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Our Skewed Electioneering Could Be Fixed

Neal Peirce // Published November 2, 2008
It’s happening again. Some of us live in states jumping with candidate visits and presidential election season excitement. But in others visits and attention are rare–a sort of electoral Siberia. Seventy-five percent of all presidential candidate visits are going to just 10 battleground states, led by the familiar trio of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Indeed, if you live in a state that’s overwhelmingly red or blue, don’t expect to see a presidential candidate. You may live in mighty California (blue) or Texas (red), New York (blue) or Georgia (red). Or Rhode Island (blue) or Nebraska (red). No matter. The candidates are rarely seen.

Why? First, it’s the way we’re all divided up by the antique electoral college. The Constitution gives state legislatures almost total power to decide how their state’s presidential electors are chosen. In practice, they’ve almost always specified a “winner take all” system–winner of the popular vote for the state gets 100 percent of the state’s electoral votes.

Second, we’re seeing hardening partisan voting patterns as Americans become more divide ideologically (with negative political advertising driving them even further apart). In 1960, when John Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon, two-thirds of the states were competitive. In this decade, it’s been barely a third.

So increasingly, closely contested states get almost all the candidates’ time and attention. Check the news tonight and it will be a real exception if John McCain or Barack Obama or their running mates haven’t spent at least part of their day in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, or Nevada, or maybe hitherto red states Obama’s aggressive organizational push has put into play (Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana).

But those are just part of the constellation of American states. How about the rest of us?

The same situation–two-thirds of America ending up as discarded or “flyover” territory–prevailed in 2000 and 2004. The differential in actual voter turnout between the (competitive) battleground states and the (quiescent) “safe” ones rose to a full 10 percent.

Could we do better, fashioning a system that encourages spirited turnout everywhere and prompts presidential candidates to listen to and respond to citizen concerns in all states? A system that doesn’t hinge on chads in Florida, or irregular ballots in Ohio, to determine who will be Commander-in-Chief?

There’s only one answer: make all votes, everywhere, count equally. For two centuries, waves of reformers have tried to do that by constitutional amendment–a cumbersome, easily thwarted process.

The new idea, being advanced in state legislatures since 2006, is the “National Popular Vote” proposal (and movement) founded by Stanford University computer scientist/inventor John Koza. It’s a cause also championed vigorously by the electoral reform group, FairVote.

The proposal: the state legislatures–exercising their constitutional power over their own states’ electoral votes–should enter into an interstate agreement to award all their state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide. The compact would go into effect when–but only when–states with votes constituting a majority of the Electoral College (270 of the total of 538) signed up.

Instantly, votes across all 50 states would have equal weight and the candidate most Americans voted for would be assured the presidency.

FairVote’s Rob Richie says the National Popular Vote may be a sleeper–ready for serious nationwide attention. Close to 1,200 state legislators have voted for it. It’s been passed in Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Hawaii, plus single chambers in several others. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed it twice in California, but the second time with fewer objections.

Backers also hope that as memories of the contested 2000 election fade, partisans originally skeptical of any change may start coming around. George Bush won the Electoral College that year by edging out Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida, even though Gore won 537,179 more popular votes nationally. But in 2004, a switch of just 59,388 votes in Ohio would have given Sen. John Kerry an Electoral College majority, even though Bush led nationally by 3.5 million votes.

The reformers assert today’s system is a threat to both parties, Russian roulette, ready any election year to destroy either party’s popular mandate.

But if that’s not a sufficiently strong argument, then the case to revoke the battleground states’ unfair advantage should help to win over even more converts. Why shouldn’t conservatives be able to harvest meaningful votes in blue California and liberals in red Texas? What’s wrong with liberals being able to appeal meaningfully to African-American voters in red Louisiana or Alabama, providing them (at last) a chance to participate fully, to make a difference nationally?

If we’re all truly Americans–the Obama pitch in the current campaign–no single reform could make more sense.