Webb: One of the truly sad, even disastrous, characteristics of the modern U.S. political system is that states, once proud and sovereign, have been relegated to insignificant status, literally bit players in the federal system. The relentless encroachment by the federal government via constitutional amendments, court cases, congressional action and regulatory fiat has concentrated money and control at the national level.
The result is a federal government paralyzed by problems and issues so large it can't handle them. But break those problems down state-by-state, and they become manageable. Give Utah's state and local governments most of the federal tax dollars we generate, plus the authority to act, and we will deal with Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, health care, transportation, the environment and so forth. Let the federal government handle those few, limited responsibilities intended by the Founders, and let the states do the rest.
Those determined to abolish the Electoral College are really advocating further emasculation of the states, leading to more concentration of power at the federal level. The Electoral College is one of the few remaining tools the states have to ensure that presidential candidates pay attention to them.
The Electoral College's winner-take-all system forces candidates to conduct state-by-state campaigns, to pay special attention to "battleground states." Candidates have to respect states. Sitting presidents eyeing re-election listen to governors and state leaders because they need those states' electoral votes.
Under a popular vote system, state boundaries and individual state priorities would become irrelevant, getting no attention except for a little lip service. Rather than deploy state-by-state strategies, where states matter and have a voice, candidates would ignore states and instead target national demographic segments in the gigantic population centers like New York City and Los Angeles. It would dramatically change the dynamics of presidential campaigns.
Joseph J. Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, said the Founders instituted the Electoral College so that major decisions like electing a president would "pass through succeeding layers of deliberation. They established not a democracy, but a republic, in which popular opinion had to battle its way through artfully contrived chambers of refinement before reaching the promised land of political power."
If we eliminate the last vestiges of state clout and authority, we might as well eliminate states and just have one vast federal government where everything is decided in Washington. States are being stomped on and ignored. States need a few tools, like the Electoral College, to have any chance to compete in the federal system.
Pignanelli: "I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But ... with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times." Thomas Jefferson
Our nation has outgrown the Electoral College. The House of Representatives represents geographic and demographic interests determined by reapportionment. Especially with the critical requirement of 60 votes, the Senate is the crucial vanguard of states' rights. But the federal government needs a national element, which the presidency does not have as a result of the outdated Electoral College.
The current system of winner take all in each state continues to warp presidential elections. Through polling, candidates and media divide the country into red and blue states, and those categorized as "swing" get the attention. This trend is backward (15 states were targeted as competitive in 2004, 40 in 1976). California, Texas and New York will likely be ignored, while millions will be spent to influence and cater to small fragments (i.e., white Catholics in Ohio). Targeting resources at tiny demographic slices is destructive to the national fabric.
Political academics dust off the usual arguments to defend the Electoral College, but 18th-century logic dissolves when confronted by 21st-century realities. The favorite is the existing system benefits smaller states. A nice theory, but when did a presidential contender last spend time in Utah to persuade local voters and not visitors at a convention or mumble encouraging words on the tarmac while the campaign plane is refueled? (Probably Harry Truman's whistle-stop tour in 1948.) The premise is further eroded under modern analysis. According to Electoral College Primer, Utah is one of the six states with the least voting power in national elections. States not deemed "swing" become afterthoughts.
Another favorite is the college preserves federalism in government. Yet the two other branches are federalist in structure. An infusion of nationalism in the executive branch will promote concepts and ideas that transcend state boundaries. A successful national candidate will construct a broad alliance of many categories of Americans, not just rely on a coalition of the party base with a sliver of independents.
Choosing the president by a plurality of the national popular vote instills sense to American politics. All Americans, including long ignored Utahns, deserve attention from national contenders.Prediction: Should Barack Obama win the popular vote but lose the presidency to John McCain through the antiquated Electoral College process, a constitutional amendment to "update the Constitution" will be seriously reviewed by Congress and various state legislatures.
Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: [email protected]. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: [email protected].