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October 27, 2012 9:29 AM Forget the Electoral College, Fix the Primaries

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

There’s a whiff of a possibility that in ten days President Obama wins the electoral college but loses the popular vote, as George W. Bush did in 2000. If he does, the conservative outcry to abolish the electoral college will likely be faint. Long-run demographics favor Democrats right now; it makes sense for Republicans to compete in a handful of states, rather than all of them. Indeed, only eight very blue states and the District of Columbia have passed the National Popular Vote amendment. Whatever happens this time around, it would make sense for Dems to keep pushing back against the electoral college.

That said, the electoral college doesn’t in fact do such a bad job of reflecting the concerns of the country at large. In Virginia, the looming sequester is getting a lot of play for what it might to do military and contracting jobs. In Ohio, the EPA’s coal regulations and Obama’s auto rescue are dominating the airwaves. New Hampshire and North Carolina don’t have much in common, but are both coveted by the Obama and Romney campaigns. Besides, as Josh McCrain pointed out at Ten Miles Square yesterday, swing states change from year-to-year, ensuring that a different set of issues and voters play pivotal roles each cycle.

Our primary system, on the other hand, remains stagnant. Like clockwork, New Hampshire and Iowa appear first on the calendar, and play an outsized role in determining the party nominees. In a 2011 column about this problem, the New York Times’ David Leonhardt cited a study that found that “an Iowa or New Hampshire voter had the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together.” Why is this a problem?

Because Iowa and New Hampshire don’t reflect the direction the country is moving in. From Leonhardt’s column:

Their populations are growing more slowly than the rest of the country’s. Residents of Iowa and New Hampshire are more likely to have health insurance. They are older than average. They are more likely to work in manufacturing. Above all, Iowa and New Hampshire lack a single big city, at a time when large metropolitan areas are crucial to lifting economic growth…Yet metro areas are also struggling with major problems. The quality of schools is spotty. Commutes last longer than ever. Roads, bridges, tunnels and transit systems are aging.

To some degree, the Tea Party has actually helped mitigate some of the rural/age bias baked into the NH/IA primaries. Medicare and Social Security were not sacred cows this primary cycle, and the federal ethanol subsidy expired just days before the Iowa primary. Still, Leonhardt’s idea of a rotating primary schedule could do more to diversify the range of issues prioritized by political candidates than would a National Popular Vote presidential system.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.

Comments

  • Karen on October 27, 2012 9:46 AM:

    The most pernicious effect of the Electoral College is its effect on down-ballot races in locked states. In Texas, the Dems might have had a competitor to Ted Cruz -- about to become the nation's worst Senator -- but because we're dark red the national party won't waste a dime getting out the votes down here for anyone. If Dem votes in Alabama counted, I assure you the country would have many fewer horrid Congressmembers. Those down-ballot races would ensure that the sequester, coal regs, the auto bailout, and any other local issue would get the coverage they need by the local officials who OUGHT to be paying attention. At it is, the effect of block-grant Medicaid funding on nursing homes will only become apparent to white people in rural Texas when President Romney actually does it. Eliminate the Electoral College, make the national parties pay attention even in non-competitive states, and the primaries will fix themselves in response.

  • c u n d gulag on October 27, 2012 10:00 AM:

    Actually, the Conservatives in this country, if they eliminate the Electoral College, want to replace it with a Congressional District-by-District vote total:

    http://www.auburnschools.org/ahs/wbbusbin/gov_assignments/congressional_district.pdf

    In 1996, Clinton won CA by over 2 million votes, so he took all of the, then, 54 Electoral votes.
    If the tabulations were were based on a District basis, Clinton would have had 39, and Dole, 15.

    I hope you can all see the problem with this idea!

    It would grossly exagerate the power of small, rural districts - which are predominantly Red - and minimize the power of the urban areas, where the votes in many states, causes a state to go Blue.

    If we eliminate the Electoral College, the only acceptable alternative is a plebiscite, where the majority would rule.

    I'll take that, over the disproportionate power given to Conservatives in the district-by-district model.

    Of course, the better alternative is to disband the Union, and let states decide whether they'd prefer to go with the more Liberal coastal regions, or stick with their Southern Evangelical Fasictic Plutocrats.
    The question is how do we do that?

  • KadeKo on October 27, 2012 10:13 AM:

    I want to deflect this a bit and say:

    Screw the NPV. Or, "Bipartisanship? Sure! Let the GOP go first!"

    It's another "sounds good until the details" "radical moderate" idea which never works out because of the existence of Republicans in the real world.

    I will rescind this statement once big red state Texas gets on board the way NPVers are fascinated with getting IL, NY, CA, big purple, and reliably blue smaller states there. And also once all those EV-overrepresented and underpopulated, reliably red states largely between the West Coast and the Mississippi do the same.

    But I am not holding my breath.

  • Kenneth D. Franks on October 27, 2012 10:17 AM:

    I certainly don't think congressional districts are the way to go right now. We have to solve the problem of gerrymandering first and there was a lot of it after the last census. Just look to Texas where I live for one example.

  • Jonathan Dresner on October 27, 2012 10:30 AM:

    I think you could preserve the "retail politics" but enhance the power of mid-size states without damaging the decisive authority of the most populous ones with a primary system that was ordered by size: every 2 weeks, 5 states vote, starting with the smallest. Quick enough to be cost effective, long enough to have some serious discussions, with different issues every fortnight.

    Election reform plans are like baseball rule changes: every fan has their pet projects.

