Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Amending the Electoral College

Josh Marshall argues in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, on the grounds that, by its nature, the EC effectively excludes from the political process anyone who lives in a non-swing state, since their votes are a foregone conclusion, and thus causes the political strategies of both parties to focus on liminal constituencies in a limited number of states.

He's absolutely right about the nature of the problem. As anyone who lives in Texas or California can attest, our views and issues have been systemically ignored by both political parties in each of the last election cycles. The campaigns have revolved entirely around the concerns of people in swing states, rather than around the issues that galvanize the American people as a whole.

With that said, I think Josh is being naive about the reality of ever amending the constitution to get rid of the EC. The small states simply have too much at stake in their overrepresentation in the EC. From there, it's a matter of arithmetic: since it takes only 13 states to block a constitutional amendment, why would the 13 smallest states (who only have 4% of the population) not block an amendment limiting their electoral clout?

However, there is a solution that largely solves the political problem Josh describes, but does so in a way that is less likely to raise the hackles of the small states.

The solution is to write a federal constitutional amendment modeled after the recently failed Colorado state amendment. Such an amendment would hold that state electoral votes be divvied up not on a winner-take-all basis, but proportionally, based on the number of direct votes a candidate received. Although it would not undo the unbalanced weight that small states have (and therefore would not be grounds for them to obstruct the amendment), it would mean that every state was "in play" -- getting an extra hundred thousand votes in California or Texas could swing an electoral vote.

The reason we need a federal amendment to do this follows from the reasons why the amendment in Colorado failed. Consider this: if you're Tom DeLay, running the Republican Party in Texas, why would you ever allow such an amendment to pass on a state level? It's effectively giving the Democrats ten extra electoral votes in a state that the Republicans otherwise have locked up. Likewise, if you're a Democrat in Massachusetts, why would you ever hand the Republicans four or five electoral votes?

In economics, this is known as a "first-mover problem" -- no one wants to make the first move, since the cost will fall on them, even though everyone will benefit if everyone makes the move. A federal constitutional amendment could breaking this national deadlock.

1 comment:

zachawry said...

the EC effectively excludes from the political process anyone who lives in a swing state, since their votes are a foregone conclusionShouldn't that be "anyone who doesn't live in a swing state"?