Saturday, January 26, 2013

Real electoral reform

The USA needs real election reform, not Republicans’ proposed Electoral College changes. Democracy itself hangs in the balance.

The map at the top of this post shows the results of the 2012 US Presidential Election, and the states/Electoral College votes won by the two main candidates. President Obama won the election with 332 Electoral College votes, compared to 206 for Mitt Romney. He also won 5 million more popular votes than Romney received.

The map below shows a very different story: It is the same presidential election, but with the results shown by county. While the map above appears reasonably balanced, blue v. red, the map below appears much more red. That’s precisely why Republicans now want to change the way presidents are elected in some US states—those Democrats typically win.

The Republican plan—though plot may be a more accurate word—is to change the system only in certain Democratic-leaning swings states, those where Republicans currently control the governorship and both houses of the legislature: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. These states all voted for President Obama in 2012 and gave their Electoral Votes to him.

Republicans plan to change these states from winner-takes-all, the way 48 US states allocate their electoral votes at the moment, to awarding them by Congressional District. If the Republican plan had been in place in all six swing states in 2012, instead of the president winning all 106 Electoral Votes, Romney would have won 61 electoral votes and President Obama would have won only 45. That would have reduced President Obama’s national Electoral Vote from 332 to only 271—a mere one more Electoral Vote than he needed to be elected.

Let’s look at Virginia more closely as an example of how this would work. President Obama won the state and its 13 Electoral Votes. But if the Republican plan had been in place in 2012, Romney would have won NINE electoral votes to the president’s four—Romney would have won two-thirds of the state’s Electoral Votes, despite losing the popular vote! The move would, as a bonus for Republicans, effectively disenfranchise non-white and other minority voters (including LGBT voters), by giving white Republican voters far too much weight, well out of proportion to their actual share of the electorate.

This is the reality because Republicans already rigged elections: They worked hard, and spent large amounts of money, to win control of state legislatures in 2010 precisely so that they could write the congressional district maps to ensure Republican victories—they now even admit that was their plan all along. This gerrymandering by Republicans is the reason that they control the US House of Representatives even though they received fewer votes than Democrats did. Now, they want to do the same thing to presidential elections.

Were it not for gerrymandering, the Republican plan would be closer to a proportional system for electing a president than the current winner-takes-all approach allows for. However, because of gerrymandering, it instead cynically twists that goal to ensure Republicans win the presidency even if they lose the popular vote—something that could very well happen every election under the Republican plan. So, what we’d end up with is something far less democratic than what we have now.

If the US was to pass a Constitutional Amendment requiring all states to use truly non-partisan commissions to draw the boundaries of Congressional Districts based solely on population—and forbidding them from taking party voting history of areas into account—then it might be possible to make the Republican plan credible. However, most state legislatures would never give up their power to draw the maps, and Republicans aren’t about to walk away from the one thing that could ensure their minority party retains power for at least the next decade. And, can we really trust politicians to run a truly non-partisan redistricting system? I certainly don’t trust them.

The best possible solution would be direct popular election of the president—abolish the Electoral College altogether. Some people argue that this would give an unfair advantage to states with large populations, since that's where the people are, but one could argue that the current system does that, too; in fact, small states are over-represented. If the US president is to represent the entire country, then it makes sense that all the people elect them nationally.

An alternative could be to allocate a state’s Electoral Votes not by Congressional District, as the Republicans want, but by proportion of the popular vote. This means that even solidly Republican states would end up allocating Electoral Votes to Democrats, too, not just Democratic states giving votes to Republicans. It could also allow third-party and independent candidates to win some Electoral Votes—impossible under the current system and the Republican proposal alike.

Politicians tell us that direct election of the president is impossible, and they’re certainly not about to move to any proportional system, either. So, on balance, the only way to preserve democracy is to retain the current system as it is.

It surprises me that I’ve come to this conclusion because I once favoured something similar to the Republican plan. But that was before that party seized control of state legislatures and used them to pass laws to suppress votes (especially of Democrats) and to gerrymander districts to give their party control of the US House, despite winning fewer votes. Put bluntly, Republicans are interested only in guaranteeing power for Republicans and the elite special interests they represent—the people be damned.

Of course, all of this will change by mid-century as the US becomes majority non-white and even Republicans’ cynical manipulation of the system to create unfair advantages for themselves will no longer be enough to help them. As the Republican Party begins to die off, a new political consensus will emerge, far more centrist, far more interested in doing the people’s business than the Republican Party is. It will then be possible to enact real electoral reform.

For now, the important thing is that to preserve, protect and defend democracy itself, the Republicans’ cynical plans to manipulate the presidential election process must be defeated.


Roger Owen Green said...

Wow. Sometimes you really scare me. This thought process is EXACTLY what I've been going through. i thought the Maine/Nebraska formula of voting by Congressional district made sense. And it does SEEM to make more states more competitive, so that the ads would show up in NY, CA and TX. If Congressional districts were a "true coin", it'd be an obvious move closer to direct voting and getting rid of the Electoral College. but districts are NOT 'true", so it doesn't work.

Arthur Schenck said...

Ha, I know what you mean—I've had the same reaction visiting your blog!

You hit it exactly—without guarantees of a "true coin", no fair or truly democratic system can be based on allocating Electoral Votes by Congressional District.