Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Electoral College: Part II



This is the continuation of my previous post on the Electoral College.  Here, I consider the impact the Electoral College has on modern presidential campaigns, as contrasted with a system direct popular election that was called for in the Bayh-Celler Amendment.  You might want to go back and read the previous post first.

The Electoral College Today

Were some extra-terrestrial political scientist to land in the United States sometime over the next two weeks, and were he, she or it to observe the campaign currently underway, our visitor might report back to the planet Wmzypholg that Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney were in a close contest for the presidency of Ohio.  Both candidates are so shameless in flaunting their love for Ohio that one wonders why they ever leave that state.  Ohioans might be wondering if they ever will.  Talking heads on television can’t seem to repeat often enough, “No Republican has ever won the presidency without the support of Ohio.”  We are treated to the spectacle of a Republican governor seeking re-election by boasting about the low unemployment level in Ohio, while the Republican candidate for President talks incessantly about high unemployment in Ohio.  Democrats plan to keep Ohio in their column by touting the number of Ohio jobs saved by the federal bailout of the auto industry, which is centered in Michigan.  I mean no slight to Buckeyes, but might we ask just what makes them so important as to serve as virtual proxies for the rest of the nation in a presidential election?

It also has not escaped our notice that presidential candidates seldom come to Vermont.  True, Mitt Romney holed up in West Windsor for a week to prepare for the first debate, but we never saw him.  Barack Obama did visit Burlington for a fund raiser last spring, but for all the attention we have received since our space visitor could be forgiven for concluding that we had joined Canada.  We feel a bit ignored, neglected or maybe just taken for granted.  We are not alone.  In fact, the majority of states receive scant attention by presidential candidates and for good strategic reasons, given the realities of the Electoral College.

We saw in the previous post that presidents are elected on a state by state basis, usually with the winner of each state taking all of that state’s electoral votes, no matter how small the margin of victory.  It is conceivable, but unlikely, that a candidate could win with only narrow victories in 11 states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, New Jersey—270 votes among them.  Combine that with the fact that most states are dominated by one or the other of the two national parties and one can begin to understand how the Electoral College shapes—in the view of some, distorts—the presidential campaign.  With three electoral votes to offer, and a reliable record of supporting Democrats in recent years, Vermont is just not a high priority for either candidate.  To the Obama Campaign, we are already in the bag.  To the Romney Campaign, we are a hopeless cause.  Neither has an incentive to expend time or resources here for all of three electoral votes and neither candidate is likely to drop by just to admire the fall foliage. 

The picture is not all that different for large states that reliably support a single party.  The Obama campaign knows it can assume that California, Massachusetts and New York will deliver their combined 98 electoral votes for Mr. Obama.  No need to expend much effort in any of those states.  The Romney campaign knows it has Texas, Georgia and Indiana, giving them 74 votes that are virtually uncontested.  In fact, it appears that President Obama currently has a safe 259 electoral votes, while Governor Romney trails with only 199 safe electoral votes.  So 458 electoral votes are practically uncontested and the race is on for the remaining 80 votes.  Many of these come from states that “lean” one way or the other, meaning they are more likely than not to support a single party, but their outcome is not so assured.  Candidate may spend time there and the campaigns will certainly be planning active “get out the vote” measures for Election Day.  But the real contest is now focusing on the few remaining swing states

Now let’s return to Ohio: 20 electoral votes and perhaps the swingiest of the swing states, no wonder it is getting all the love.  Ohio is joined by several other swing states that will actually determine who will occupy the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington for the next four years.  Florida and Pennsylvania are typically in play.  This year they are joined by Virginia and Wisconsin, and maybe New Hampshire, Nevada, Colorado and Iowa.  In most of these the swing seems to favor President Obama, giving him perhaps 277 electoral votes, enough to win.  But that could still change.  Watch Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa closely.  You can bet the family farm the campaigns are.

