Monday, September 19, 2011

Split Decision

It's getting to be the season: it's time to start thinking about the Electoral College!

OK, so this is the sort of thing that us Poli Sci majors get all excited about, and no one else much cares. Even 11 years after the first electoral college disaster in over a century--that would be the 2000 election in case you have mercifully forgotten--nothing concrete has really changed. Colorado tried to alter how their votes were distributed, but that was shut down by voters. And aside from the historical but otherwise trivial split that Nebraska pulled off in the '08 election, no one has said much of anything.

Then enter my home state of Pennsylvania. A lawmaker recently proposed setting up a district-based system for assigning electoral votes. Basically, the presidential candidate that wins each congressional district would win one vote; the statewide winner would get the last two additional votes. (For those that fell asleep in civics class, each state is awarded one vote for each representative they have--based on population--and then one for each of their state-wide senators. All states but Nebraska and Maine have a winner-take-all system.)

A Republican member of the State Senate--Dominic Pileggi--says that this is a fairer system than the winner-take all method, since all of those individuals voting for the losing candidate for their state still don't feel their votes matter. It is entirely coincidental that PA is more or less a Democratically-leaning state and, oh, yeah, the Republicans are in the process of redrawing their congressional districts.

Personally, I don't find there to be flaws in the current system. People who get upset that people in states that are a lock for one candidate or another--and so there is no reason to vote--forget that the same happens on the other side, too. Texans who wanted to vote for Obama, knowing full well McCain was going to win the state, felt the same as Republicans in California and New York. Yeah, it makes you feel bad, but the end result isn't going to change all that much. (And, besides, you should also be voting for lower-ballot candidates as well, which conceivably have more of an impact on your life.)

And the vote-splitting proposal causes other problems--with very little at stake, candidates will be less inclined to campaign in your state. The system for PA right now means a candidate will either win 20 votes or 0; with the new proposal, it might be 12-8 or 11-9 or something similar. Yes, you can fight in the middle for a few swing districts...but why bother, when it's only one or two votes out of 538? To alleviate this problem, many states have signed legislation that they will adopt this split-vote soon as other states do the same, so everyone is in the same boat. Add to this that you now introduce the ugly art of redistricting into the presidential election, not just the congressional ones, and it just seems like you're replacing old problems with new problems.

It's easy to point to, say, Florida in 2000, and claim that without the electoral college, Al Gore would have won. But you can't turn back the clock. Had there been no electoral college, Bush might have campaigned in northern California and upstate New York, while Gore would have made trips to Austin and Atlanta. The entire landscape would have changed--different issues, vote totals, and speeches would have been emphasized--so you can't take the rules from one scenario and transplant them to another.

My love affair with the current system is part blind historical appreciation but also of practicality. Say that, instead of just Florida, the entire nation was just a 537 vote difference. What would the recount have looked like then? Where would it have happened? Everywhere, in each state? Since all votes contribute to the final total regardless of state, a recount in Iowa would mean the same as a recount in California.  By localizing the elections by state, such issues can be contained to only a few states to reflect the needed practicality of our system.

I don't think the world will come screeching to a halt if Pileggi's vote somehow passes. I think it's a bad idea, given my thoughts above, but even as a political matter, Pileggi's proposal could easily come back to haunt his party.  There are several ways this could happen, but I will leave it to the interested parties to formulate their own plans.

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