Thursday, March 29, 2007

Maryland to Drop Out of College -- The Electoral College: "But, Is it Good for the Democrats?" There’s an old joke – a Jewish joke – about a young boy who runs into the family room and excitedly shouts to his grandfather: "Grandpa, Grandpa! Babe Ruth hit three home runs today!" The calm, old man pensively examines the boy’s excited declaration. Finally, he responds by posing this question: "But, is it good for the Jews?" The point of the joke being that some people have a fairly limited frame of reference -- seeing life through one prism that filters everything into just one, all-important question.

Maryland (My Maryland) is on the verge of becoming the first state in the Union to endorse a direct national popular election of the President. Rather than amending the Constitution, which requires support of two-thirds of Congress and three-quarters of the states, Maryland is endorsing an end run around the state-by-state Electoral College. The Maryland Senate has passed legislation, which would give all of Maryland’s electoral votes (10) to the winner of the national vote. It seems likely to become law here, as the House of Delegates is expected to pass the bill, and the Governor is expected to sign it. The catch is this doesn’t kick in unless the other states also pass similar legislation (at least enough to total 270 electoral votes).

Now, this change may seem democratic to you -– assuming that you believe each vote in the U.S. should count equally. Such a change would really change the way campaigns are run in the general election. For instance, New York is barely contested in recent years, since its electoral vote seems certain to go to the Democrats (frankly this is a bit presumptuous -- in the Republican landslides during the 80s, New York followed the national trend). Instead, much time and money is spent campaigning in swing states, even those small states with few electoral votes. If every vote counted equally, there’d be little point in spending much effort in sparsely populated areas. New York and California would suddenly be the focus of most campaigning.

The difference in a few percentage points in New York could mean a far bigger swing in actual raw vote totals than could possibly be gained by campaigning in Iowa. The G.O.P. wouldn’t be upset at losing New York, so long as they were competitive. Similarly, the Democrats would be focused on turning out as many votes as possible in the Empire State, since a big win there could almost guarantee success nationally. In the past, Democrats could live with a low turnout in New York. That would be flirting with disaster, if we’re counting the popular vote nationwide.

It may seem more democratic, but would this change be good for the Democrats? That seems like a fair question to ask. After all, isn’t that what it comes down to, in the end?

In deciding that whether it would be good for Democrats, I think past results are not a great guide. Al Gore won the popular vote handily, but was deemed to have lost the popular vote. Conversely, though, John Kerry was whipped nationally, but nearly squeaked out an Electoral College win.

California passed a similar bill last year, which was vetoed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. This suggests that the G.O.P., at least, fears a national vote. I’m not convinced that we’re back to the days when Democrats are more popular nationally – I’m not even sure there ever really was such a time, since Ronald Reagan won when the Democrats had strong majorities in Congress. It really depends on the candidate.

The best questions should be: Why would we make such a change? Is it a good idea? As to why, the answer seems obvious – to get away from the focus on a handful of swing states, and to avoid the travesty that occurred seven years ago – with the spectacle of the legal battle over Florida, and the end result of Bush taking office, instead of the popular vote winner. Proponents of the Maryland legislation hope that a national campaign will force the candidates to stop ignoring Maryland. I don’t know that there would be that much more attention paid to Maryland, although the DC metro area would suddenly become a hotly contested media market.

As to whether this would be a good idea, the answer doesn’t appear obvious – at least, not to me. In a close election, the Florida recount debacle could be repeated nationwide. If the Bush v. Gore precedent means anything, it would suggest the possibility that a recount within a popular vote system needs to be done on a national basis. State borders – state electoral systems would be arbitrary, meaningless divisions, so a statewide recount would seem as arbitrary as the Gore strategy of calling for selective recounts in various counties.

More importantly, we ARE a nation of separate states, each with their own political cultures. States that are greatly skewed in favor of one party or the other could unduly influence the outcome – even beyond the force the electoral votes they possess under the current system. Is that something to be respected or concerned about?

I’m not sure I agree that it’s a good thing to have a national election. I do accept that the Presidential election is different than all other elections, which must be organized by states. It is a national office, and it seems that it ought to be chosen by a national vote.

I guess, if ALL the states came together on this system, it would be hard to have any objection. However, under the Maryland proposal, the national vote would choose the President, even if just an electoral majority of states agree to the system. In fact, it’s not really dispensing with the Electoral College – it’s just using that system to deliver an Electoral College majority to the popular vote winner (regardless of how the individual states adopting this system actually voted). That doesn’t sound entirely American or really democratic to me, since it would allow a majority of the states to effectively impose a constitutional change that might not have been agreed to by the requisite three-quarters of the states, nor the full two-thirds votes in Congress.

In short, I’m not convinced this change would be truly democratic. It certainly sounds as if it would be good for the Democrats. I’m not sure that should be our barometer. Besides, it might not be good for the Democrats. Under that system, Kerry could have pulled out Ohio, but he still would have lost the election.

There are problems with our system for choosing a President. The change I'd most like to see would be to get rid of the Electoral College, but use it to require that the winner be decided by a majority vote -- providing for a run-off if there is no majority winner that first Tuesday in November.

Yeah, I know that no one would want two voting days -- with all the costs, and the expense of running a second, brief campaign. But, we could accomplish two things -- it would encourage third-party candidacies, which I think would be a good thing, so long as they are more than spoilers. Having a run-off between the top two vote-getters would eliminated the spoiler problem – Nader in 2000 proved that a third-party candidate can interfere with the public choice. The spoiler problem exists in the Electoral College, but it might be worse in a national vote system, where a three percent nationwide vote could swing an election.

I am convinced that working on a Constitutional Amendment would force us to confront defects in our Presidential system. There are a host of issues to consider. In fact, I’d like a new Constitutional Convention during which we could discuss possibly adopting a parliamentary system. That’s not likely to happen.

On the other hand, the Maryland bill might catch on. As it gains momentum nationwide, I predict there will be increasing criticism that this end-run on Constitutional reform is actually anti-democratic. In response, I expect to see an effort to reform the Electoral College by amending the Constitution – which I believe is more appropriate. That will also begin a dialogue on exactly what our Presidential election system should look like. I hope for an end to the Electoral College – a nationwide poll, but one that calls for a majority to elect the President, either on the first Tuesday in November, or in a run-off election within a month thereafter.

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