Monday, March 13, 2006

Illinois Senate Bill 2724: An Irrelevant Electoral College? (Part I)

(Crossposted from the American Constitution Society :: Columbia Law School)

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.
Article II § 1.2
Growing up the son of two Democrats in the blood red state of Nebraska, I quickly developed a disdain for our electoral college system. Since Nebraska's electoral college votes have gone to the Republican candidate in every presidential election since Nixon in 1968, my parents' Democratic votes have never actually contributed to a winning candidate's total (never, except for my father's inexplicable 1972 Nixon vote, a ballot that will forever live in family infamy).

High school civics course arguments in support of the oft-criticized electoral college system generally cite the need to prevent the more populous states from luring Presidential campaign attention entirely away from less peopled states. (A final Nebraska anecdote: No system can prevent a state from falling off the map of a sitting President. Having previously visited the other 49 states, Nebraska was the last state visited by Bill Clinton during his presidency. Even then, he had to be lured into the state through the erection of one of the nation's sillier museums.)

But does this argument hold water? Hendrik Hertzberg points out in the New Yorker that the Presidential game (if ever fought in the small states) has moved to the battleground "purple" states:
In 2004, there were thirteen such states, accounting for twenty-eight per cent of the population (and thirty-two per cent of the ultimate vote, since turnout increases with the uncertainty of the outcome). In the final month, the candidates spent $237 million on advertising, $229 million of it in those thirteen states. (In twenty-three states, they didn’t spend a dime.) At the same time, President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Senator Kerry, and Senator Edwards attended a total of two hundred and ninety-one campaign events. Two hundred and sixty-eight of them were in the lucky thirteen.
Even if arguments in favor of maintaining the electoral college status quo are less than compelling, the strongest argument that the electoral college system is here to stay has always been the difficulty in changing our system of electors. Amending the US Constitution to enable the direct election of the President would require a 2/3rd vote of both houses of Congress and then ratification by "three fourths of the several States."

As power shifts from party to party, neither side could be relied on to provide support consistent enough to clear this high hurdle for reform. As the New Yorker article notes, Bush may have been a big fan of the electoral college in 2000, when he became the first person since Benjamin Harrison to win the Presidency and lose the popular vote; however, he probably held the electoral college in considerably less esteem in 2004, when despite his clear margin in the popular vote, he nearly lost to John Kerry but for 60,000 votes in Ohio.

Of course, all of the above is old news to you.

The new news is that a bill was introduced in the Illinois Senate on January 20th that could all but render the electoral college moot. The bill's chances of passage look strong, it appears constitutional, and it eliminates the electoral college's anti-democratic nature without requiring an amendment.

If Illinois Senate Bill 2724 is passed, and if companion bills pass in 10 other states (CA, TX, NY, FL, PA, OH, MI, GA, NJ, NC), then – without possibility of exception – the winner of the popular vote will be the winner of the presidential election.

(Read Part II of this story to learn about Illinois Senate Bill 2724)

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