Electoral Dysfunction


On January 15, 2013, Rachel Maddow revealed that Republican-controlled legislatures in several states where President Barack Obama won in the last election are considering changing the way they send delegates to the Electoral College. Instead of electing the president on a winner-take-all basis, these states propose splitting their electoral votes proportionally based on which candidate wins a majority in each individual congressional district (Nebraska and Maine currently use this method). In the battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, Republicans are blazing forward with this plan.

In many of these states, congressional district lines have been gerrymandered to favor Republicans, effectively guaranteeing that those districts will support Republican presidential candidates in future elections.  As Stephen Colbert aptly said of gerrymandering when he highlighted this trend, “Instead of the voters getting to pick their leaders, the leaders get to pick their voters.” Moreover, Maddow quoted a FairVote.org report indicating that, "If the Republicans in 2012 had passed laws for allocating electoral votes [by district], the exact same votes cast in the exact same way in the 2012 election would have converted Barack Obama`s advantage of nearly 5 million popular votes and 126 electoral votes into a resounding Electoral College defeat." A memo from the Republican State Leadership Committee triumphantly declared that, even though Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives won 1.1 million more votes than their Republican opponents in 2012, the GOP managed to maintain a 33-seat House majority thanks to their unabashedly named Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP.

If this is starting to sound like a one-sided about the underhandedness of the Republican Party, that is not my intention. My own political beliefs aside, I expect that if the Democrats were in the Republicans’ situation, they would probably be trying to manipulate the Electoral College by the same means. And as much as I love Rachel Maddow, I think she missed the mark on this one. Instead of demonizing the Republican Party for trying to rig the Electoral College in their favor, we should take the opportunity to point out the glaring problems with the way we elect our leaders.

The first major weakness in the American electoral system is the troublesome process of redistricting. Every decade, states redraw their congressional district lines to reflect updated census data. The Constitution does not specify how district lines should be determined, so it has been left up to the states. Some states delegate redistricting to independent commissions. But in most states, the responsibility falls on the legislatures. When one party controls the legislature, it may gerrymander district lines to protect incumbents or give that party an advantage (the term gerrymander derives from the name of Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry who approved a salamander-shaped district in 1812 to protect his party). The Supreme Court deems gerrymandering based on race or ethnicity unconstitutional, in keeping with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but to date it has not prohibited gerrymandering based on political party affiliation. In the Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) case, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that partisan gerrymandering in Pennsylvania did not violate the Constitution on the grounds that no clear standards or precedents exist. In order to prevent gerrymandering from skewing election outcomes, the process of redistricting should be conducted by nonpartisan, independent bodies and standardized nationwide to remove state-to-state inconsistencies.

Our electoral system’s second major weakness lies in the inherent flaws of its design. First of all, the candidate who wins the national popular vote will not necessarily be elected. In 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, the candidate who lost the popular vote actually won the presidential election. Second, a vote cast in a sparsely populated state like Wyoming holds three to four times the weight of a vote cast in a densely populated state like New York. This is because, even though states get one electoral vote for each of their representatives in the House (where the number of seats is roughly proportional to population size), each state also gets two electoral votes thrown in to equal the number of senators. This in fact disproportionately concentrates voting power, violating the principle of one person, one vote, by giving one person the equivalent of three or four votes in less populated states. Furthermore, electors sent to the Electoral College are technically not bound to vote the way voters mandate. There have been 85 instances of so-called “faithless electors” defecting to vote for another candidate.

Other issues with the Electoral College stem from the fact that it was designed before political parties and national campaigns existed—in other words it was not intended to function with partisan campaign politics. In 2012, Obama and Romney only campaigned in 10 states between their respective party conventions and Election Day. The result is that candidates’ campaign dollars and attention are concentrated on a handful of battleground states while voters in the rest of the country are effectively ignored. According to the New York Times, “There is evidence that the current system is depressing turnout, distorting policy, weakening accountability and effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of Americans.

The Electoral College is a dysfunctional 225-year-old relic, and this most recent controversy over Republican attempts to rig the system highlights the desperate need for change. In a January 2013 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans were in favor of doing away with the Electoral College entirely. Even the American Bar Association has come out in favor of reform, calling the Electoral College “archaic” and “ambiguous.” However, there is much less agreement on how to reform the system.

One possibility is to abolish the Electoral College entirely and conduct a direct popular vote. However, opponents of this plan have argued that it would lead to the rise of viable third parties and eventually turn the U.S. into a pluralist system, which would fundamentally change the nature of the American political system (for better or for worse). Furthermore, candidates would likely concentrate on urban areas, where more votes are up for grabs, at the expense of rural regions. To avoid these and other nationwide recount issues, some have suggested an instant runoff vote mechanism in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference.  If no candidate receives a clear majority, the candidate with the least amount of votes would be eliminated, and the votes the loser garnered redistributed to the voters’ second-choice candidate until someone wins a majority. This would eliminate the “spoiler effect” in which a vote for a third-party candidate effectively becomes a vote for a least desired candidate. As a hypothetical example, if Ralph Nader’s supporters had indicated Al Gore as their second choice in 2000 through this mechanism, Gore would have won the election.

Another possibility would be to divide a state’s electoral votes proportionally in accordance with the percentage of the popular vote that each candidate receives. However, proportional allocation is problematic because the percentage of votes would have to even out to whole electoral votes, and rounding votes would be contentious and messy.

There’s always the congressional district method currently at the center of the Republican rigging controversy; but as we have seen, congressional district lines are extremely vulnerable to gerrymandering. This method would not eliminate the battleground state effect—it would just create battleground districts.

The most interesting alternative is the National Popular Vote plan. Under this bill, state legislatures pledge to send all of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the overall national popular vote, ensuring that this candidate becomes president. So far, California, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Illinois, Washington, Hawaii, and D.C. have signed on, amounting to 132 committed electoral votes. The bill will not come into effect until enough states pass it to bring the total to the 270 votes needed for a majority. I like this plan because it would effectively elect the president democratically by a popular vote without having to dismantle the Electoral College through a messy constitutional amendment process. It would also force candidates to pay attention to more of the country than just the battleground states.

Ultimately, reforming the Electoral College is in the best interests of American democracy. Low voter turnout is a perennial plague, with only about half (51.6 percent) of eligible citizens voting on average. Many Americans feel that their votes count for nothing, and for good reason: In some states, they effectively do not. If the Electoral College were reformed so as to equitably count every individual’s vote, then voter participation and civic engagement on the whole would likely increase. Republicans in California and Democrats in Texas would have an incentive to cast ballots if they knew that their votes for president were more than just symbolic. These reforms would also make it more difficult for parties to tamper with American democracy for their own political purposes.

Electoral College reform has been debated since the institution’s inception, but there has always been little political will for change. The Democrats and Republicans appear to have held a tacit “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” agreement on the subject, but it is becoming increasingly obvious that the American electoral system is broken. Maybe now that the Democrats are starting to notice the Republican efforts to sabotage the 2016 elections, we can enact meaningful electoral reform to make American democracy more democratic.