Politics 2013: Electoral College flawed, but it beats the alternative

Feb. 10, 2013 at 5:01 AM
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The Electoral College -- which gives its imprimatur to who is elected U.S. president every four years -- has been scrutinized and subjected to review about how it operates probably since it was conceived.

But the question is: Do the political powers-that-be really want to mess with it?

Republican efforts to do so in several battleground states led by the GOP but landing in President Obama's win column bubbled up in the aftermath of the 2012 election only to fizzle when state and national party leaders questioned the necessity of such a move.

With two exceptions -- Maine and Nebraska -- states are winner-take all, meaning whoever wins the state wins the state's electoral votes that equal its congressional delegation. Some proposed changes offer a variation on apportioning electoral votes based on Congressional Districts won, similar to Maine and Nebraska.

Such a scenario, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said, is something "a lot of states that have been consistently blue that are fully controlled red ought to be looking at," The Washington Post reported recently.

"For these states, it would make them more competitive, but it's not our call to tell them how to apportion their votes," Priebus spokesman Sean Spicer said.

The Electoral College "is a deeply flawed process, except when you look at the alternative," said Larry Jacobs, an elections and American politics expert with the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

Jacobs says both parties are "painfully aware" of the process' foibles, but "when you get into making changes, you bump up against" some of the reasons why the Electoral College, despite its flaws, remains in place.

After Democratic Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to George W. Bush in electoral votes in 2012, Democrats howled for change, but that went nowhere because cooler minds realized that medium and small states would lose their influence, Jacobs said.

The same howls were heard post-2012, when Republicans believed they had a shot at a single-party government with GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney in the White House and Republicans capturing the Senate for a unified Congress. (The House has been under Republican control since 2010.)

"Again, we ended up with Republican leaders saying ... this would hurt the smaller states," said Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey School.

While moving away from the Electoral College is appealing from a democratic (small d) point of view, "politically it is deeply flawed because it shifts power from medium-to-small states to larger states," he said.

Allowing the popular vote to decide the election "makes perfect sense," he said, because it's intuitive -- but it isn't necessarily a scenario all states would want or embrace.

In less densely populated states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire or Iowa, "you're going to lose a lot of your influence," Jacobs said, leading some smaller states to ask what's the return for moving to a popular vote.

"We would end up with elections focusing on mega-states," he said, "whereas today we tend to see the battle focusing on swing states or regions."

Reforming the Electoral College has been debated periodically for many, many years. The arguments may be compelling, yet reform "never made it over that last hurdle," he said.

When challenging the Electoral College, each party has exhibited suspicion about the other's camp, Jacobs said.

"There's paranoia on the Republicans part by saying voters are not qualified," he explained. "There's paranoia on the Democrats' part by saying the Republicans are trying to steal elections."

"I'm more impressed by hurdles to action than any cleverness by parties to rig elections," he said.

Serious people in the Republican Party's leadership recognize that for the GOP to win national elections, and collect the minimum 270 Electoral College votes needed to become president, it must do more than change the Electoral College rules -- it must change itself to get a broader-based support, Jacobs said.

"Looking at the Electoral College as a way for Republicans to escape the situation they're in now is a pretty shallow response," he said. "At the fundamental level they have to rebuild their coalition. They have to ask where's the support going to come from."

Some of the change already is happening, he said, pointing to work on immigration reform.

The challenges facing the Republican Party are partly about message but also about the ability to appeal and make a convincing argument to different groups of voters.

"It takes time and is painful," Jacobs said. "Changing the rules of the game in a way so patently and politically expedient is not a very sophisticated way of dealing with the problem."

As with today's Republicans, Democrats went through the same dilemma in 1968 and it took them several election cycles to figure out what to do, he said.

"It just takes time," Jacobs said. "And it is challenging to the party to do that."

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