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(Reprinted from the Schenectady Sunday Gazette, Oct. 24, 2004)

District System Could Reform Flawed Electoral College

By Robert C. Turner

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Polling should go more smoothly at Skidmore this time around
The 2004 presidential election has left me feeling like a wallflower at a high-school dance. I am very concerned about the deteriorating situation in Iraq and economic uncertainties at home, but neither candidate seems to care about my concerns because I live in New York—a "safe" state that polls have indicated will vote for Kerry. If I lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Florida, the campaigns would be doing everything short of folding my laundry to win my vote.

The problem lies with the archaic winner-take-all provisions of the Electoral College that effectively substitute a handful of state elections for a real national election. Why should the 25 percent of the nation who live in battleground states effectively decide who leads this country for the next four years?

Alternative system

The district system, currently used by Maine and Nebraska, is a better alternative. It preserves the Electoral College, but changes how electors are distributed within a state. The winner of the popular vote in each congressional district receives one elector, and the popular vote-winner statewide also receives the two senate electors.

Awarding electors by districts produces a more accurate reflection of voters' preferences within the state. In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush received all of Florida's 25 electoral votes despite a virtual tie with Al Gore in the state's popular vote. Under the district system, Bush would have won 13 districts and Gore 10, leaving the two senate electoral votes up for grabs.

The winner-take-all system encourages campaigns to ignore "safe" states, where one candidate has a large lead in opinion polls, and focus on "battleground" states, where either candidate could win.

Battleground states receive special attention during and after presidential campaigns. In 2004, both campaigns have concentrated virtually all of their campaigning in 10 states. After the election, presidents prioritize the issues of battleground states with an eye toward re-election, as highlighted by the Bush Administration's decision to impose tariffs to help the steel industry in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and to ban offshore oil drilling in Florida.

Under the district system, the campaign would be won or lost in the 130 battleground districts rather than a handful of battleground states. In the 2000 election, 41 states had at least one potential battleground district.

Under the district system, presidential candidates would have to campaign in more states and build a broader geographical electoral coalition than under the winner-take-all system. Safe states like Texas, California, or New York could no longer be ignored.

This change in presidential campaign strategy would also help restore meaningful electoral competition to the House of Representatives.

In 2004, political experts expect that only 30 of the 435 House races will be seriously contested. Under the district system, presidential campaigns would have an electoral incentive to field competitive congressional campaigns in the battleground districts to strengthen the party ticket. The elections in battleground districts would become referenda on presidential policies and the direction of the country, rather than incumbents' ability to provide pork.

By changing the dynamics of congressional elections, the district system would increase the probability that the winning presidential candidate will have coattails that give his or her party a majority in the House of Representatives.

By reinforcing the geographical electoral constituencies of the president and Congress, the district system would move America more toward a parliamentary-style system, wherein the president and his supporters in Congress will see their electoral fates intertwined and work more closely together.

Supporters of the existing system argue that we shouldn't fix what isn't broken. However, the potential of voter fraud and shenanigans to influence the outcomes of close elections suggests the relative success of the present system is the product of fortuitous circumstances rather than deliberate design.

Under the winner-take-all system, whichever party could "find" a few hundred ballots would win all of Florida's 25 Electoral College votes—and the 2000 presidential election.

By contrast, under the district system, the incentive for electoral mischief is much lower, since the most electoral votes that can possibly be changed would be three (one for the district and two for the state).

It is also easier to monitor vote fraud in a few close districts than in an entire state. In the 2000 election, there were only five congressional districts where the margin between presidential candidates was less than 1,000 votes. Third-party candidates, like Ralph Nader, are less likely to influence the outcome of the election, since they will affect only the two state votes.

Serious flaws

The winner-take-all method for awarding presidential electors is seriously flawed. Contrary to popular wisdom, the origin of this system was not the Founding Fathers, but political bosses in the early 19th century who sought to disenfranchise their opponents and deliver all the states' electoral votes to their presidential candidate.

It's time to follow Maine and Nebraska and adopt a system that encourages presidential campaigns to build broad electoral coalitions, increases the responsiveness of Congress, and discourages electoral fraud.

Robert C. Turner is an assistant professor of government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.

©2004 the Sunday Gazette

Creative Thought Matters.
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