Presidential elections in a partisan age
Published on -10/28/2012, 5:11 PM
The United States will hold a presidential election on Nov. 6. Kansans do know that simple fact, but not if we had to rely on the candidates' campaigns to inform us.
That's because this year's dramatic race for the White House simply does not exist in Kansas. Or California. Or Maine. Or any of 40 or so states that have been solidly red or blue throughout this campaign.
Quick, which party will prevail in Kansas in 2016? 2020? We all know the answer. And we know why this is so: the Electoral College, which sums the winner-take-all results of the 50 states (with two minor exceptions) and requires a majority of 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
Since 2000, I've written some on the Electoral College, and I'll be happy to engage in a broad-gauged discussion of this uniquely American institution. But for today, let me focus on two aspects of the Electoral College that make it unfair and an increasingly problematic part of our democracy.
First, the Electoral College fundamentally discriminates against tens of millions of voters. This occurs largely by disenfranchising voters on the losing side in the 40 or states where the outcome is never in doubt.
As a Kansas Democrat, Nov. 6 will mark my ninth consecutive vote for a losing candidate in Kansas. It simply doesn't matter if a cast my ballot or not. So it goes. But this is exactly the case for all Republican voters in California or New York, and for Democrats in Texas or Utah.
My vote and those of a GOP voter in California are irrelevant, while those of both parties in Ohio, Colorado and the six other battleground states are highly valued, as the campaigns and their allies spend more than $2 billion to convince a handful of voters (under a million across all eight states) how to cast their ballot.
Abolishing the Electoral College and instituting a simple popular vote election would make everyone's vote count exactly the same. It would be fair. The Republican in New York City and the Democrat in Dodge City would each have an equal say in choosing a president.
The second reason for abolishing the Electoral College may be even more compelling than the idea of fundamental fairness. That is, in an increasingly partisan, polarized era, the Electoral College is an institutional disaster waiting to happen.
The most dangerous problem is throwing the election into the U.S. House, but the most obvious one is that the popular-vote winner can lose the electoral vote count, as clearly occurred in 1888 and 2000.
Our political system has weathered those political storms; George W. Bush won the narrowest presidential race in American history, yet harnessed enough legitimacy to govern aggressively over his White House tenure.
Still, four years later, a switch of 60,000 votes in Ohio would have landed John Kerrey in the White House, despite losing the popular count by three million.
And in 2012, the possibility that Mitt Romney will win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College tally is very real.
Indeed, since 2000, the highly divisive, highly partisan nature of American politics means very close elections will be the norm, and the popular vote count, with Republicans running up huge majorities in rural states and the South, may differ from the electoral vote results.
As a republic, we can afford an occasional electoral division, but such split outcomes may well become a quadrennial threat electoral legitimacy. Thus, a Romney popular majority with an Obama electoral-vote win might invite a thorough reassessment of the creaky, undemocratic Electoral College.
It should. We can have an election in which the candidate with the most votes wins, and one in which every vote counts equally. That a worthwhile goal for Kansans and for all Americans.
Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.