Joyce Appleby: Awarding Electors by district is a good idea IF applied in every state

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Joyce Appleby is a professor of history emerita. She co-directs the History News Service.]

Sacramento-based consultant Dave Gilliard is trying to revive an initiative to divvy up California's electoral college votes by congressional district rather than give all to one candidate as in the present winner-take-all method. The initiative was considered all but dead last month when GOP consultants abandoned the effort after the bad publicity about contributions from a donor to the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Intended for the June ballot of 2008, the measure, if passed, would dramatically affect the outcome of the November presidential election in California. Those districts in the Central Valley that normally go Republican would then actually delivered Electors for the final count. If successful, the initiative could garner 20 of California s 55 electoral votes for a Republican presidential candidate.

The conspicuous absence of any effort to change the "winner-take-all" system in Republican states advertises the blatant partisanship of the proposed ballot measure. California was the big lure with its large number of electors predictably going to the Democrats. Were Electors chosen by Congressional districts in Florida or Texas, Democrats would then pick up Electors that will all probably go to the Republicans in 2008.

Even if passed, the initiative will be challenged because the U.S. Constitution explicitly gives to the state legislatures the authority to appoint electors to the Electoral College which chooses the president .
But there's merit in the plan were it applied to all states. Awarding Electors on the basis of the vote in separate districts is excellent, notwithstanding its questionable association this time. What could be more democratic than breaking up large blocs of state Electors, often won by a few thousand votes in the general election. California Republicans as well as Texas Democrats deserve to win Electors that they've voted for.

This important reform would require campaigns in all of the states, but if the largest ones - California [55], Texas [34], New York [31], Florida [27], and Pennsylvania [21], changed their "winner take all" rules, the others would surely follow suit. Nebraska [3] and Maine [2] already divide the presidential vote among districts.

The Electoral College is the least popular element in the Constitution just because it intervenes between voter and the actual election of the president, as the 2000 election so clearly demonstrated. The deliberations at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 reveal the delegates' grave reservations about letting voters choose the president directly. Electors, they assumed, would be well-known to voters and would have the sophistication and wisdom to choose more wisely than ordinary citizens.

Today the Electors have no choice of voting wisely; they themselves are chosen by the party that wins.
Getting rid of the states' "winner-take-all" provisions for awarding Electors would mitigate somewhat the other undemocratic feature of the Elector College. States get electors based on the number of representatives, a rough equivalent of population. But in addition, the drafters of the Constitution gratuitously gave every state two Electors to match their senators. This means that the seven states with only one member of Congress has its elector strength trebled with the addition of the senatorial Electors. This 300% increase narrows to a 3.6% addition for California. This disparity is why there is always a chance of a presidential candidate winning the election through the Electoral College while losing in the popular vote.

Of course this raises the question of how to dispose of these senate Electors if the total state vote were divided among district winners. Let the winning party have them. As we promote democracy abroad, we must do everything that enhances democratic elections at home. Thanks to the Republican drive to get its due in California, we now know how to improve the vote count in all states.

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Max J. Skidmore - 11/28/2007

Certainly, as Prof. Appleby says, if this is done, it must be done everywhere and not merely in a large state that favors one party or the other. It may or not be a good idea, but keep in mind one result: such a change would almost assure that the House and the presidency would be controlled by the same party (at least in the first two years following each presidential election). That may be a good thing, or it may not be.

Edwin Moise - 11/26/2007

Having electors chosen district by district, rather than state by state, would not mitigate the problem of the Electoral College intervening between voter and the actual election of the president. It would make that problem worse.

The relationship between state lines and current political alignments is pretty random by. They were drawn generations ago, and so far as I know, none of them were ever shaped by a conscious effort to give partisan advantage even when they were drawn.

The lines separating congressional districts were in many (I think probably most) cases shaped in a conscious effort to give partisan advantage to one side or the other, and they were mostly drawn pretty recently; the partisan alignments that shaped them are still relevant today, and will be in the next election.

A state, whose borders were drawn generations ago, is a lot more likely to be a genuinely competitive place, where both sides find it worth campaigning seriously because both sides have a genuine chance of victory, than a congressional district whose borders were drawn only a few years ago by politicians who were consciously attempting to create as many "safe" districts as possible for their own party.

For pretty much the same reasons, I think the danger that the candidate who gets the most popular votes might fail to win the Electoral College would probably be greater under this proposal than under our current system.

I don't like the Electoral College as it now exists. But having the electors chosen by districts, rather than by states, would make it even worse than it now is.

James W Loewen - 11/26/2007

Appleby has a good idea, so long as the two electors/state resulting from US Senate seats go to the statewide winner in each state. Yes, doing so would give voters in WY or VT more clout per capita in a sense, but on the other hand, they NEED it, because candidates are much more likely to target, hence listen to, voters in NYC and L.A. A campaign stop in L.A. would reach, via TV and news coverage, voters electing at least 20 electoral college votes. A stop in VT would reach just 3.
To claim that the disparity created by these extra 2 electoral seats "is why there is always a chance of a presidential candidate winning the election through the Electoral College while losing in the popular vote" is wrong. By far the main reason why this mixed result can happen results from the electoral college itself, not the 2 extra seats. If candidate X wins CA and NY by 2,000 votes each while losing TX, IL, and PA by 1,000,000 votes each, s/he will be ahead by 4 electoral college votes while lagging by 2,996,000 in popular votes. A moment's thought reveals that this kind of discrepancy would still be possible if the electoral college were elected by Congressional district, regardless of what is done with the two "extra" seats per state.
However, this discrepancy is not so bad. After all, all candidates know the rules ahead of time, so it's fair. Moreover, electing presidential electors by Congressional district might give parties a reason to make these districts more competitive. Party leaders might not want to "waste" excess support to ensure the easy election of a representative if so doing might cost them the presidency by making nearby districts harder to win. (To a degree, that rationale already exists, simply on the Congressional level, but not nearly so much, because representatives "horse-trade" across party lines, and because incumbents' seats are often written off by the other party.)