Electoral College reform could fracture America | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 05.11.2012
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US elections 2016

Electoral College reform could fracture America

Not too long ago, Maine and Nebraska bucked the winner-take-all Electoral College system for the Congressional District Method. If other states followed suit, it would wreak havoc on American politics.

It's an image current presidential election strategists would balk at: On a visit to 'blue' California, Mitt Romney's tour bus carves a 300-mile arc around Los Angeles. He gives brief speeches in Santa Barbara, Orange County and San Diego - and in doing so traverses 10 congressional swing districts. He's then whisked off to New York.

Meanwhile, news channels show President Barack Obama at a morning speech in Dallas, Texas. The one-hour rally strikes a chord with the state's five swing counties. Boarding the plane, the president prepares for speeches in his own home state. Sure, he'll carry Illinois. But he's not about to give districts 11-19 to Romney, either.

The Congressional District Method

The Maine/Nebraska model is not necessarily what Hillary Clinton and millions of frustrated democrats meant when they shouted for Electoral College reform after the 2000 fiasco. But it is the simplest reform.

"Any state can do that," said Tara Ross, author of "Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College." "And it wouldn't require a constitutional amendment."

Intuitively, the system's proportional distribution seems 'fair'. The 2008 election also taught Americans exactly how it worked.

A tractor cutting wheat fields in Nebraska. (Photo: Miriam Braun for Deutsche Welle)

Though state politicians want to repeal it, Nebraskans prefer their electoral system by a 51-38 margin

In Nebraska, McCain took two - and Obama, one - of Nebraska's three congressional districts. Since McCain had 'won' the state, he also received its two 'at-large' votes. Final score: McCain four, Obama one.

"If a large number of states adopted the Congressional District Method you would have to win multiple districts all over the place to win the presidency," Ross told DW. Swing states, by implication, would be replaced by swing districts.

Intrigued by how the Maine/Nebraska model would work if adopted by every state, Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, recently applied the model to past election data with the help of three peers. The results were shocking.

Partisan bias

A nationwide Maine/Nebraska model, Gelman discovered, changes the presidential election by an average of 10 percent. "Out of 538 electoral college votes, the Republican Party gains an extra 54," he told DW. The bias has remained Republican for 20 years and five presidential elections.

The dramatic shift is due an increase in the effect of 'at-large elector bias' (election in which candidates are chosen on an individual basis rather than as representatives of a geographically defined, single-member district- the ed.). Since every state receives two 'at-large' electors, less populous states benefit disproportionately from the Maine/Nebraska model. Of the 25 least populous US states, for example, 15 tended to vote for Republican candidates over the last five elections, while just six did so for Democrats. (Five were swing states.)

When applied to the current election, the model implies a startling 296 to 247 win for republican Mitt Romney. Yet he would still have some negotiating to do.

Tea time

Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, campaigns during an event honoring veterans at the Iowa State Fair Grounds in Des Moines, Iowa, Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. (Foto:Charles Dharapak/AP/dapd)

From specter to real-life candidate in just one reform

Though Romney took the Republican National Convention in 2012, Ron Paul, the "intellectual grandfather of the Tea Party movement," walked away with roughly 10 percent of the votes. He pointedly told reporters, "I do not fully endorse Mitt Romney."

Paul might still be running under a nationwide Maine/Nebraska model. And if state districtes voted as they did in 2010 congressional elections, November 6 might end inconclusively with Obama at 247, Romney at 235 and Paul at 61.

"The goal of these candidates would not be to win," Tara Ross said, "but to force a contingent election. They could then be a power broker."

The seats of the US House of Representatives are adjusted to show democrats, republicans, and Tea Party adherents.

Nominally Republican, 61 members of the House of Representatives belong to the Tea Party Caucus

Under the US Constitution, a contingent election occurs when no single presidential candidate receives 50 percent or more of the Electoral College votes. The winner is then decided at the House of Representatives. Gelman finds the procedure "bizarre."

"Each state gets one vote in this process, so there would be an even larger partisan bias," he said. Given its Republican majority, the house would likely elect Mitt Romney.

Tara Ross sees other problems. "Over time, as candidates saw how easy it was, they would be more and more encouraged to get in. So instead of having one outlier, you'd have five, six candidates." She also worries that the temptation to gerrymander congressional districts would prove irresistable. "A multi-party system would fracture and divide us."

Which is why, in short, she likes things how they are. "The electoral college has forced us to come together and focus on our similarities - the things that make us who we are, the things that bring us together as Americans."

Andrew Gelman would also like to see the idea shelved - permanently. "Every once in a while people talk about this proposal," he said. "It's pretty obviously not a good idea."

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