December 19, 2008

Keeping the States Interested in the Electoral College

Justin Katz

Everybody's talking about the Electoral College and the national popular vote movement, 'round here. Ian's on it in the Phoenix. Matt Sledge talks it up on RI Future (although he doesn't think it pertinent to mention that he's the executive director of FairVote RI). Most interesting, however, is Edward Fitzpatrick's column, because the recent FairVote event that sparked the discussion apparently changed his mind, based on the arguments of senior editor and staff writer for The New Yorker (and FairVote board member) Hendrik Hertzberg:

If people such as Carcieri "think the Electoral College is such a good idea, why don't they propose it on the state level?" Hertzberg asked. In most elections, the candidate with the most votes wins. "It's pretty simple," he said. "And that’s how your governor was elected."

On his blog, Hertzberg noted the Constitution gives each state the power to pick electors "in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct." And he said the Founding Fathers did not establish "the current system," in which states award all their electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote in each state.

Hertzberg said the current system is "unjust" because "it can easily deprive the people of their preferred choice but also, and mainly, because it shuts the citizens of the 30 or more non-'battleground' states out of the game."

In an interview, Carcieri said the Electoral College was meant to prevent smaller states from being "steamrolled" by larger states, and he said the system "has withstood the test of time."

Hertzberg said, "To say that it has withstood the test of time is simply to say that it's old." And he said having a disproportionate share of electoral votes hasn't kept Rhode Island from becoming a "spectator" state — all but ignored by presidential candidates. Of the 13 states with the smallest populations, only New Hampshire has avoided "spectator" status, he said.

The only thing more disheartening than the realization that a senior editor for a major cultural publication would make these arguments is that they have such wide currency. Firstly, it isn't difficult to comprehend the differences between the nation and its political divisions (states), on one hand, and a state and its political divisions (municipalities), on the other: The geographic, economic, and cultural dispersion among municipalities is not nearly as dramatic as among states, and the federal government behaves beyond the scope of states in a different way than states do municipalities. (There isn't really a state-level analog to the nation's interaction with the world community.)

That point is minuscule, however, in the shadow of the notion that Rhode Island would somehow become more important during campaign season under a national popular vote scheme. Under the Electoral College system, Rhode Island accounts for 0.75% of the available votes. In terms of population, the state holds 0.36% of the national total. In other words, our vote value on a per capita basis would be equivalent to having only two Electoral College votes (with the national total remaining the same).

The specific National Popular Vote proposal currently on the table would actually reduce Rhode Island's significance further. Given Constitutional difficulties, the way the proposal actually functions is by having state legislatures give their Electoral College votes to whichever candidate wins the popular vote, but only when enough states have signed on to guarantee victory — that is, when the signatory states account for over half of Electoral College votes.

What that means is that politicians would have our four-EC votes of incentive to campaign in cities and states with higher populations and less homogeneous voting patterns. One-hundred and thirty cities have larger populations than Providence's, and 42 states have larger populations than Rhode Island's. And the state-by-state component of campaign strategies would account for a smaller amount of the total effort, because the National Popular Vote would effectively make the voter audience a national one, thereby increasing the importance of advertisements on a national scale.

I haven't had a chance to research extensively why leftists, in particular, are so keen for the popular vote, but I don't believe that it's residual bitterness over the Bush/Gore race. It could have to do with the fact that Democrats dominate in urban areas, so the math would therefore leave them with a greater advantage, particularly in organizing. Their investment in identity groups may also be a factor, given that geography dilutes such cuts of society.

The advantage of that dilution is perhaps the strongest argument for the Electoral College: It preserves our nation as the United States of America, not the United Interests of America. In a similar vein, it stands as a final safeguard against a populist tyranny — giving small states an allowance against large ones, and political minorities protection against a zeitgeist.

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Rhode Island and nearly every other small state is getting NOTHING from the Electoral College system. Your mathematical point is quite trumped by the fact that no candidate gives a hoot about Rhode Island or any surrounding state in the general election. And note that the sharpest math-types know that even if RI were close, it would not be nearly as interesting to candidates as a big swing state -- any given voter in Florida or Ohio has a much better chance to swing the national election than a given voter in New Hampshire (the only swing state among the 13 smallest states).

The Constitution starts with "we the people." Let's vote for President that way. The Senate is the bulwark of support for the small states, and it is of course untouched by electing our president in a fair way.

Posted by: Todd Nicholson at December 19, 2008 7:06 AM


RI's status as a minimally significant small state would be exacerbated, not alleviated by a popular vote system. Doubly so with the National Popular Vote system. No system is going to make small states as key as big states (nor should they be), but having the states elect the president is preferable to having accummulated special interest groups do so.

Posted by: Justin Katz at December 19, 2008 7:26 AM

It's the height of Orwelliansim to suggest that giving out of state voters a veto over the right of Rhode Islanders to choose their own Presidential electors is somehow "fair" to Rhode Island voters.

Fortunately, Section 2 of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution says that Rhode Islanders can't be stripped of that right. Hendrik Hertzberg's information on this issue is about 150 years out of date.

Posted by: Andrew at December 19, 2008 7:44 AM

Todd's comments are equivalent to getting punched in the face once and saying, "well that sucked, I'm going to do something different. Punch me in the face twice now."

