Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Should the President Be Elected by Congressional District?

William Jacobsen, Associate Clinical Professor at Cornell Law School, defends changing the way American elects its President by awarding electoral college votes by Congressional district rather than by state: 
As things stand now, the Electoral College favors Democrats because they are all but guaranteed to win a small number of large winner take all states, such as California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, plus a coalition of hopelessly blue states.

Democrats start off close to victory because of winner-take-all voting in those states, even if they win those states by a small margin in each state.
He notes these proposals come from Republicans (presumably in response to losing 6 out of 8 elections) and claims the "the system currently is 'rigged' to favor Democrats," but also states the change "may favor Republicans, or it may not, depending on the state and the presidential candidate."

More importantly, he writes: "Awarding electoral votes by district may have a positive impact of forcing candidates to campaign outside the large cities and bring a more geographically diverse electorate into the voting booth for them." 

To equate such efforts with cheating, he says, is "constitutionally ignorant." It's not entirely clear if he is endorsing the change, or defending the idea from the charge of cheating, and rigging the system. He also writes,

 "If [Balloon Juice and Maddow Blog ] are against it, it’s almost certainly good for the nation." 

In any case, the power to alter they way votes are counted to benefit your party in the next election is part of democracy.
The push and pull of redistricting as a result of state-level elections is part of the process, and if it impacts the Electoral College, so be it. Elections have consequences.  Including at the state level.
It does seem troubling at first that a party, having trouble winning elections, would resort to changing the elections rules. But this is certainly less so if the current method - and the electoral college is certainly peculiar - is in some unfairly tilted toward one party or disenfranchises, de facto, large numbers of people. The current system currently guarantees that Presidential candidates will barely campaign in certain states, while giving outsize attention to others - the 'swing states' in a winner-take-all election. Likewise, Prof. Jacobsen suggests certain areas with states ("large cities") receive more attention that others. This is presumably because there more people in a smaller geographic area in the cities. If one looks are winners of statewide elections (Governor, Attorney General, U.S. Senator) is this true? Do those candidates disproportionately spend more time campaigning in the cities? If so, is this an unfair situation which needs to be rectified? In addition, even if these rules changes are implemented, it's not clear that candidates will spend much more time in rural areas. After all, it will still be 'easier' to reach more people in shorter period of time, with less travel, in an urban area. However, if electoral college votes were distributed by Congressional district, it might change the policy positions emphasized by candidates - as with ethanol and the key primary state of Iowa (or it might not).

Another option, of course, would be to elect the President by counting national votes, just as members of Congress, Governors, Mayors, and others are elected by gathering the most votes in their respective districts or states . This would likely have the effect of further "nationalizing" elections, rendering them more about larger ideological issues and large national constituencies and less about local concerns.