In a recent interview, Gov. Scott Walker said he would be open to changing the way Wisconsin’s Electoral College votes are allocated.
He didn’t endorse the idea but merely said he would consider both its merits and demerits. Even that mild nonstatement – the governor’s modus operandi lately – set liberals off to howling, accusing the governor of “trying to game the system.”
Um, excuse me, but those who are pushing for a reallocation of electoral votes are doing the exact opposite: They are trying to ungame the system, thank you very much.
Right now, of course, as is the case in 48 states, Wisconsin operates on a winner-take-all system, in which the winner of the statewide popular vote in the presidential contest gobbles up all the state’s electoral votes. Under the method, you win 100 percent of the electoral votes no matter whether you win 80 percent of the popular vote or squeak by with a one-vote margin.
Sound fair? No, it doesn’t, does it? Hence, many are now proposing a system by which the electoral votes are allocated according to the popular vote tally in each congressional district.
That is to say, Wisconsin has 10 electoral votes – one for each of its eight congressional districts, and one each for the two U.S. Senate seats. Under the congressional apportionment system, the statewide winner would take the two votes representing the U.S. Senate seats, and the popular vote winner in each congressional district would take that district’s electoral vote.
Would it make a difference? You bet it would.
In November, Barack Obama picked up a 53-46 percent win over Mitt Romney and his reward for that narrow but solid triumph was all 10 of the state’s electoral votes. Had the state operated under a congressional apportionment system, the electoral vote would had been evenly divided, 5-5.
That’s because Romney won five of the eight congressional districts. He would have received one for each of them, while Obama would have received one for each of the three he won, and then two for the statewide win.
Now the Democrats claim to be the party of the people, but which method is more reflective of the popular will? Does Barack Obama really deserve 100 percent of the electoral vote for winning 53 percent of the popular vote? Do the 46 percent who voted for Romney deserve to be left voiceless in the Electoral College – and real – election for president?
Or is an even split the correct representative split? Just who is gaming the system?
There is nothing sacred about that method, by the way.
For one thing, there is no system to game. The U.S. Constitution established the Electoral College and set the number of each state’s votes by declaring that each would have one vote for each member of the congressional delegation, that is to say, the number of representatives in each state plus two for each of the senators.
But the constitution said nothing about the way the states allocated those votes, properly leaving that decision to the sovereign states. That 48 of them chose a winner-take-all method says nothing at all about the wisdom of such a decision; it says only that the states were well within their constitutional authority to make it.
That’s how Maine and Nebraska, which use the congressional allocation system, are able to do it.
Just because something is done one way for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the right way, or that we must do it that way forever. Giving people lobotomies was a standard way of treating mental illness for decades, after all.
Not only is the congressional allocation system more representative of the popular vote, it is logical. Only two members of the congressional delegation run statewide – the senators – so it’s logical to award those votes on a statewide basis. But it is not so logical to award a congressional district’s vote on a statewide basis, when the popular vote in that district may well have, and in many cases does, go the opposite way.
It’s understandable why the liberals are crying foul. They are wringing their hands because, due to demographic changes over time, the Electoral College system as it is now set up in 48 states gives Democrats a huge advantage from the get-go, especially in traditional swing states.
It was not always so. For most of the nation’s history, the Electoral College favored more conservative, if not always Republican, candidates. Because each state automatically gets at least three electoral votes no matter how sparsely populated it is (two senators plus a minimum of one representative), it gives smaller, rural states a voice in the election disproportionate to its population.
Enter the winner-take-all system, which was devised to counter that small-state advantage. The winner-take-all method favors larger, more urban – and hence more liberal – states.
It does so because the majority of these states’ populations are clustered in big cities, and growing more so all the time, so while a majority of that state’s counties and congressional districts may vote for a Republican or conservative candidate, that vote is increasingly overwhelmed by the urban majority. That’s why you see so many state electoral maps covered in red but voting blue overall.
And so voila! The liberal candidate wins all the electoral votes of the state, and the voters in the rural and more sparsely populated areas of the state are effectively disenfranchised from the presidential election. Their vote doesn’t count at all, and that’s inherently unfair.
From a national perspective, that unfairness was lost in the larger perspective of balance for most of the nation’s history. Because the U.S. population was more evenly split between urban and rural areas, the inherent constitutional advantage offered to smaller states was offset by the winner-take-all system.
For a long time it all worked pretty well. Throughout the twentieth century the nation’s popular vote winner aligned with the Electoral College winner, and the nation began to view the presidential contest as a popular vote election, though technically and legally it wasn’t so.
But the population has been shifting toward urban areas for a long time now, and the election of 2000 afforded a glimpse of a growing disconnect between the popular and electoral tallies. To be sure, the more conservative candidate prevailed in that election despite losing the popular vote, but that might be considered the last hurrah of the conservative advantage.
The rapid shift of the population to the cities was underway. In 2000, rural areas in such traditional swing states as Ohio could still muster enough strength to put them in the Republican column, but no more. It can now be said the winner-take-all system all but assures a Democratic victory in larger swing states.
It has been argued that moving to a congressional allocation system would rob people in uncompetitive congressional districts of visits by presidential candidates. Why visit districts that you know you will lose? In a winner-take-all system, the theory goes, candidates must spread out across a state to try and ensure victory.
This argument is a red herring. In reality, candidates will go to the same places they go to now – to large urban areas where votes are clustered if they are liberal, to rural areas if they are conservatives, and both will travel to areas considered to be up for grabs.
Why would that change? Candidates are going to visit areas they think they can win, and avoid places where they know they can’t, regardless of the allocation system. The only difference is that no voter will automatically be disenfranchised from the process.
The bottom line is, the winner-take-all system isn’t unconstitutional, but neither is the congressional allocation system, and it can be argued, given demographic changes over time, that the latter is more democratic and reflective of the popular will, more logical, and fairer.
It is certainly not “gaming” the system, and worthy of a political battle.
As for Gov. Walker, after backing off repeal of the same-day registration system, avoiding right to work, and sounding wishy-washy on this front, the best advice might be for him to take his own words to heart and stand up for change. The governor may want to focus like a laser on jobs, but such a focus cannot exist in a vacuum.
Job creation is a menu baked from a recipe of both sound economic policies and solid political reform that allow those policies to be implemented in the first place. Neglecting the latter will doom the former.
Besides, when liberals accuse conservatives of gaming the system, it’s a sure bet it is the liberals who are actually putting in the fix, and it is the conservatives who are letting liberals bully them into getting their way.
Follow Richard Moore on Twitter at @rich1moore