States don’t need to wait for a constitutional amendment to solve one of the biggest problems created by the electoral college.
And the time is now, because the partisan edge is off after this week’s voting.
There was speculation before Tuesday’s election that one presidential candidate might win the popular vote while the other won in the electoral college. It didn’t happen, but in the meantime, many of us had to refresh our memories of those long-forgotten civics lessons.
The electoral college was established by the founding fathers as a compromise between choosing the president by popular election or by Congress. When we vote, we actually select electors who then vote for president. States can decide how to allocate their electoral votes, and today all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) award them on a winner-take-all basis. If a presidential candidate wins a bare majority or even plurality, he wins all the state’s electoral votes. As a result, in rare cases, a president has won the electoral vote without winning the popular vote, most recently in 2000 when George W. Bush was elected.
What’s new in 2012, however, is the result of changing demographics.
Solidly Democratic states now dominate the nation’s coasts, while the middle and south are home to many dependably Republican states. Presidential candidates don’t spend much time in those states, because electoral college calculations place them solidly in one camp or the other. Independents and undecided voters become irrelevant to the electoral college outcome.
The result, according to an analysis by Adam Liptak in The New York Times, is increased voter apathy in what he calls the “spectator states.” He reported that in 2008, voter turnout was six points lower in the spectator states than in the 15 swing states where candidates campaigned the most.
So why not just dump the electoral college? For one, it would take a constitutional amendment, a lengthy, complicated and some would say risky path. For another, at any given time, one of the major political parties might expect to benefit from the electoral approach, making its members less supportive of change.
But each state can make the most important change by getting rid of the winner-take-all method of allocating its electoral votes. Several approaches have been proposed, and some states have already pledged to make the move if others join them. It’s time for a change.