Failing School

When Republicans won sweeping victories at the federal and state levels in 2010, they no doubt realized their position was a fragile one. The economy goes up and down, policies can be popular or unpopular, and the public's will is fickle. To stay in power, there's no substitute for rigging the game, which they set out to do by passing laws through state legislatures that make it more difficult for people who are likely to vote for Democrats to cast votes at all.

But last week we saw something new. Republicans in Pennsylvania have proposed changing the way the state allocates its electoral votes to give two votes to the statewide winner of the presidential race and grant the other votes one-by-one to the winner of each congressional district. At present, this system is used only in Maine and Nebraska, which each have only four electoral votes. Since the Republican legislature and governor in Pennsylvania are also now redrawing district lines, they could manage to give next year's Republican nominee as many as 12 of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes, even if he or she loses the state.

Though Pennsylvania is considered a swing state, the last Democratic presidential nominee to lose there was Michael Dukakis in 1988. The Republicans in Harrisburg have figured out a way to avoid those losses. The Constitution allows each state to determine how to allocate its electoral votes, so if the Pennsylvania Legislature decided it wanted to have Punxsutawney Phil decide which candidate gets those 20 precious votes, they'd be within their legal rights. But the fact that we even have to worry about these kinds of pre-election shenanigans ought to make us pause and ask: Isn't it time we rid ourselves of the Electoral College once and for all?

Few of the Founders' mistakes are more glaring than the Electoral College. In its original form, electors would cast two votes for president, and the person who came in second would become vice president. They apparently didn't account for the possibility of a tie, and after the election of 1800 -- when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each received 73 electoral votes -- Congress passed the 12th Amendment to require separate votes of the electors for each office.

In the years since, a president has taken office after gaining fewer votes than his opponent four times. Each time, people have asked whether this absurdly anti-democratic anachronism might be done away with. And each time the obstacles prove too great: Amending the Constitution would require the consent of many less populated states which mistakenly believe that the Electoral College helps them.

States with small populations, like Wyoming or Idaho, argue that they get an influence boost. But that boost is not nearly as big as the one they get from the even more anti-democratic institution known as the United States Senate. Wyoming has two-tenths of 1 percent of the American population. It gets six-tenths of 1 percent of the electoral votes (3 out of 538) for an impact three times what it deserves, but a full 2 percent of the Senate (2 out of 100), or 10 times what its population warrants. In the Senate, Wyoming is a player; for presidential campaigns, it's an afterthought.

Yet people on both sides assume that the Electoral College must be good for Republicans and bad for Democrats, despite the rather thin evidence supporting the assumption. This summer, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and Rick Perry signed a letter to governors warning them against supporting an effort to undermine the Electoral College called National Popular Vote (NPV), describing it as "a back-door effort ... started by a small group of liberal activists in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, and it must be stopped."

They were right about its origins -- National Popular Vote (which is apparently participating in a "Recreate the Ugliest Website of 1998" contest) is indeed supported by liberals. The group and its allies work to convince state legislatures to pass laws pledging to grant their electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote, no matter who actually prevails in their state. If states with a total of 270 electoral votes sign on, the Electoral College in its current form becomes moot, because whoever wins the popular vote will automatically win the electoral vote. So far, such state laws (written to take effect only if the 270-vote threshold is reached) have been passed in Vermont, Maryland, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, for a total of 132 electoral votes.

You'll notice that all those states are heavily Democratic. It may well be that -- just as Pennsylvania Republicans assume their state will continue to be won by Democratic presidential candidates -- the legislators and governors in those states agreed to the NPV in part because they assumed that if 2000 were to be repeated, it would once again be a Republican popular-vote loser winning the Electoral College. But that need not be the case. Just before the 2000 election, journalists began to speculate that one candidate could win the popular vote, but lose when the electoral college was tallied. That candidate's campaign began preparing to argue the case for its legitimacy, and days of hand-wringing ensued. You've guessed the punchline: Everyone thought it was George W. Bush who would win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote.

The lesson is that it isn't so easy to predict who will be advantaged by the Electoral College in any given year, much less in campaigns to come. So what would happen if we could do away with all the Electoral College wrangling? Well, in every other democracy on Earth, presidential elections work in the following way. See if you can follow along, because it's pretty complicated: People vote; the votes are counted; whoever gets the most votes wins. Having a system like that wouldn't guarantee more victories for one party or another. But it would make our democracy a lot more democratic.

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