We here at FHQ have certainly spent some time discussing the various ways (and likelihood) of reforming the presidential nomination process. Now that the 2008 campaign has shifted into general election mode however, it may be time to look into America's other electoral problem child, the electoral college. [When it comes to reform, often, no two things are higher on the list than the frontloading of presidential primaries and the disparity between the electoral college and the overall popular vote.]
The issue? Well, unless you've been under a rock since early November 2000, you're probably aware that a candidate for president can win the most votes nationwide, but still lose the electoral college vote and in the process fail to become president. To some folks that's a problem (...and you can bet whoever it is they have a D next to their name for the time being.). But hey, out of 55 presidential elections in US history, only 3 have had a discrepancy between popular vote winner and the electoral college outcome (That's about 5% of the time.). In other words, about once every 75 years. Is it too much to ask for a little, once-in-a-lifetime, electoral excitement? Okay, I understand that some people have the "one person, one vote" hang up, but still.
The rules do matter, though. The popular vote isn't how the president is selected just as it wasn't the method in which the Democratic nomination was decided in 2008. That doesn't mean that those rules cannot be revisited and altered though. As sure as the rules governing the ways in which nominees are chosen will be examined in detail prior to 2012, the electoral college is going and will continue to be examined as long as the institution acts as the final hurdle of the presidential election system. There are differing views on how to deal with the issue ranging from completely do away with the electoral college to simply leaving well enough alone.
Let's look at these individually:
1) Abolish the electoral college. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), leaning on the one person, one vote argument (a powerful one, mind you), is the latest to propose amending the constitution to do away the electoral college completely. Amending the constitution solves the problem, but that isn't really the issue with this option. The means of getting to that end are what stands in the way of a change. The constitution is held sacred and altering it is not something taken lightly or easily pulled off. So while it is easy enough to say that the constitution should be amended, it is an entirely different matter to actually make the change. As good as Nelson's intentions may be (He appears to be making a play for the mantle of voting rights senator and that will certainly won't hurt his future electoral pursuits in a place like Florida.), this one probably isn't going anywhere.
2) National Popular Vote Plan: Now here's a clever way around the amendment issue. Anchor the distribution of a state's electoral votes to the national popular vote. The issue I have with this plan is similar to a point brought up by FHQ reader, Scott, in the comments the other day: the action would be shifted from battleground states to the more populous states. Instead of a red-blue-purple divide, the door could be opened to a rural-urban-suburban/exurban divide. So while the plan potentially helps to spread the attention from the typical swing states to some not so typical players, the NPV ultimately just shifts candidate attention from competitive states to populous states; the very thing the Founders were attempting to insulate the system from. But hey, candidates could raise their money and campaign in a state at the same time. This one has unintended consequences written all over it.
3) The Maine-Nebraska District Plan Nationwide (or in more than those two states): Now this idea has been bandied about in several state legislatures lately (California and North Carolina, notably). Essentially, states would allocate their electoral votes based on how each individual district voted with the two Senate seat electors being determined by the statewide outcome. This is similar to how delegates were distributed in proportional primaries in 2008. In this instance the balance of power would shift from swing states to swing districts. That could bring at least part of a state some national attention from the major party candidates. Nothing gives the Democrats more nightmares than the idea of having those 55 California electoral votes split up though. And the reverse could be true in typically Republican states. No state legislature is going to opt for this plan if the party in control of said legislature would potentially negatively affect the prospects of their national party being able to win the White House. Partisanship is the likely roadblock to this plan then.
4) The Leave it alone plan: Can you tell where I'm going with this? In the end, the most pragmatic approach is to leave well enough alone and grin and bear it when the once-in-a-lifetime, electoral college at odds with the popular vote scenario pops up. The whole thing seems like such a problem now, but when Johnson and Reagan were winning in landslides you only heard the vanquished parties calling (and quietly at that) for there to be some electoral college reform.
...and even then it wouldn't have made that much of a difference.
So is that pragmatism or the partisan gridlock that so many Americans are sick of? The comments section awaits. Feel free to weigh in.
The Electoral College Map (6/25/08)
Vice Presidents Quiz
Presidents and Vice Presidents from the Same State: The Misconception of the 12th Amendment