Shafted by the Electoral College

At this point, only nine states are deemed worthy of attention by Obama and Romney.


Is it true the United States is having a presidential election this year? I ask because I've seen no evidence of it. Of course, there is no reason I would, since I'm currently living in a place far removed from all that, where citizens can only dream of having a voice in choosing their national leaders.

China? Cuba? Antarctica? No. Illinois.

Some 95 million people live in California, Texas, New York and Illinois—nearly one out of every three Americans. But how many times has Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Paul Ryan or Joe Biden made a campaign appearance in any of them since the party conventions? Zero, or the same number they've made in Bavaria.

But it would be the same if I resided in any number of other states—most states, in fact. Obama and Romney don't seem to be running for president of the United States of America but for president of the Discontiguous States of Florida, Ohio and Virginia. At this point, only nine states, totaling less than a quarter of the population, are deemed worthy of attention.

The problem is not that the people of the rest of the country are uninformed or indifferent. It's that they live in places that one candidate or the other is sure to win, which means neither has anything to gain by campaigning there.

In 2008, John McCain got 5 million votes in California. Nothing to sneeze at, you'd think. But he might as well have gotten none. If you don't win a majority of the vote there (as in almost every state), you get nothing in the Electoral College—where the real election takes place.

The candidates have to concentrate on the few "battleground" states that could go either way. In 2004, reports the organization FairVote, "more than half of all campaign resources were dedicated to just three states—Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania." Meanwhile, "18 states saw neither candidate visit nor received a cent of spending on TV advertisements." This year, 93 percent of TV spending has occurred in nine states.

Over time, the number of Americans who have any chance to make a difference has shrunk. In 1960, notes FairVote, there were 24 battleground states, boasting 327 electoral votes. In 2004, there were just 13, with 159 electoral votes.

Leaving most of the electorate on the sidelines is just one defect of the Electoral College. Most serious is that a majority can mean nothing on Election Day. Al Gore outpolled George W. Bush, but it was cold comfort. Bush was the fourth president elected despite losing the popular vote.

Republicans may have trouble seeing what's wrong with a system that kept Gore out of the White House. They would feel differently had John Kerry lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College—as he would have done had a small share of Ohioans switched their votes to him in 2004.

In just about every other election in America, getting the most votes means winning the election. Only for the most important office does that custom get cast aside—in favor of an antiquated, jerry-rigged system that the framers created without a clue how it would function.

A constitutional amendment to do away with it has no chance of passing, though. A minority of senators, from states over-represented in the Electoral College, can prevent it. But there is a second-best solution, the National Popular Vote plan, which FairVote is pushing.

The idea is for a group of states to agree they will allocate their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of who finishes first in their state. The compact would take effect only when the number participating can deliver 270 electoral votes—enough to determine the winner. As of 2010, Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia were on board.

There is one possible avenue for change: for Obama to lose the popular vote but win the election. Then Republicans as well as Democrats would know how it feels to be governed by a candidate whom they and most of their fellow citizens rejected. They might find new merit in establishing a more democratic alternative.

In that case, far more states would get their share of candidate visits and attack ads. And the mercilessly barraged voters of Ohio? I'm guessing they'd welcome the reprieve.