Killing a Dinosaur
For the two centuries our Constitution has been operative; we've always featured an odd way of choosing our national leader. While just about every executive and legislative office in the country is awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes, the President of the United States is determined by a more convoluted algorithm that may or may not reflect the actual will of the voting public.
I am referring, of course, to the Electoral College. As most people know, we don't directly cast ballots for the office of the president; we select a slate of electors at the state level, who then convene to cast their votes for the presidential candidate about a month after the popular election. This "election" itself is simply a formality, but the underlying concept is anything but - it redirects votes away from the national pool and channels them into smaller state pools.
As a practical matter, the winner of the popular vote usually wins the electoral vote as well. But on three occasions in our nation's history, this idiosyncratic little system has produced presidents who had been rejected by the majority of American voters - Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and George W. Bush in 2000. And Jimmy Carter came razor-close to being elbowed out of the presidency by the Electoral College in 1976.
The flaws embedded in this structure might not have been apparent before the days of mass communications, voter micro-targeting, and "swing states," but in this day and age they've become all too obvious. Presidential candidates have learned to exploit the deficiencies of the Electoral College, and their campaigns have been reduced to hundreds of visits to carefully identified "battleground states" - a list of about 10 or 12 - while the rest of the country gets essentially ignored.
National messages and campaign themes are carefully tailored to the sensibilities of these swing states, which may or may not reflect the issues of the nation as a whole. States like Ohio and Florida are given nonstop TLC from both political parties, while states like Maryland get left in the lurch.
As a result, these swing states have developed an immense and highly disproportionate amount of power and leverage in our presidential elections. But given that the title of the highest office in the nation is "President of the United States," not "President of Ohio," perhaps it's time to revisit this peculiar mechanism.
This week, Maryland's General Assembly made a move to do just that. The House of Delegates passed a bill that would award Maryland's Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections. The state Senate passed the same bill last week, and Gov. Martin O'Malley is expected to sign it into law.
The constitutionality of such a measure will undoubtedly be challenged; but leaving that aside until it actually happens, this bill is a very positive step in giving Marylanders a voice in presidential elections once again. Hopefully it's the first of 50 such bills across this nation.
We don't have national presidential elections anymore; we have swing-state elections. The problem is that every state in the nation has voters that cut across the entire ideological spectrum. There are liberals in Mississippi. There are conservatives in Massachusetts.
The current electoral-college system marginalizes and buries those voters; it effectively makes their votes meaningless, because it tosses them into a state-level pool with a predetermined outcome, not in the national-level pool that befits a national-level office.
The Electoral College also makes election fraud and voter suppression much easier to pull off for those so inclined. It's a lot easier to muck with voting machines and "accidentally" purge voter rolls in six carefully-selected states, rather than in 50. And when campaigns are forced to expend resources all around the country, fine-tuning one's message to accommodate the most reactionary elements of the voting public becomes far less effective. There would be a real cost, for instance, for courting racists in Alabama - the candidate would have to factor in the effect of losing the non-racist vote in the state, because the voters he or she alienates would actually matter.
Would the circumvention of the Electoral College reduce the role of the actual states in electing the president? Of course it would. That's the idea. The president isn't the leader of the various state governments; the president is the leader of the nation's people. It only makes sense that it's the people who elect him or her. And it's not like the states would lack for having their various interests heard in Washington - that's what Congress is for.
The Maryland General Assembly has taken a bold, positive step towards making our presidential elections a little more meaningful. Let's hope that the rest of the nation follows our lead, and permanently alters the dynamics of national presidential campaigns for the better.