My Pet Cat And Electoral College Reform
It’s so much fun to be able to jump up and down and say “I’m right! I’m right!” only when what you’re right about isn’t particularly happy news, that feels like it’s sort of an inappropriate reaction. What I think I’m right about is that any proposed change to the electoral system will be evaluated first, last, and exclusively according to the calculus of which party will benefit from that change in the very next election, and therefore no meaningful election reform will ever actually take place. Here’s a perfect example of why I think that:
The states of Maine and Nebraska are somewhat anomalous in our system of Presidential politics. Rather than award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all system, those states use a districting system: they award two Electors to the Presidential candidate who gains a plurality of votes statewide, and then one Elector to the Presidential candidate who garnered a plurality of votes from each Congressional district within the state.
Maine has had this system since 1972 and Nebraska has had it since 1996. Since adoption, both states have been roughly politically uniform throughout their internal geographies, at least enough so that in every election since adopting district allocation, they have awarded all of their electoral votes to single candidates. The sole exception was in 2008, when John McCain carried Nebraska statewide, but Barack Obama won Nebraska’s second congressional district by 1.21%, and thus got one electoral vote from Nebraska. Even had McCain carried NE-2, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the election. So district-level allocation of electors has never really been a factor.
But maybe that’s because these states are, as I noted in the previous paragraph, uniform enough in their political geographies that Electoral College votes would never really be split anyway. A more populous and more divided state might behave differently. Virginia has taken a step towards adopting this system, which was decried as calling for the death of democracy by people who ought to maybe be a bit less alarmist about things, apparently because it would take the Democrats’ most recent Electoral College prize, Virginia, and put it back in the Republicans’ column.
Forgive me if I’m less than impressed with the notion that this would completely de-legitimize any Presidential election in which a Republican happened to win. After all, I can foresee that district-level allocation would result in fewer campaign resources being put in to a state certain to be divided — Virginia could be diminishing rather than enhancing its role as a key player in Presidential politics by splitting its 13 electoral votes roughly down the middle — if the Republican is going to get not fewer than 5 votes and the Democrat not fewer than 4, then only 4 and not 13 votes are in play, so it’s not as much of a prize.
You see, the fear on the part of Democrats, and the hope on the part of Republicans, comes from the fact that by virtue of controlling a majority of state legislatures at the point in the electoral cycle when redistricting happens, Republicans have gerrymandered themselves into a majority of Congressional districts. The assumption is that election results on a district-by-district basis will roughly parallel elections to the House. Which means Republicans will have a “locked in” advantage of thirty-three votes because the 2012 Congressional elections returned 234 Republicans and 201 Democrats.
In 2012, Barack Obama won 27 jurisdictions (26 states and D.C.) and Mitt Romney won 24, so that means that the Electoral College results of 255 votes for Obama and 282 votes for Romney, notwithstanding that the popular vote was very much in Obama’s favor. And that will be how every election for the remaining duration of the Republic will turn out. (There, I just spared you reading the article on Larry Sabato’s blog.)
My pet cat uses a very sophisticated threat-opportunity analysis technique at home when responding to stimulus like humans playing with them. The technique is this: events occur in a linear, direct, and repetitive sequence — whatever just happened is what will always happen again. The technique works well when anticipating where a button tied to a piece of string will bounce as long as the human playing with the cat bounces the button in the same way again and again to let the cat bat at it with her paw or try to bite at it. But the cat becomes (amusingly) confused and disoriented when at the last second, the human twists her wrist in a different way and the button lands somewhere other than it did on the last jump.
There are people who somehow find a way to vote Democrat for President and Republican for Congress, or vice versa. We call these people “ticket splitters.” I am not convinced that just because Republican Congressional candidates won a majority of Congressional districts in 2012, that means that Mitt Romney won a majority of those districts as well. I can’t find data on this anywhere, though.
As I recall, there are Congressional districts that switch party affiliation. Either way. In nearly every election. So it seems to me that Democrats can persuade voters, particularly in close, competitive districts, to change preference from one party to another. Or, for that matter, that Republicans can do the same. While it doesn’t happen all that much, it does happen that incumbents are defeated and that partisan control of particular seats does change.
This is true at the state legislature level, too. Democrats could put in the work on the ground to recapture more state legislatures so as to draw the maps in ways that are better for them. And less partisan ways to redistrict every ten years after census results can also be found. California and several other states have adopted, by initiative, means to re-draw district maps in response to the deci-annual Census which are at least less partisan than leaving the task to job-security seeking incumbents who delegate the task to gerrymandering consultants armed with breathtakingly detailed data and amazingly sophisticated computer programs.
So, if a) you think my cat’s risk-opportunity analysis is generally right, and b) there are no ticket-splitters, and c) Democrats can’t win close districts where Republicans are the incumbents, and d) Democrats can’t ever recapture state legislatures currently held by Republicans, and e) the only way that district maps can ever be drawn is by craft politicians who gerrymander them, then yes, adoption of a Maine-Nebraska electoral allocation scheme would build an advantage for the Republicans in to the system used to select Presidents for at least the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Because I don’t agree with any of these assumptions, I’m not particularly offended by the notion of district allocation, at least in theory. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea — I like the existing winner-take-all system that prevails in 48 states better because there’s less possibility of the distortion that is feared. But state borders are a little arbitrary at this level, too.
So you know what would be a good idea? Abolishing the Electoral College entirely, and awarding the Presidency to the candidate who gets a plurality of the popular vote nationally. That may be a little bit too complex for my cat, but a majority of Americans of all political affiliations seem to like that idea.