Thoughts on the Electoral College

Musings about the problems inherent in the Electoral College are still floating about; see Josh Marshall for one thoughtful example. And I have to agree with Marshall; I would have felt mighty uncomfortable if Kerry had won Ohio, and thus the presidency, while 3.5 million more Americans voted for Bush. I think the Electoral College is an antiquated and outdated system, and I would welcome its end.

But the reality is that amending the Constitution to get rid of it is highly unlikely. If 75,000 voters in Ohio had changed their votes and put Kerry in the White House despite Bush’s popular vote victory, perhaps there would be enough support (i.e. Republican support) for the change that it would stand a chance. But as long as the system benefits Republicans (which it inherently does), I doubt it.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the current EC system has to remain unchanged. In fact, I think that many states have good incentive to take matters into their own hands and change the way they apportion their electors, from a winner-take-all system to a proportional system. Why? Simply in order to attract some attention from presidential candidates.

As everyone knows, Colorado considered the change in this election, and it failed. But the reason for that is clear: Colorado is currently competitive enough that it attracts presidential candidates as is. If it had switched to a proportional system, it almost certainly would have lost attention from the campaigns, not gained it. Colorado is exactly the kind of state the benefits from the winner-take-all system, and so has no incentive to change it.

But what about Massachusetts, California, New York, Texas, South Carolina, and Utah? They receive absolutely no political attention during presidential campaigns because they are completely uncompetitive. So wouldn’t it be in the interest of solidly red and blue states to switch from a winner-take-all EV system to a proportional one? Consider how much more attention New York or Texas would have gotten from presidential candidates if those candidates had the realistic potential to earn EC votes in those states.

As far as I can tell, the only major reason that those states don’t switch their system is because it is in the national parties’ interest to receive as many EC votes as possible from solidly red or blue states. So if someone in NY proposes switching to a proportional EC system, the NY Democratic party would put a stop to it because it would cost the next Democratic presidential candidate numerous EC votes.

But there’s a solution: let red and blue states sign treaties with each other to make the change simultaneously.

For example, if New York and Texas make an agreement with each other to each change to a proportional system, the Democratic and Republican parties would lose their incentive to block the changes; Republican EC votes lost in Texas could be made up for with EC votes gained in NY, and vice versa. But each state would unambiguously gain attention from the two presidential campaigns.

For such a treaty to be politically workable the red and blue pair would have to be of states roughly the same size, of course. Alternatively, more than just two states could be involved in the treaty; if California wanted to make the change, it would have to sign a treaty with a coalition of several red states, such as all of the deep south. That would make it logistically more difficult (ensuring all signatories of the agreement follow through might be more difficult than just ensuring that one state follows through), but I don’t see why it couldn’t work. More importantly, I think it is clearly in the interest of solidly red and blue states to do exactly this.

One last and intriguing thought: imagine how dramatically such changes would alter presidential campaigning. I suspect that presidential campaigns would be almost unrecognizably different if this change were to happen. But almost certainly those differences would be all for the good.