Why Not? It's Only Politics

GEROGE F. WILL

June 21, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As Maine goes, so goes only Nebraska -- so far. But Florida, with almost three times the combined weight of those two in presidential elections, is being enticed to join them in abandoning the policy of awarding all the state's electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

If Florida joins them in awarding one electoral vote to the winner of each congressional district (and awarding its other two

electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner), it could do more lasting damage to the two-party system than Ross Perot is apt to do.

Republicans probably have the votes to prevent the change from coming to a vote in Florida's legislature this year, but they said they would support it if it would not take effect until 1996. Democrats want it right now, for obvious reasons.

In the six elections since 1964, only Jimmy Carter from neighboring Georgia has carried Florida (barely: 51.9 percent) for the Democrats. Bill Clinton probably can't carry it but might carry to 8 of its 23 districts.

By opposing the change for this year, Republicans may have outfoxed themselves. Suppose Mr. Perot carries the state but President Bush wins some districts, such as those in South Florida with large Cuban-American populations.

Ron Brown, the Democrats' chairman, is agreeably free of pretense about high principles concerning this subject. He favors abandonment of winner-take-all in Florida, but not in New York, where a Democrat can hope to win the popular vote.

If district-by-district allocation of electoral votes had been in place in 1960 and 1976, the Democrats might have lost nine, instead of seven, of the last ten elections. Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976 won a majority of districts while losing the popular vote. So the popular-vote winner might have lost both times. One must say ''might'' because under district-by-district allocation, the candidates would have campaigned differently.

Some people favor the change precisely because it might incite different kinds of campaigns, including less reliance on television and more recourse to local organizing. It might forge links between presidential and congressional campaigns, thereby combating divided government and generating something that could plausibly be called a presidential mandate.

Maine abandoned winner-take-all in 1969 but its electoral votes have never been divided. Maine's two districts are so similar they vote alike. But 1992 will be Nebraska's first election under district-by-district allocation. The district dominated by Omaha's cosmopolites may vote differently than the two districts in which sturdy rural yeomen dominate.

Suppose Mr. Clinton carries the Omaha district, Mr. Perot carries the others and wins the statewide vote, and President Bush finishes a close second in all three districts and statewide. Electoral vote score: Perot 4, Clinton 1, Bush 0.

Suppose Mr. Clinton narrowly beats Mr. Bush in the Omaha district, Mr. Perot narrowly beats Mr. Bush in the other two, and Mr. Bush narrowly wins the statewide vote. Score: Bush 2, Perot 2, Clinton 1.

One reason for low voter turnouts is that by Election Day -- sometimes by Labor Day -- the presidential winner of the statewide popular vote is known in many, even in most states. But there could be competitive races in districts within such states. However, higher turnouts are not so desirable that other good things, such as the two-party system, should be sacrificed to achieve them.

District-by-district allocation of electoral votes might incite third parties that would be shut out under winner-take-all. They could use selective campaigning to win enough districts to deprive each of the other candidates of an electoral-vote majority, thereby sending elections to the House of Representatives, where there are deals to be struck and pork to be sliced.

For example, Jesse Jackson can never win 270 electoral votes. In fact, he probably could never carry a single state. But by the time this year's redistricting is done, at least 30 of the 435 congressional districts will have black majorities, and more than 80 will be at least 20 percent black. Twenty percent of the voters is a good base on which to build in a three-person contest.

Today's winner-take-all system promotes moderation by punishing parties that are ideologically, racially or geographically narrow. But moderation may be passe in the age of Perotmania, so while we are learning new locutions (Mr. Perot uses ''soundbite'' as a verb: ''I won't soundbite that''), we had better learn the verb ''to cherry pick.'' It means to campaign in winnable districts of unwinnable states.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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