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A Conservative Estimate: Republicans Should Be Wary of the California Electoral Vote Scheme

by Paul Fidalgo // Published August 30, 2007
The political universe is abuzz over the possibility of California splitting its electoral votes by congressional district. Dozens of articles and opinion pieces are being written and FairVote has released a report, Fuzzy Math: Wrong-Way Reforms for Allocating Electoral College Votes, that details the plan"s ill-advisedness.

As the method"s implementation would likely benefit Republican presidential nominees (at least in the short term), it is not surprising that the plan has found some sympathy from conservative outlets. Democrats have been attempting to enact the congressional district method in North Carolina, as well, which is just as misguided, but it remains that Republicans are best positioned to reap the rewards if this becomes the national norm.

Writing for the National Review Online, Matthew J. Franck comes to the qualified defense of the California GOP plan, in a piece entitled "The Old College Try," where he declares that a "60-40" split of California"s electoral votes between Bush and Kerry in 2004 would be a fair approximation of Bush"s showing in the state. "Fairer than zero anyway, if the electoral vote is supposed to reflect popular vote results," he writes.

The problem with this perspective is that the Electoral College was never meant to reflect the popular vote. If it were, it would eliminate the purpose for its own existence. Rather than a conduit for the popular will, the Electoral College system is an intentional barrier. To assume that an adjusted version of the Electoral College follows with some imagined innate intention to accurately reflect popular opinion is paradoxical. What FairVote has found is that the results would often lead to freakish mathematical distortions of the popular vote. And why would we want a system that merely "˜reflects" the popular vote to begin with? Why not just count the votes as they are, as we do in every other election?

In an admirable display of rhetorical jujitsu, Franck states,

"The proposal pending in California, by honoring plurality rule in House districts, would be locally democratic. . .some form of nationwide tally of the popular vote. . .would be nationally democratic. None of these ways of electing a president has more legitimate democratic credentials than another."

This is a misleading muddying of vocabulary to confuse the issue. There is no such thing as "local vs. national" forms of democracy. If one believes that the president should be democratically elected, than the only way that is achieved is by national popular vote. Any other avenue, any other filtered process, no matter how porous the filter, is less than democratic.

This line of argument also runs counter to the pro-federalism ideals common in conservative circles when denouncing the idea of a national popular vote. The congressional district method shatters the idea of federalism as states, rather than acting as unified units representing their own interests, become schizophrenics. If, on the other hand, one believes that the congressional district method does not constitute such a threat to federalism, then why not go a step farther, and simply make each person"s vote count equally across the board?

Franck also makes sure to warn us, "In a close election, a national recount might be necessary, while the present system confines recounts to particular states. Imagine the drama, tension, and shenanigans of Florida 2000 on a nationwide scale."

The specter of a national recount is a common bogeyman used to spook people away from the idea of a national popular vote. FairVote"s own research has found that an election on a national scale is far less likely to end in a recount than on a state-by-state basis. In fact, the smaller the voter pool, the more likely it is that a recount will be required. The congressional district method would mean more recounts, not fewer.

Perhaps most troubling, Franck writes that, "It is the least surprising thing in the world that one party wants electoral rules that advantage itself," and claims that, "There"s nothing inimical to democracy in that."

It is, indeed, not surprising that parties would want to rig the system to their advantage, but it is also the very the definition of what is "inimical to democracy": those in power taking advantage of their position to keep themselves safely in power. There is no virtue in finding a cleverer, more novel way to take more power away from voters. As previously mentioned, North Carolina Democrats tried to enact the same plan, and they toyed with it in Florida as well a few years ago, and both times it would have been just as wrong.

Franck aside, I find it hard to believe that once Republicans see what is implied by this scheme, that they will be comfortable with the results. Surely, every member of a given party would rather see their candidate take office than not, but the congressional district plot, when applied on a national level, assumes that Republicans will be content with winning the White House by concentrating solely on their strong coalition of local districts, and thereby having a much higher chance of losing the popular vote more often. How long can political legitimacy be maintained when president after president could be the national loser? Can that really be what Republican voters want? I do not believe it is what any voter of any party would want, nor do I believe that members of any party or adherents to any ideology would want a more distorted, unrepresentative system than already exists. I believe that no matter the political implications, most Americans would first choose the system that treats every voter equally before the one that might benefit their own party. Let the candidates play on that field, and may the best person win by their own merits. That is something, I believe, upon which Republicans in California and Democrats in North Carolina can agree.