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May 11, 2004
I'm Nothin' But Soapboxes

This made me think it's about time I jumped on one of my pet soapboxes, the allocation of state electoral votes in a presidential election.

Each state decides for itself whether its electoral votes go entirely to the candidate who wins most of the votes in a state or are divided up proportionately among candidates according to the votes they received.

I think there are only two states that current split their electoral votes. The other 48 states use the "winner take all" system.

I think this is a serious mistake.

First, it helps cement the perception that an individual vote has no impact on an election. What's the point of voting (Democrat) in a state whose 2 or 4 or 7 or whatever electoral votes are always tossed to the Republican candidate?

It effectively throws away the opposition votes. If 50,000 people always vote Democrat in a state, and 49,999 people vote Republican, then the votes of those 49,999 Republicans are essentially tossed into the trash when the state's five electoral votes are tossed to the Democratic candidate year after year.

Second, it discourages new voters from turning out. What's the point of registering an impressive 1,000 new voters if the margin of victory for the other side is 10,000 votes?

Imagine, instead, the effect of district by district, or even street by street "get out the vote" drives if people living in a largely Republican neighborhood felt that their vote for a Republican candidate would actually matter in their largely Democratic state, and vice versa.

Third, it helps create situations like the '00 scandal in Florida. Allegations of widespread fraud that went to the very top of Florida's voting commission and (according to some) even to the governor's mansion. Allegations of voter intimidation or abuse. News after the fact that a key reporter discussing Florida voting results may have been "influenced" to call Florida for Bush early, to discourage Democrat voters from coming out.

There was a lot at stake. A huge amount, in fact. When stakes get that high…let's just be brutally honest…when stakes get that high, fraud waltzes in the door.

Even assuming (quite generously and without foundation) that no one in Florida did anything even remotely "wrong" during the '00 elections, I think most of us would admit that the perception of misdoing did a lot of damage in voters' minds across the country. (As does, I should add, the insistence on using untraceable, unreliable electronic voting machines.)

Anyhow. That's this morning's rant. If y'all are looking for something to fret about in your own states, take a look at how your electoral votes are divvied up (if they are). Find an on-line map that outlines your "red" and "blue" counties.

This county by county map of Colorado, for instance, shows that while it's generally considered "red," well over half the geographic area of the state is solidly blue. The areas in lighter colors (seven counties) were "Republican" or "Democrat" majority by less than 5%. A voter-registration drive on the Left could easily change the face of this state.

Anyhow…not to get all distracted with statistics and stuff, you should check your state. If you have a good representation of both blue and red counties in your state, then there are a lot of people whose votes are being thrown out. I'd imagine many people would be happy to vote in an election like the one coming up, but why should they if their votes won't count? (Note that changing these situations can't be done between now and November, but there will always be another election, so don't hesitate to correct the situation before 2008.)

Posted by AnneZook at 11:28 AM


Yeah, I've been trying to avoid thinking about this too much, because the question of vote integrity kind of trumps vote system, but this is a favorite idea of mine (http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/3177.html) My father, many years ago, planted the idea in my head, suggesting that states could pass proportional representation systems that would kick in when a certain minimum number of other states had also passed similar systems. This reduces the "we don't want to be the first do it and reduce our importance" whing. I think it increases the importance of all states as battlegrounds, as you say, and reduces the distortion effect of the electoral college.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at May 11, 2004 01:53 PM

I knew I'd seen the topic discussed somewhere not that long ago. (Thanks for the link.)

I sort of take issue with the "we don't want to be the first" situation. First, a couple of states already do it, so no new states would be first. Second...well, what's wrong with being first with such a sensible idea?

Posted by: Anne at May 12, 2004 07:54 AM

Well, tactically speaking, a state with two or three delegates at stake (under proportional representation) is actually going to get less attention than a state with all their delegates at stake. So as long as a significant number of all-or-nothing states still exist, proportional representation states will be underplayed. Moreover, the party which wins the presidential election vote in a state is often the party which controls governorship/legislature, and shifting to proportional representation would be giving votes away to the other side.

Now, if the political operatives were smart, they might realize that proportional representation allows them to "run up" the score in stronghold states and make ground, so the concept of the 'battleground' state loses meaning. But that's only if they're smart, and enough states join in.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at May 12, 2004 06:07 PM

Yes, it's easier for candidates if they can "strategically target" certain states instead of having to campaign to the country at large, but it's not easier for the voters in state that are habitually ignored. (It's not that easy in "swing" states where voters are innundated with a bewildering excess of campaign advertisements, I guess.)

If the political operatives were smart, they might stop and consider that they're not always going to be the ones in office and a system that's fair to both parties is going to be better for them in the future than a system that favors the party in power.

Posted by: Anne at May 13, 2004 07:41 AM