As things stand now, a Republican voter in Vermont or a Democratic voter in Texas might as well stay home, unless there are down-ticket contests that motivate them.  Their votes are not really nullified by the Electoral College.  Since their presence in the state is counted for purposes of Electoral College apportionment (remember, same as the congressional delegation) their votes are effectively transferred to the other party, whether they actually cast a ballot or not.    Although it is hard to prove, critics suggest this might depress voter turnout in all but the swing states.  If the campaigns are not focused on the safe states, maybe their local issues will not be addressed.  Campaigns and supporting groups are less likely to spend for advertising (perhaps a blessing) in states where the end result is all but determined.  Parties are less inclined to work to get out the vote.   

As happened in 1876, 1888 and 2000, the winner of the popular vote still might not win 270 electoral votes, violating the one-person-one-vote rule of modern democratic politics.

Were a system of direct popular election used, every vote in every state would count equally.  Even voters who support a minority party in their state, Democrats in Mississippi or Republicans in Massachusetts, would have an incentive to vote, knowing they are contributing to a national vote tally.  Parties would have an incentive to register voters in every state and campaigns would have to address potential voters in every state.  Maybe candidates would even come to Vermont.  It is lovely this time of the year!  Of course, everything has its downside.  People who live in states currently taken for granted would find their television stations beaming a lot more campaign commercials their way and they would be annoyed by considerably more robocalls.  No one ever said democracy was easy.

The apportionment of electoral votes introduces another distortion.  The influence of small states, Vermont included, is overstated relative to their population, thus explaining the filibuster of the Bayh-Celler Amendment by senators from smaller states.  In regional terms this results in an over-representation of southern and plains states, and while Democrats do nicely in several smaller states, again including Vermont, this regional distortion tends to favor Republicans over Democrats.  This makes alleged voter suppression attempts by Republican-dominated legislatures in several key states, Ohio. Pennsylvania, Florida, an even more critical issue.  If only a small portion of a demographic group that tends to vote heavily Democratic, African-Americans, the young, certain Latino groups, is discouraged from casting a ballot, it could swing a large number of electoral votes and potentially an entire election, even if the impact on the total popular vote is small.  Arguably, the Electoral College encourages the suppression of minority votes.

One final problem we might touch upon, if only because it is one frequently discussed in the media whenever the subject of the Electoral College does come up—the “faithless elector” who does not vote for the candidate of their party.  The problem is real, one estimate claiming a total of 158 such renegade electoral votes over the years.  Nearly half of these occurred because of vice presidential candidates dying before the electoral votes were to be cast, a possibility cited by some in defense of keeping the Electoral College intact.  About 85 electors have changed their votes because of personal ideology or loyalty to another candidate. However, faithless electors are few and usually act alone.  To date, no presidential election has ever been thrown by faithless electors.  The closest exception was vice presidential candidate Richard Mentor Johnson, who failed to win a majority in the Electoral College in 1836 when 23 electors from Virginia refused to support his candidacy because he had previously lived with an African-American woman who had born him several children.  The election was thrown to the Senate, where Johnson was easily chosen.  Today, 24 states have laws punishing faithless electors, the rest relying on party loyalty and peer-pressure to ensure that electors deliver their votes according to popular preference.  It is safe to say that were a faithless elector ever to throw an election to the other party, that person should not plan on ever having a political career. The problem is thus overstated. 

It would be possible for electors to create a 269-269 tie.  That would throw the selection of the president into the House of Representatives, where Governor Romney would probably win the state by state vote, regardless of the balance in the popular vote.  There are more states with Republican-dominated House delegations, a reality that could survive even if the Democrats win a majority of House seats in the next Congress.  On the other hand, selection of a Vice President would devolve to the Senate, where Vice President Joe Biden would probably come out on top.  For the first time since the first Adams Administration, we would have a president and a vice president from rival parties!

That would probably also be the last we would hear from the planet Wmzypholg.

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