District vote proposal falls short

December 11, 2007|By Alexander S. Belenky

Republicans are proposing to award 53 of California's 55 electoral votes by districts and only two at large. Though the chances of the proposal being on the ballot in 2008 are uncertain, the plan raises electoral issues of national concern.

Can a referendum decision trump the constitutionally stipulated power of the state legislature to choose a manner of awarding state electoral votes? Can any large or medium-size state really benefit from adopting the district scheme of awarding electoral votes? Would the country benefit from spreading this system nationwide? And should the "winner-take-all" rule - employed in 48 states and Washington, D.C. - remain in force in the 2008 election?

If the proposal survives a state referendum, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to interfere. Article 2 of the Constitution authorizes the state legislature to direct a manner of appointing state electors. Whether a state referendum can dictate to the state legislature how to direct this manner is thus a constitutional question.

If California were to adopt a Maine-like district scheme, the Republicans would pick up at least 19 electoral votes, greatly diminishing the chances of the Democrats to win the 2008 election. But the state would gain nothing. Because of years of gerrymandering, the real contest in California is possible only statewide. Neither major party candidate would bother competing in congressional districts strongly favoring the opponent, nor would either candidate compete statewide for the remaining two electoral votes - fewer than those in any small state. The same is true for almost all large and medium-size states.

In effect, the Maine-like district scheme is no more than a different way of applying the "winner-take-all" rule. It means the votes favoring runners-up are still wasted, because these votes play no role in deciding the outcomes of presidential elections. As a result, under a district scheme, a candidate still has no reason to campaign in a congressional district or in a state strongly favoring his or her opponent.

Should other states adopt the district scheme, "battleground districts" would replace most "battleground states." Non-major party candidates may eventually become competitive in battleground congressional districts. Currently, the adoption of the district scheme nationwide could be a double-edged sword, fostering both partisan gerrymandering throughout the country and multi-candidate elections.

Awarding electoral votes in a particular state proportionally to the received popular vote isn't much better. In a strong state contest, this would award almost half of the state electoral votes to each major-party candidate, discouraging either one from competing for a small electoral vote margin. If a state strongly favors a particular candidate, splitting the state's clout of electoral votes may only discourage the favorite from campaigning there, while not encouraging the opponent to campaign there, either. In both cases, it would reduce candidates' attention to the state unless enough large and medium-size states adopted the same scheme.

It is apparent that the "winner-take-all" rule, the district scheme and the proportional scheme all fail to address two major problems with the Electoral College. First, under any of these systems, the loser of the popular vote may still win the presidency. Second, none encourages the candidates to campaign across the country.

Making the nationwide popular vote a crucial factor in determining the election outcome is long overdue in modern America, where voters consider themselves Americans first and Californians, Marylanders, etc., second. However, under the existing districting, with only two states employing the district scheme and with no state employing the proportional scheme, the "winner-take-all" rule remains the only method of awarding electoral votes among the three that encourages state contests in presidential elections. This makes it the "lesser evil" among the three.

Attempts to exploit election rules are natural in every election season. But a partisan, though legitimate, political move shouldn't be disguised as an improvement to the election system. Any such improvements should lead to fairer elections, and the Republican proposal falls short.

Alexander S. Belenky, a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, is the author of several books on U.S. presidential elections. His e-mail is abelenky@mit.edu.

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