.m. MST

Katie Anderson speaks during a rally with the popular vote movement on the front steps of the state Capitol Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012. The popular vote movement wants to replace the electoral vote process in the U.S. Constitution with a popular vote in electing the president.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In October of last year, as the prospect of a close election loomed, some political pundits began to spin various possible scenarios. They envisioned a disconnect between the electoral vote and the popular vote or an electoral tie that might result in Mitt Romney becoming president and Joe Biden vice-president. These hypothetical outcomes are not so hypothetical with the narrow margins between the two candidates nowadays, and the memory of the 2000 presidential election result of the winner of the popular vote (the person more people actually voted for) not becoming president.

The 2000 election was a traumatic time for the nation and the prospect that it could be repeated should worry Americans. One possible reform is to abandon the electoral vote altogether in favor of direct election of the president. But that would require a constitutional amendment, which is unlikely given the Congress’ preoccupation with budget and debt matters.

Another way, however, would not require a constitutional amendment. The state legislatures could enact this change on their own. In fact, a couple already have.

Right now, all but two states allocate their electoral votes on a winner take all basis. If a losing candidate in a state wins 49 percent of the vote, they gain no electoral votes. The winner-take-all approach essentially disenfranchises all the voters who cast votes for the losing candidate in the state.

But state legislatures don’t have to allocate electoral votes that way. After each census, each state is assigned an electoral vote for each congressional district in the state and an additional two votes for the two senators from the state. Every state has a minimum of three electoral votes because each state gets at least one member of Congress.

The Legislatures of Maine and Nebraska decided to apportion electoral votes on a congressional district basis rather than winner take all. That means if a presidential candidate wins the popular vote in that district, they receive one electoral vote. The candidate that wins the popular vote in the state gets the two state-wide electoral votes.

Why shouldn’t other states do the same? In fact, Wisconsin legislators are considering a change to the congressional district method. And Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a proportional representation plan to divvy out electoral votes based on the percentage of the statewide presidential vote.

The current proposals are being pushed by Republicans who believe the winner-take-all method helped Barack Obama win re-election. In the past, the Democrats were advocating this kind of reform. They pointed to Republican statewide wins in places like Texas or Georgia that negated urban votes (that tended to be more Democratic) in cities like Austin or Atlanta. Since both sides now see value in reform, perhaps there is a chance for change.

What would be the actual effects of such a change? One would be the greater worth of every vote. Under the congressional district plan, a voter in a district that votes opposite from the state’s usual trend would feel that voting could make a difference in the presidential election. That voter’s vote would be even more worthwhile under the proportional representation plan because no matter where a voter lived, his or her vote could help a candidate win an electoral vote within the state.

Another related effect would be a change in candidate campaigning. Right now, presidential candidates concentrate on eight to 10 swing states. Under either the congressional district or proportional representation plans, presidential candidates would expand their campaigning to include more states. A Republican candidate might campaign in Orange County, Calif., or Springfield, Ill., because he or she would have a chance of picking up electoral votes there. And the Democrat might come to Houston or Salt Lake City for the same reason.

Any plan that enhances the worth of voting is likely to increase voter turnout. If it also reduces the likelihood of the public’s will being thwarted by the electoral vote, then that is even better. Perhaps it is time for legislators, including Utah’s, to rethink how they allocate electoral votes.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. Email: Richard_Davis@byu.edu

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