This primary election cycle is showcasing the fundamental unfairness of the way political parties select their nominees. Republicans are aghast that some states choose their nominees at state conventions rather than letting voters choose. Democrats are becoming cognizant that their vote is subservient to the vote of their Governors and members of the U.S. Congress, who in their role as a Superdelegate can vote at the Democratic National Convention for a candidate their constituents rejected. In many respects, political parties are similar to private yacht clubs, country clubs, and polo clubs. The parties decide how they will select their candidates, and the candidate who wins the popular vote can be purged at the convention.
While the blatant electoral inequities of the primary have recently been exposed, it is also time to expose the incongruities of the General Election process. Only about 10 states are showdown states (states which can swing to either party in an election) where an individual’s vote actually matters. The voters in the other 40 or so states (including Massachusetts), which constitute about 80% of the electorate, are ignominiously relegated to the electoral sidelines, watching the candidates from their television sets delivering hortatory speeches in those few electorally critical states. Although it seems surreal, in 2012, about two-thirds of General Election campaign events took place in just four states.
Interestingly, there is a state-by-state movement which would ameliorate this situation by making every vote equal throughout the nation. It is called “The National Popular Vote Plan.” Formulated by Computer Scientist John Koza, the proposal is an interstate compact where participating states agree to award their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The agreement would take effect once enough states, constituting the requisite 270 electoral votes needed to win a presidential election, agree to participate in the compact. The compact has already been agreed to in 11 states and in the District of Columbia, comprising a total of 165 electoral votes. It would be actuated only if enough states representing the other 105 electoral votes signed on to the compact.
The plan guarantees that the winner of the National Popular Vote actually wins the General Election and that every vote will in fact be coveted by political campaigns. A vote in Jamestown Rhode Island would be as important as a vote in Jamestown, Virginia. A vote in Marblehead, Ohio, would muster as much weight as a vote in Marblehead, Massachusetts. A vote in Stillwell, Wisconsin would be equal to a vote in Stillwell, Oklahoma.
Under the current electoral regime, 48 states award literally all of their electoral votes to the person who wins their state. The District of Columbia does the same. The two exceptions, Maine and Nebraska, allocate two at-large votes to the winner of the state, and the rest by Congressional District. This means that in the 2012 election, the 4,839,958 votes for Mitt Romney in California were obliterated from the pages of electoral time, as Barack Obama collected all 55 Electoral votes from the state. Contrariwise, the 3,308,124 voters who selected Barack Obama in Texas saw their votes disappear, as Mitt Romney mustered all 38 electoral votes from the Loan Star State.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where the Constitution was drafted and debated, there was an impasse as to how to select a President. One proposal had the U.S. Congress select the President. Another mandated that State Legislators choose the President. Still another called for a direct popular vote.
Arriving at no clear resolution, the conventioneers bequeathed to the states plenary authority to choose how they want to elect the President. Article ll, Section l, Clause ll of the Constitution states: “Each state shall appoint, in such a manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors.” How they do that is their prerogative. In fact, in the first Presidential election, only three states instituted winner-take-all statutes.
Contrary to the prevailing contemporary belief, the winner-take-all system is not a creature of the U.S. Constitution, but of partisan politics. In most cases, the political party which enjoyed a majority in the respective State Legislatures was likely to vote for the Presidential candidate of that party. Accordingly, in a partisan scheme, states began to adopt winner-take-all rules for selecting their Presidential candidate in order to maximize the number of votes for the party’s Presidential candidate. U.S. Senator Thomas Heart Benton of Missouri, in discussing the winner-take-all system, averred in 1824: “It was adopted by the leading men of those states, to enable them to consolidate the vote of the state.”
The greatest danger under the winner-take-all regime is that a Presidential candidate could win the Presidency having pocketed less popular votes than another candidate. This situation occurred in 1824, 1876, 1888, and in 2000. In addition, this result became perilously close to occurring in 1880, 1916, 1960, 1968, and in 2004.
The current electoral system disenfranchises both large and small states. Of the four largest states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida, candidates only target Florida. The other three are “safe,” non-competitive states. In fact, party nominees use the three non-showdown states merely as electoral ATM’s. A candidate will parachute into Los Angeles, Houston, or New York City, speak at a private fundraiser, beseech opulent benefactors to donate to their campaigns, and then immediately egress from these states to spend that money in the states that matter, showdown states such as Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio.
The disproportionate influence of Ohio is patently obvious. During Barack Obama’s first term in office, either Obama or Vice President Joe Biden appeared in the electoral goldmine state about once every three weeks. During the 2012 General Election cycle, an astonishing 73 of the 253 campaign events occurred in the Buckeye state. Six days prior to Halloween, Obama joked that “trick or treaters” should come to the White House. He added: “If anybody comes from Ohio, they can expect a Hershey bar ‘this big’ [moving his hands outward].”
The practical application of this is that candidates are forced to address issues important to voters in only these few showdown states, like the economic embargo on Cuba in Florida, ethanol subsidies in Iowa, and the loss of manufacturing jobs in Ohio, while ignoring water rights issues in the Central Valley region of California, property rights issues in the Texas panhandle, and the needs of the Upstate New York economy.
Alternatively, small states are also ignored in the present system. Of the 13 smallest states, only New Hampshire is remotely competitive in a General Election. The other 12 states are “safe states” where the electoral outcome is a foregone conclusion. For example, Idaho, North Dakota, and Wyoming have not supported a Democrat for President since Lyndon B. Johnson won the nation in a landslide victory in 1964. Rhode Island, Hawaii, and Vermont all gave Obama more than 60% of the vote in 2012, and are politically immutable states for the Democrats. In fact, no Presidential candidate has made a formal campaign stop in Rhode Island since Richard M. Nixon in 1960. Nixon had made an injudicious campaign promise to campaign in all 50 states.
Voters in showdown states may conclude that the current system works to their geopolitical advantage, but they must be advised that the current winner-take-all system of voting is like an electoral roulette wheel: It stops on a state for consecutive election cycles and then moves on to other states. While today the needs of the Cuban-American community in South Florida, the steel manufacturer in Pennsylvania and the grain farmer in Virginia may muster an abundance of attention from presidential candidates, they must remember that they will not have this status in perpetuity. They could soon join the ranks of the Long Island fisherman, the Texas rancher, and the chicken farmer in Sussex County, Delaware, as constituencies that are ignored by presidential nominees.
Americans have now been exposed to the injustices of the American primary system, including the influence of Superdelagates, close primaries, and conventions choosing delegate slates rather than the voters. It is also important for voters to be conscious of the inequities in the General Election process. Every vote is not given equal consideration: far from it. The Presidential nominees disregard the preponderance of American voters. Worse, they have no electoral incentive to cultivate support from the preponderance of the nation. As former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar (1991-1999) reminds us, this has a direct effect on how the winner conducts his/her Presidency. “People who are elected to office remember what they learned when they were campaigning. It’s important that these candidates campaign in all states.” The National Popular Vote Compact would transmogrify the way Presidents are elected, forcing the party nominees to be attentive to voters in all states, not just voters in states where the electoral roulette wheel lands in a particular election cycle.
Massachusetts voters, like voters in all “safe states,” should have votes of equal weight as those voters who are fortunate enough to reside in “showdown states.” The present Presidential voting system is riddled with inequities. Sadly, “I’m from Massachusetts: My Vote Doesn’t Count.”