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home : opinions : op ed columnist July 22, 2014

12/28/2012 9:19:00 AM
No more wishy washy: It's time to reallocate Electoral College

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

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

Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, March 7, 2013
Article comment by: Jeff Laadt

William Haggard is correct in saying that the Electoral College is not democratic. And, yes, it does reflect the old debate between direct democratic rule and the moderating influence of intermediary institutions such as the Electoral College.

What I find interesting is Mr. Haggard's apparent equating of democracy with mob rule that "our liberty" must be protected from the "popular sentiments." This is the essence of traditional conservatism from Edmund Burke to William F. Buckley.

I would just remind Mr. Haggard that the political history of the United States has been largely a story of democratic expansion. At the time of the founding only white males with property could exercise a political voice with the right to vote. Over time the democratic spirit has been extended through the post Civil War amendments (13, 14, and 15), the extension of the voting franchise to women in 1920, and the protection of minority voting rights in 1965. Noteworthy, also, is the fact that in 1913 the direct election of Senators was realized through the 17the Amendment.

Ben Franklin aside, I would suggest that democracy is not the same as mob rule, and that it may be time to consider eliminating yet another relic from the 18th century.

Jeff Laadt

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2013
Article comment by: William Haggard

In Response to To Mr. Laadt's comments
The Electoral College as designed is not democratic. It was designed by the founding fathers to protect our liberty from the popular sentiments. To protect regional interests and avoid government by and for the mob. As Ben Franklin pointed out in Poor Richards Almanac, "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote."

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2013
Article comment by: Jeff Laadt

Just one more thought that I forgot to include in my previous comment.

The election every four years for President and Vice President is the only truly national election we have in this country. Congressional and Senate elections are all done at the state and local district level. This fact, in itself, would seem to counter the argument that rural, non-urban voters have a lesser voice in the federal government -- especially combined with the fact of each state's equal representation in the U.S. Senate.

In my opinion at least, it would not be un-democratic to assure that in a national election the votes of all citizens, no matter where they live, be applied nationally, not by state. That would seem to argue for direct election, or at least an allocation based upon the total popular vote within states.

Jeff Laadt

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013
Article comment by: Jeff Laadt

As to the comment by William Haggerd, I would just say that democratic elections should reflect the wishes of people, not acres. I'm not sure why it is particularly un-democratic to "pander" to population centers if, in fact, that is where most people live.

It is entirely possible, under a congressional district scheme, for a candidate to win the majority of electoral votes yet lose the state popular vote. In such a case, whose vote matters more? Whose less?

And consider, for example, how states are represented in the U.S. Senate. With every state entitled to the same number of Senators (2), I would argue that the more rural, less populated states carry an exagerrated (un-democratic?) influence in Congress. The typical citizen of North Dakota has much greater representation than one who lives in California.

As I indicated in my earlier comment, I am not a supporter of either winner-take-all or winner-by-district. If we really must have such a system, then why not try to make it as representational as possible. Allocate the votes according to popular election results.

Jeff Laadt

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2013
Article comment by: William Haggard

How should the presidential election be determined? Seems to me that over time each party might benefit from any scheme or reallocation of the electoral college, whether it‘s by "congressional district" or "winner take all". I personally like the idea of voting by congressional district as it means my single vote has a better chance of having an impact on the election.
Imagine what abolishing the EC would do. The popular vote as this will disenfranchise a very large part of the America population. Today the candidates pretty much ignore the states that they have wrapped up and only campaign in states that are “in play”. Look out if it went to a straight popular vote, as the candidates would campaign only in the big cities, pandering to the population centers. That would be a very un-democratic result.
So as far as the Electoral College goes, As Tony Mendez said in the movie Argo “This is the best bad plan we have”

Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Article comment by: jeff laadt

I'm with Tim Behselich on this one. The real discussion should center on eliminating the entire electoral college system, or at least (if we really must have such an intermediary institution) make it more reflective of the way people actually vote. Why not, for instance, simply allocate electoral votes on a percentage basis.

But even if one does that, why not simply abolish the entire structure and go to a system of direct election?

Neither "winner-take-all" nor Moore's apparent Congressional district solution does anything to further the notion of democratic elections. The very existence of the current system invites the kinds of political skulduggery that both major parties engage in.

Jeff Laadt

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Article comment by: Richard Collins

Good old Richard "if my side can't win fair and square . . . change the rules" Moore. Always predictable.

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2013
Article comment by: Tim Behselich

Another Richard Moore column.......yawn. Now if you want to talk about eliminating the electoral college, then that's a discussion worth having.

Posted: Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Article comment by: Doug Strid

Marty, That comment was awesome (and very true)

Is there anyway we can just get a "like" button on these comments?

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Article comment by: Marty Hafenbreadl

Congratulations on this weeks regurgitation of the RNC's talking points. Like Mommy Robin barfing into the little chicks mouths, Richard grabs their daily grub, chews it up and claims it as 'The Conservatives Food of Life' for all his little hatchlings.

Is there the slightest chance you can come up with your own original thought, Richard?

Posted: Saturday, January 5, 2013
Article comment by: Joe Thompson

Now tell us if you think the current redistricting process is "gaming the system" Richard.

I would only support reforming the Electoral College in conjunction with reform of the redistricting process to a mathematical formula like Iowa's.

Today, it is too easy for the controlling party to "game the [redistricting] system," and indeed are spending a lot of money to do so.

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