Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fixing the Electoral College


There has been a lot of talk about abolishing the Electoral College lately. This sort of thing crops up every time a Presidential candidate wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College. It happened in 2000 with Al Gore, it happened again in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, so it is tempting to say that the Electoral College needs to be eliminated.

Now, before we begin, I am going to put it right out here for all to see. I am a registered Democrat. I am very liberal. Despite this, I am going to put aside my own partisan preferences and look at this with an objective eye. So, let's begin, shall we?

There are a number of valid reasons supporting the existence of the Electoral College in the modern age. Some eminently justifiable, some less so. I am going to list some of the benefits of having the Electoral College.

1. It simplifies campaign strategy and logistics.If Presidential candidates were truly elected on the basis of the popular vote, campaign strategy would be an enormous serpentine nightmare. The idea of "battleground states" would disappear entirely, since elections would hinge on who can turn out the highest absolute vote. In terms of logistics, getting the candidate from one event to the next would become even more unwieldy and punishing.

2. It protects smaller states.Using the 2010 census as a baseline, consider the kind of campaigns we would be seeing. In order to reach a solid majority of the population of the United States, candidates could conceivably be spending their time in only nine states (in descending order of population): California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Georgia. These states alone constitute 50.92% of the total population of the United States ... and if things start looking a little too close for comfort, well, there's North Carolina and New Jersey (the next two largest states).

Given this, candidates would have almost zero incentive to visit places like Kentucky, or Nebraska, or even New Hampshire once the primaries are over with.

3. It protects rural areas.With only 19.3% of the population living in rural areas, and with the population being so spread out in these areas, candidates would not only have little incentive to visit them but also would have great difficulty reaching everybody if they did.

4. Republicans would never win the White House.Let's pretend for the moment that I'm not liberal, not a Democrat, and have absolutely no interest in how the elections go one way or another. With that in mind, we turn to the 2016 electoral map -- at the city/county level.

When you look at a map of the 2016 election, broken down by county, you see that the country is this seething, pulsating mass of red, with specks of blue scattered here and there (with the exception of the West Coast and the Northeast, that is). One might be prompted to say "Well, no wonder Trump won! Lookit all dem Republican types!" But this is misleading ... again, because much of the country (in terms of surface area) is still very, very rural.

Look at Texas, for example. One of the reddest states in the Union, known for picking governors and state reps radical enough for them to get notes from the Spanish Inquisition advising them to "tone it down a bit, folks," does have some counties that voted blue. Looking at the map it's tempting to write them off. However, when you dig into the numbers a bit further, there were 27 counties out of 254 that went for Clinton. These 27 counties alone constitute 44.81% of the total population of the state, and Clinton won them handily (58.95% to Trump's 36.80%). In addition, of these 27 counties, six of them are home to some of the most densely populated areas in the state:
  • Harris County, home to Houston, cast slightly over 1.3 million votes, over 700,000 of which (slightly over 54%) were for Clinton.
  • Dallas County, home to Dallas, cast just over 750,000 votes, nearly 460,000 of these (just over 61%) were for Clinton.
  • Bexar County, home to San Antonio, cast nearly 600,000 votes, almost 320,000 of these (54.47%) were for Clinton.
  • Travis County, home to Austin, cast over 462,000 votes, of which nearly 307,000 (66.26%) were for Clinton.
  • Fort Bend County, home of the southwestern suburbs of Houston, cast slightly over 260,000 votes, of which nearly 1356,000 (51.65%) were for Clinton.
  • El Paso County, home to El Paso, cast 210,000 votes, of which over 145,000 (69.14%) were for Clinton.
These six counties, which by themselves make up just a hair over 40% of the total votes cast for the state, went overwhelmingly for Clinton, 57.96% to 37.66%. In the counties where Trump won, he won YUUGE. On average, he won 68% of the vote, compared to Clinton's 32%. In contrast, where Clinton won the margin was a bit smaller: 61.57% to 38.43%. Trump won nine counties (admittedly, very small ones) with over 90% of the vote. The highest percentage Clinton hit was just over 79% (Starr County, where 11.691 votes were cast in total).

It's pretty much the same in every state. Urban areas overwhelmingly went for the Democrats, while rural areas voted for Trump. In most states (Texas being somewhat of an outlier), urban areas constitute the vast majority of the population in each state (in fact, New Jersey is unique in that 100% of the population is considered to be "urban," through proximity to either Philadelphia or New York).
  • In Ohio, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo were wins for Clinton. Trump took the state.
  • In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and its surrounding suburbs, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg went for Clinton; Trump won the state.
  • In Michigan, Detroit and its surrounding suburbs went for Clinton. Trump won.
  • In Florida, Clinton won Miami, Tampa and Orlando. Trump won the state.
It becomes somewhat obvious that the Electoral College is intended to provide a voice for less-populated areas, and to allow them to play a role in elections. However, the fact that one candidate can win the popular vote while another wins the election is definitely a problem. So how to solve it?