He's suggesting (along with all other other popular vote advocates) that RI jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

Why is it that "no candidate gives a hoot about Rhode Island or any surrounding state in the general election"? I can tell you. Because New England is as pure blue as you can get. Why should the Democrats spend a penny here? They're going to win. Why should Republicans spend a penny here? They're not going to win. It's about return on the investment. If the Republicans spend a ton of money in RI, they might lose 55-45 instead of 60-40. Big deal.

If you want RI and other New England states to mean something, then have each state divide up the EC delegates by percentage of the vote and then get states like RI to a more two-party system. If there were delegates available to the Republican candidate, then maybe both sides would spend more time and money here. But before it all starts, all four votes are locked up in blue. That's why RI gets no attention, not because of the electoral college.

If we go to a popular vote system, and you're the candidate, why would you not spend 90% of your time in New York City, Chicago, LA and then pick some of the other big cities. The Wyomings, Iowas, Marylands would get zero attention too. Why? They don't have the population necessary for a successful popular vote. Heck, just win NYC and LA, get good polling numbers in both of those places, which will bleed out a little and then you've probably got the presidency. Is that what we want? Candidates spending half a billion dollars on NYC and LA only? Is that better?

Posted by: pitcher at December 19, 2008 9:10 AM

Although not by original intention, the Electoral College acts as a firebreak on voting fraud. Absent the EC, in 1960, Richard Daley would have voted every graveyard from Boise, ID to Erie, PA, instead of just those in Cook County. Fix voter fraud first and then talk to me about getting rid of the EC. BTW, voter fraud includes the Gore template for recounting currently being used by Franken and just about everything Acorn does.

Posted by: chuckR at December 19, 2008 9:42 AM

It's just another reason that match play is a better format than medal play in golf.

(Golfers will get the analogy)

Posted by: Patrick at December 19, 2008 9:50 AM


A small thing, but important. The US Constitution does NOT staret with "We the people", it begins with "We, the people of the United States".

Our nation is a nation of states. I know the difference is too subtle for some lefties, but I like just the way it is. My vote has never been cast by my elector for president because my candidate has never won, but I still believe my vote has been my state where it belongs.

Posted by: John at December 19, 2008 10:07 AM

"I haven't had a chance to research extensively why leftists, in particular, are so keen for the popular vote,"

It's a very simple answer: it emphasizes the role of large urban population centers and it let's them ignore that large geographic portion of the country between the two coasts, because it significantly dilutes the importance of low population states.

The reason why we have an Electoral College is the same reason there is a US Senate, to represent the interests of the states at the federal level. The country was formed from states. This is after all still a federal republic.

PS The whole proposal is unconstitutional anyway, so it will never take effect even if ratified by a majority of states, without the passage of a Constitutional amendment.

Posted by: Will at December 19, 2008 12:08 PM

A proportional representation system is more democratic than the winner-take-all electoral system we have in this country. It is grossly unfair that a candidate can get 49% of the vote, but the people who voted for that candidate get zero percent representation. Under a proportional representation system, the electoral college vote would be awarded by percentage of vote each candidate gets. If we applied it to Rhode Island state elections we might even get a few more Republicans elected to our legislature.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at December 19, 2008 2:06 PM

As to Lefty's comments, my wife and I have a similar discussion every so often. She looks at the party distribution in the Assembly and just says "RI is mostly Democratic", but doesn't listen when I mention that it's not 90% Democrats. A great many of those "unaffiliated" voters, are actually right leaning, but they don't want to affiliate with the Republican party, as there often is no primary for them to vote in locally. However when it comes to the general election, we've seen that a great many of them will vote Republican, as shown by the spate of Republican governors and the higher vote Republican percentage in the presidential election than we have affiliated Republicans.

I agree with Lefty, I wish the Assembly was proportional to the way that the electorate thinks. If that was the case, we'd probably have something closer to a 60-40 split in favor of the Democrats, if not 55-45.

What I'd love to see, since everyone hates the Assembly but loves their own person is have the whole Assembly voted on "at large". Then let's see how many Republicans we can get into office. Then I bet there would be about 40% Republican representation.

And that brings me to another point, why not make the Senate that way, so it is more reflective of how we do it at the national level? Make all 35 Senate seats be "at large" and make the House be by district, as it currently is. At the federal level, the Senate is "at large" for the whole state, so why don't we do that at the state level? What's the difference between the Senate and the House if both are going to be by district? If that's the case, why not just go to a unicameral government like Nebraska? Having two houses makes no sense. Checks and balances? That's crap. It's a half-assed copy of the federal level without putting in the reason for the two bodies.

Posted by: Patrick at December 19, 2008 2:18 PM

Since 2000, Lefties have been whining about how "unfair" the EC is, only because their guy lost in 2000. End of story.

Imagine if John McCain had won the "popular" vote this year, but Obama had won more electoral votes. Suddenly the Lefties would be back to defending the EC, instead of trying to abolish it, because this time around it would have been to their benefit.

Posted by: Chris at December 20, 2008 10:41 AM

Please do not speak for me. Try speaking to me and you might find that I've been a proponent of proportional representation since Eisenhower's presidency. You are way off base in your assessment of my motives. To state it as succinctly as possible, proportional representation is a much more democratic system, and it opens the door to third party representation which I strongly favor since I am neither Republicrat nor Democan.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at December 22, 2008 12:43 PM
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