Sunday, March 26, 2006

Not All "Reform" Ideas are Good

Again I must apologize for my scarce posting lately, life is conspiring against my spare time again - hate it when that happens! I am hoping that things will settle down pretty soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to mention today's David Broder column in the WaPo. It discusses a new proposal from former GOP congressman and independent 1980 presidential candidate John Anderson (whose career and campaign I respect and admire greatly) and former Indiana senator Birch Bayh (father of current Indiana senator Evan Bayh), as well as a number of reform watchdog groups.

I support almost all aspects of the plan, with one exception (that which Broder takes up in his column this morning). Anderson and Bayh propose that rather than amend the Constitution to abolish the electoral college and switch to a national popular vote system for electing the president (which they support, but realize the impossibility of given small state opposition to such a maneuver), states controlling a majority of electoral votes should "enter into an interstate compact, pledging to give their votes to the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes. That action could allow the legislatures of as few as 11 states to change the whole system of electing a president," as Broder notes.

There are at least three major problems with this plan, Broder writes:

- Broder notes the implications for small states: "It is no accident that the Founders chose to elect the president by counting votes in the states, since they wanted to emphasize that this is a federal republic with sovereignty shared between the states and Washington. Past efforts to abolish the electoral college have foundered on the objections of small states, which worry that they would be ignored in the pursuit of giant voting blocs in big population centers. Have their claims no merit?"

- While the current system contains a great many difficulties for third party candidates, the Anderson-Bayh plan could make those hurdles even more perilous ... or it could greatly magnify the impact of a third party campaign. The organzation offering the proposal suggests that the former would be true (which would serve to further entrench the two-party system), while Broder maintains this is only speculation: "The reality is that we don't know how a Ralph Nader or a Ross Perot or a Pat Buchanan or a George Wallace would see his potential leverage in a direct-election system with no runoff requirement."

- This is not the way to get reform. If people want to abolish the electoral college, they should do it head on. As Broder concludes, "a change of this scale requires careful consideration - something the amendment process provides and this mechanism is designed to circumvent. A change of this sort should not be created by 11 of the 50 state legislatures." I agree. I do not support the abolition of the electoral college, although it certainly could use some reforms.

First and foremost among the changes I would make is a return to a district-based electoral system like that used in Maine and Nebraska - that is, the winning candidate in each congressional district in a state gets one electoral vote, with the statewide winner getting the two at-large electoral votes. While this wouldn't make a great deal of difference in places like Vermont or South Dakota that already have only three votes apiece, it could change the dynamic immensely in places where congressional delegations are divided (and in the so-called battleground states). It would force candidates to campaign more widely, and could potentially result in greater participation by third parties by allowing them to target efforts more narrowly.

Of course, such a system would work best if districts weren't completely gerrymandered, which means an additional step of creating independently-drawn, fair congressional districts which would be competitive in presidential elections rather than being sure things for whichever party happens to be in control at the time. These reforms I'm suggesting could be done at the state level (most states did have a district-based system up through the 1820s or longer), and would require neither a consitutional amendment or a bizarre "end-run" (as Broder calls the Anderson-Bayh plan).

Clearly this is not in any way a final plan, and as always I'd welcome any thoughts on all aspects of this. I know that many do favor a complete overhaul of the system, a step which I feel goes contrary to the very carefully-constructed and balanced system created by the Constitution's Framers, but I'm happy to discuss.


At 1:52 PM, Anonymous Paul Wartenberg said...

I think an alternative to the Maine/Nebraska system of dividing up electoral counts by congressional district would be to base the electoral count by overall percentage in that state.

Say for example the Presidential candidate who wins the state overall gets the 2 Senatorial/electoral votes. After that, for example in a state with 10 congressional seats where two candidates get 57 percent to 43 percent, they split the 10 electoral seats by roughly 6 to 4 (rounding out to the nearest number). The winner of that state gets 8 Electors to 4, rather than the 12 votes they'd get under the current system. Small states will most likely all go for one winner while the large states will divide up between the two candidates and better reflect the usual 52-48 split in the nation on their national voting habits.

The best benefit of this method is you avoid the gerrymandering of districts: the whole state's voting population counts. The negative is that the rounding up or down of the percentages to fit the final electoral numbers would lead to major nitpicking.

Would this increase the number of 'battleground' states in which candidates campaign vigorous for every possible vote? Most likely: there's about what 9 states now as battlegrounds; this would increase that to 20 or so. The smaller states may well get relegated into the shadows since they'll most likely be an winner-takes-all situation to where only one candidate benefits (so the other one may well ignore it).

This doesn't address other problems with elections (the horrific length of them, or the excessive costs). If we fix the election system overall and eliminate the corruption from it, we may not need to worry about the electoral college as much...

At 7:57 AM, Blogger JBD said...

Paul, at first glance, I like it. As you say, could get tricky with the figuring out of the percentages, but it would certainly "fair" things up at least a bit.


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