I have a four-pronged approach to addressing this issue and making the entire process more equitable. It involves not just elections, but also how Congressional districts are drawn.

Step 1: Change how Congressional districts are drawn to make them fairer and to curb gerrymandering.The current method for drawing Congressional districts varies from state to state. Some have an independent panel, others rely on the legislature. The problem with the second method is that it leaves the door wide open for gerrymandering, or drawing a district to the political advantage of one party or another. This practice has created some very lopsided results.

Let's consider the 2012 election for Congress. In Pennsylvania, for example, this was the first election run under the new districts drawn up by the Republican legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor. As a result, even though Republican Congressional candidates state-wide received 48.56% of the popular vote, Republicans won 13 out of 18 Congressional seats.

My proposal is that Districts are drawn up by an independent panel to reflect the partisan demographics of the state as a whole. So, again using Pennsylvania as an example, there would be districts drawn with populations that are roughly 48% Republican, 49% Democrat, and the remainder being "other." Texas, on the other hand, would have districts with something in the neighborhood of 60% Republican and 40% Democrat.

This approach would eliminate the entire "safe Republican" or "safe Democrat" concept in Congressional elections, and it wold also eliminate the current ethos of "candidates picking the voters instead of the other way around."

Step 2: Eliminate electors, and have members of the House of Representatives and the Senate serve in this capacity.Our Presidential elections now are currently decided by a group of 538 people known as "electors." These people are party bigwigs and political insiders, who have no accountability to the public for their votes. In fact, in some states, electors can vote for whomever they please, even if this vote directly contradicts the will of the population – the so-called "faithless electors."

As it happens, we have 535 Senators and Representatives from the states, who can serve the role of elector quite nicely (the fact that there are 535 instead of 538 also eliminates the possibility of a tie).

Step 3: Require that Senators and Representatives vote their constituencies.As it stands now, there are 21 states that do not require that electors cast their votes consistent with the popular vote. The other 29 states have classified voting against the popular will as anything from a civil infraction liable to small fines to a misdemeanor.

My proposal is to make voting against the popular will an impeachable felony. Any Senator or Representative who violates this rule will be subject to impeachment and removal from office if found guilty, as well as criminal prosecution and sentencing.

Step 4: Eliminate "winner take all."This is the key part of this proposal. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump won 52.58% of the popular vote in the state of Texas, yet got all 38 of the states electoral votes. While this approach does make tallying up the votes easier (at least, it did before the days of computers and big data), it also disenfranchises large numbers of voters.

Consider the 1984 Presidential Election, for example. It's no secret that Walter Mondale lost, and lost big. Ronald Reagan garnered 59% of the popular vote, compared to Mondale's 41%. Yet, when it came to the Electoral College, Reagan won 525 of 538 – nearly 98% of the Electoral College. This lopsided result effectively sent a message to almost 38 million people that their votes didn't matter.

Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that do not follow this "winner take all" approach. My proposal is to expand on this, refine it, and implement it across all 50 states as follows:
  • United States Senators will be bound by law to cast their electoral votes in accordance with the popular vote in their state.
  • United States Representatives will be bound by law to cast their electoral votes in accordance with the popular vote in their Congressional district.
Again, to use Pennsylvania in 2012 as an example, Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes would not have all gone to Barack Obama (as they did in the election). Instead, President Obama would have won 7 of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes (one each from Senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, to reflect the popular vote state-wide, as well as one each from the five Congressional districts he carried) and Mitt Romney would have won the remaining thirteen.

Now, as Congressional districts are drawn now this is a completely impractical solution. For example, Pennsylvania's 7th District (in the Philadelphia suburbs) is considered to be one of the most heavily gerrymandered in the country. The Pennsylvania legislature, when drawing up new district lines in 2010, packed Democrats into five districts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. As a result, Pennsylvania is one of the least competitive states, in terms of Congressional elections, in the country. This is why we need to address how Congressional districts are drawn before we can implement any reforms in the Electoral College.

Yes, there may be amendments to the Constitution required to do this. Yes, it involves a lot of heavy lifting. And yes, the biggest obstacle is going to be the cadre of political elites who are benefiting from such a skewed system. However, it will never get fixed if we just sit on our hands and complain about it. I urge everyone to get involved, speak out, and contact your representatives in Washington to get the ball rolling … after all, they are supposed to be representing you. Not themselves, not their donors, not lobbyists … you. The residents of their district and state. Their constituents. It is only through grassroots action that we can make them give us some attention when they are not trying to court our votes.

I gotta lie down.

The Problem of the Electoral College

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