  • Neil Bates on October 27, 2012 10:46 AM:

    I used to be rather frankly and cleanly in favor of direct popular vote for President, but now I'm not so sure. As some commenters noted in "Obama's Katrina?": what if some natural disaster makes voting hard in some region? The EC would at least allow some relative reflection of the sentiment from that area. However let's remember the compromise alternative too (also mentioned in comments): instead of winner-take-all, have Electors vote per winner in each Congressional district. That would be an improvement and make divergence from popular vote less likely.

    As for Primaries: yes, take them out of Iowa etc. and some more representative States - like Ohio, Virginia (caveat - my State) etc IMHO.

  • c u n d gulag on October 27, 2012 10:56 AM:

    Neil,
    Here's the breakdown via Congressional Districts right now:
    112th Congress
    (2011-2013)

    Total = 435

    Democrats = 193

    Republicans = 242

    And please remember, that in the last few Congresses, when Democrats actually had the advantage, a lot of those Democrats were of the Red Dog variety (I don't call 'em Blue Dogs, 'cause there ain't nothin' blue 'bout 'em!).

    And that for all intents and purposes, they were DINO's in Republicans leaning districts.

    So, when it comes to district-by-district voting - Caveat Emptor.

    Rural districts will remain solidly Red for decades, while urban and suburban areas grow Bluer every election. There is no earthly reason to give them a disproportionate representation in our elections. The Electoral College does a bad enough job of that - as does our Senate, where rural, scarcely populated states, have as much say so a more populated ones, that have a great number of cities and suburbs.

  • Colin on October 27, 2012 11:08 AM:

    I'm leaning towards a grand hope that GOP hatred towards Obama would lead them to support electoral college abolition after an electoral college victory this year.
    I fleshed it out a bit here: http://taylorstreet.blogspot.com/2012/10/our-best-chance-to-abolish-electoral.html

    I might be super-naive here, but given that a true popular vote is maybe the most fundamental way to get closer to the democratic ideal, I'm going to hope for this outcome.

  • DIane Rodriguez on October 27, 2012 11:11 AM:

    The most urgent changes should be directed at establishing a National standard for the method of voting in person, voter registration requirements and the early voting period. A Presidency was awarded on the basis of a few "chads" that hung or not. Hurricane Sandy is now bearing down on 2 states that use electronic voting with no back-up. I would bet there is no viable contingency plan for voters either. Why not a National Election Holiday every 4 years?

    Voter suppression is a Republican plank in their national platform. They have impacted voting rights through manipulation of early voting and voter requirements targeted at constituencies that vote Democratic.

  • martin on October 27, 2012 11:11 AM:

    So, you give me another chance to bring up my pet peeve: Get the Gov't out of the primary business. Let the parties run them, with their own money and their own rules.

    As for the EC, well it does give dirt about the same voting voice as people, so that is problematic. District gives dirt a little less representation, but districts are still an artificial construct. Let's just have a popular vote with national rules, counting and enforcement. At least then the liberals in Alabama can add their votes to those in California.

  • labradog on October 27, 2012 11:24 AM:

    So the problem under the current primary system is the skew induce by the interests of a couple of states. And the answer is to rotate the skew every four years?
    Too bad if it's two rural states kicking off, in a year when the crisis involves citiet it.s; or vice versa.

    There's an answer here, but rotating distortion isn'

  • biggerbox on October 27, 2012 11:32 AM:

    To conservatives who start to complain about the Electoral College at this late stage, just when it looks like they might lose it, and who prattle on about the illegitimacy of a President who didn't get the most in the popular vote, I have only one response.

    In the immortal words of Antonin Scalia, "get over it."

  • BJ smith on October 27, 2012 12:46 PM:

    What biggerbox just said!

  • castanea on October 27, 2012 1:10 PM:

    Thinking that we should get rid of the electoral college in the future when at the moment it is the thing that might insure a Democratic presidency over the next four years is naive.

    Why give away our best firewall against fascism?

    I've read the internals from polls that show Romney leading, and in general Obama has four-point (give or take) margins in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West, while Romney has a double-digit lead in the South.

    Give away the electoral college at this point and you probably would put the presidency in the hands of southern fundamentalist Christians and their love for peculiar institutions.

  • Anonymous on October 27, 2012 1:46 PM:

    In the immortal words of Antonin Scalia, "get over it."

    I remember conservatives offering advice to democrats regarding the country back in 2000, so I'll be happy to offer it back:

    "Love it or leave it"

  • mudwall jackson on October 27, 2012 1:48 PM:

    @Karen,

    Being a swing state the last four presidential elections hasn't helped Florida Democrats one bit. The state's congressional delegation is mostly Republican; both houses of the Legislature are overwhelmingly Republican to the point that Democrats are irrelevant; and of the five statewide offices governor, ag secretary, controller and two U.S. Senate seats, only one is a Democrat. In fact only two Democrats have held any of those offices over the past 12 years. Republicans have ruled the state house since the 1990s.

    this in a state where Democrats have had a registration edge over Republicans.

  • William Elston on October 27, 2012 5:23 PM:

    Bush did not "win" the electoral college vote in 2000. As was determined by a media consortium that actually counted all of the legally cast votes in the state of Florida, Al Gore won the popular and the electoral college vote. The original court ordered recount was halted by a partisan majority of the Supreme Court, as we all know. We should not let the Republicans' criminal theft of our democracy cause us to rewrite history.

  • zandru on October 27, 2012 9:53 PM:

    "Signing" the NPV compact is no stronger than a state law. I predict the first time a state tries to override its own popular vote to that of the majority national candidate, is when its lege will meet in emergency session to withdraw from the "compact."

    NPV is like the provisional ballot - it gives you a good feeling that, hey, at least I got to vote! - followed by the realization that it will never be counted.

  • Conor Sargent on December 15, 2012 10:58 PM:

    If anyone likes to sign my petition abolish the electoral college, go to http://wh.gov/Rfey.