(Reprinted from the Schenectady Sunday Gazette, Oct. 24, 2004)
District System Could Reform Flawed Electoral College
By Robert C. Turner
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 Yorka
"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?
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
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
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 votesand
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
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.
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
Robert C. Turner is an assistant professor of government at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
©2004 the Sunday Gazette
Creative Thought Matters.