America's Game of Electoral College Roulette

The electoral college system has transformed presidential campaigns into a series of state contests aimed at a small minority of voters rather than a bona fide national campaign.

By G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young

In this most contentious election year, one proposition looms not at all contentious: few disagree that America faces a host of imposing challenges--both foreign and domestic. But while we clearly recognize the formidable nature of those challenges we utterly fail to understand that it is our flawed presidential electoral system that prevents us from solving them.

Rather than serve as a solution, our electoral system has become part of the problem. It has become America’s great game of Electoral College roulette.

Roulette is a fitting metaphor for the insidious presidential election system that has evolved in America over the past several decades.  Like its notorious namesake “Russian roulette,” American roulette is reckless, risky and potentially fatal.

That system has transformed presidential campaigns into a series of state contests aimed at a small minority of voters rather than a bona fide national campaign.  Consequently, nearly all presidential campaigning takes place in a handful of states with the remaining states largely ignored. In 2008 for example, more than 60 percent of the TV advertising dollars and candidate visits were concentrated in just five states, a practice continuing this year.
These pernicious practices undermine our ability to have a serious and honest debate about national problems during an election.  Then after an election is over, these same practices leave a new president governing a still divided deeply polarized nation.

Let’s be clear. Not all of this is new. Persistent problems with the Electoral College itself are almost as old as the Republic.  Since parties emerged, some states always mattered more than others because of the size of their electoral votes. In addition sectional and ethnic voting too often precluded truly national campaigns. The Electoral College has never been a really “good system,” but until recently it has been a “good enough” system.

No longer!

In fact since about 1970, we have witnessed a slow, steady, almost invisible polarization of the electorate—exacerbated by decades of politicized congressional redistricting.  This congressional redistricting , motivated mostly by both parties desire to accumulate “safe” seats, has produced a nation more divided along ideological and party lines that perhaps anytime in modern  history. The result is a highly partisan, bitterly divisive, and deeply polarized electorate. 

Today most states, big and small are safe for one party or the other before the election even begins. Consequently--and this is the critical problem--the real election is a contest for the five to 10 percent of the electorate not irreversibly divided among partisan or ideological lines.

The violence to democracy is only too clear. But even more important it prevents the election from becoming a serious national dialogue on the challenges that confront us.  Instead, campaigns deteriorate into a series of local races that focus on parochial, even trivial matters of marginal importance to the nation itself. 

Over the remaining days of the 2012  campaign, for example, residents of a half dozen or so “swing states “ will see over and over again presidential campaign entourages crisscrossing their respective states  while the vast proportion of the nation will nary see a campaign ad, let alone a candidate. Worse still, the ads seen will address issues that matter not nationally--but mainly in states like Nevada, Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Iowa and Wisconsin.

One consequence is that the day after the election, we will awake to find that the election has decided little. Our politicians will continue to pursue the same dysfunctional policies in the same dysfunctional way. And we will again realize that the nation has not moved forward to address its great problems. It hasn’t because presidential elections no longer address those compelling issues faced by the nation as a whole, pandering instead  to a relatively small number of voters in a half dozen key states.

The failure of our presidential electoral system is not all bad news. The good news is that it is our flawed electoral system and not us that is inhibiting solution of our urgent problems.  We really can solve the vexing economic political and social challenges that confront us.

What we lack is not a way to do it but the will to do it. And we lack that will, in substantial part, because our electoral system is failing us. 

What we do about that failure may be the single most important challenge we face today. The electoral system is fixable--but unless we do fix it, our other problems will only worsen---and until we do fix it we are going to have difficulty fixing much else.

Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. 

toto September 26, 2012 at 10:57 PM
With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome. The population of the top 5 cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities (going as far down as Arlington, TX) is only 15% of the population. Suburbs and exurbs often vote Republican. If big cities controlled the outcome of elections, the governors and U.S. Senators would be Democratic in virtually every state with a significant city. A nationwide presidential campaign, with every vote equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as OH and FL, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in OH and FL. The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every vote is equal, a campaign must be run everywhere.
toto September 26, 2012 at 10:58 PM
The Founding Fathers in the Constitution did not require states to allow their citizens to vote for president, much less award all their electoral votes based upon the vote of their citizens. The presidential election system we have today is not in the Constitution, and enacting National Popular Vote would not need an amendment. State-by-state winner-take-all laws to award Electoral College votes, were eventually enacted by states, using their exclusive power to do so, AFTER the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution. Now our current system can be changed by state laws again. Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive." The constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected.
toto September 26, 2012 at 10:58 PM
A majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the Founders' rejected methods in the nation's first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century. Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election. In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes. The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. It is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method.
toto September 26, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution says "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state's electoral votes. As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all method is used by 48 of the 50 states. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. The National Popular Vote bill would change existing state winner-take-all laws that award all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who get the most popular votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), to a system guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes for, and the Presidency to, the candidate getting the most popular votes in the entire United States. The bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.
High-On-Lehigh September 28, 2012 at 10:25 AM
There is some hope! :-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Popular_Vote_Interstate_Compact http://www.fairvote.org/reforms/#.UGV5MhgoRZ0


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