Sunday, October 31, 2004

California and the Electoral College

I am a Californian and my vote is useless.

The Electoral College renders it useless. On December 13, all 55 of California’s electors will back the winner of the state, regardless of how close the popular vote proves to be on November 2. No matter whom I choose - if the winner wins by a little more or if the runner up loses by a little less - my vote will not influence the outcome of the presidential race. By now we all know who the winner in California will be, but because this is a non-partisan issue let’s not spoil it by naming names.

In the 2000 presidential election 5.9 million Californians voted for the candidate who won the state and 4.6 million voted for the runner up. 4.6 million Californians did not have a single voice among the state’s (then 54) electors. That is equal to the total number of votes cast in Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire and New Mexico combined. If a legislator were to suggest giving away the votes of 12 states they would be branded a tyrant. But that is exactly what the Electoral College does to California every presidential election.

States are free to set their own laws for allocating electoral votes and a possible solution to the winner-takes-all Electoral College already exists. Maine and Nebraska currently use a district system, in which the winner of each congressional district receives an elector’s vote and the overall winner of the state receives two electors’ votes (the votes representing the state’s senators, if you like). In practice, Maine and Nebraska have never split their electoral votes because the overall winner has always swept all two (Maine) or three (Nebraska) congressional districts. This election day Colorado voters will consider an initiative to distribute their electoral votes according to the popular vote.

Fixing the Electoral College piecemeal would only hurt California, however. Splitting California’s electoral votes while other states continue to vote as a block would cripple our influence. If California commits 26 votes to one candidate and 29 to the other, the net impact of California on the election would be only three electoral votes; the same political clout Alaska’s electors have voting as a block. This is a scenario where California only stands to lose by leading by example.

Abandoning the Electoral College entirely would betray one of the great principles of American government – namely the Great Compromise, whereby smaller states are not marginalized with representation proportionate to their smaller populations. Every state gets two senators and at least one representative regardless of their population, and every state likewise gets a minimum of three electoral votes. Ending this important tenet of the Republic would allow the more populous states to completely overshadow their diminutive neighbors in presidential elections; something even the proudest Californian wouldn’t seriously consider.

The only solution for California voters is an amendment to the US constitution that splits every state’s electoral votes. California will continue to have a major impact on the outcome and the millions of Californians who vote against the majority will finally play their part.

Ideally this amendment would follow Colorado’s proposed model and distribute electoral votes according to the popular vote in each state. For if it is unfair to ignore the minority in a state then it stands to reason it is also unfair to ignore the minority of a congressional district. Even a nationally adopted district system based on Nebraska and Maine’s model would be preferable to the current system, however; if enough states insist on this model for a constitutional amendment, perhaps another great compromise may be struck.

Of course there are other important issues being decided in this – and every - election besides the race for president, but it is the big show. Californians aren’t being encouraged to go to the polls when the most important issue on the ballot is a foregone conclusion. There has been much animated discussion over the years over whether media reports of election day results on the east coast discourages voter turnout on the west coast (where the polls close three hours later), but the fact is that Californians have known who is going to win the state ever since the party nominations. That discourages voter turnout.

I am an American and my vote is useless. Doesn’t that bother anyone besides me?