If you're not a swing state, why not create a swing district?
November 3, 2008 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Electoral College filter: Why do nearly all states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, when splitting them up could get them more attention and favorable policies?

Battleground states get more attention from presidential candidates, which means more favorable policies from the federal government as potential presidential candidates pander to win those states' votes.

So if you're a state that's not a battleground, wouldn't you want to do something about it? Like figure out a part of your state that could be a battleground district, and award all the votes of that district to the winner of that district?

Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes up by district, but none of those districts are ever competitive. We can do better!

For example, take New York State's 31 electoral votes. I propose that the winner of New York City (which will always be the Democrat) get 13 electoral votes. The winner of the rest of New York State gets 18 electoral votes. This is approximately in proportion to the size of the populations.

Well the non-NYC parts of NYS went for John Kerry in 2004 by two percentage points, 51-49. Instant swing state!

There are other efforts to bring attention to non-swing states. But these, like National Popular Vote, require states to come to agreement with other states, and look unlikely. But splitting up your state into artificial electoral districts in order to attract attention could be done by one state acting alone. Why don't any states do this?

Possible answers I've thought of:
1. Democrats in blue states don't want to take reliable electoral votes out of the Democrats' column (same for Republicans in red states)
2. Legislators would never be able to agree on the district boundaries.
3. They haven't thought of it.

Is one or more of those correct, or is there something else?
posted by Dec One to Law & Government (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I believe Maine and Nebraska do this, so option 3 is out. My guess is some of your first guess and some of your second. That and it's probably near impossible to get legislation to this effect passed in many states.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:45 AM on November 3, 2008


Oh and you said this about Maine and Nebraska. :-) Sorry. Option 3 confused me.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:46 AM on November 3, 2008


Electoral College filter: Why do nearly all states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, when splitting them up could get them more attention and favorable policies?

I don't agree with your assessment. Let's consider a hypothetical state with 22 electoral votes. In some elections it's a swing state, in some it's not.

Under winner-take-all: it gets lots and lots and lots of attention in years in which it's a swing state. Very little in years it's not.

Under a Maine/Nebraska-style system: perhaps there's 1 EV up for grabs every year. One year, maybe the candidates are fighting for whether the state's EVs splits 15-7 or 14-8. If that one EV is critical to the electoral math, you might see the candidates campaigning there, but generally the 1 EV isn't going to be critical to the result, and candidates will ignore it.

Winner-takes-all gets them lots of attention in some election years; proportional, maybe a small amount every year.

For example, take New York State's 31 electoral votes. I propose that the winner of New York City (which will always be the Democrat) get 13 electoral votes. The winner of the rest of New York State gets 18 electoral votes.

Given that NY has gone to the Democrat in 9 of the last 12 elections (and the 3 that it didn't were Republican landslides anyway), why would the Democrats, who currently hold a huge majority in the lower house of the state legislature, support such a change? If Republicans ever gained control of both houses of the state legislature and the office of governor, then you might see something like that.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:01 AM on November 3, 2008


Swing states would never convert: they only have special influence because they are winner take all. Who would ever seek the votes of a "swing" state when the delta between best performance and worst would be 3-4 Electoral College votes?

Solid states would likely no benefit from going Maine/Nebraska -- it simply diminishes their power to choose the President with an uncertain return. It's not like Democratic Presidents don't pay attention to mass transit for New York or Republican Presidents don't pay attention to energy for Texas.

This is not to say that "solid" states don't see selective benefit to bipartisan representation. One of the major constraints against maximalist gerrymandering is the recognition is that you always want parochial interests having a voice in both parties in Congress.
posted by MattD at 6:11 AM on November 3, 2008


For one thing, your suggestion is essentially gerrymandering - e.g., designating voting districts to produce particular electoral results.

Also, as DevilsAdvocate says, your logic is backwards: assigning electoral votes proportionally to different parts of the state would make those parts of the state more "swingy," but the state as a whole less swingy. Consider Ohio, a true "swing state." Currently, candidates have to visit the whole state multiple times in order to try to capture its 20 electoral votes. This means stumping across the state and trying to get out the vote everywhere. If they instead assigned EVs by county, candidates could essentially write off Cleveland/Cuyahoga County (reliably Democrat) and Cincinnatti (reliably Republican), and concentrate on those few counties that are more evenly split. Your system would result in a concentration of electoral power in smaller areas of states, not more more attention to the states as a whole. In your NY example, New York is not a "swing state" - non-NYC is. (BTW, Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive writeup of the genesis and pros & cons of the electoral college).
posted by googly at 6:23 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


Neither party has any incentive to implement this kind of change. By and large, they've figured out how to fight for the various battleground states. Splitting things up means both parties will have to spend a lot of time and money figuring out new optimal campaigning strategies.
posted by Nelsormensch at 6:29 AM on November 3, 2008


The problem with districting isn't an issue. If I remember correctly, Maine and Nebraska just use the congressional districts, and as those are required by federal law, a system of districting is already available.
posted by Electrius at 6:44 AM on November 3, 2008


The problem with districting is an issue in that many states are horribly gerrymandered. For example, in Texas, Houston is divvied up into several districts designed to include a small piece of Democratic voters and a larger chunk of Republican rural voters, with the result that all of them go Republican, despite significant Democratic presence.

It'd be one thing to assign votes according to statewide proportional vote, but using congressional districts is a recipe for explosive disaster and massive disenfranchising shenanigans due to computer-aided gerrymandering.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:57 AM on November 3, 2008


Why do nearly all states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, when splitting them up could get them more attention and favorable policies?

Because they disagree with your assessment that it would get them more attention and favorable policies.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:58 AM on November 3, 2008


Switching to this system in any individual state would reduce the power of the majority in that state; it is this same majority that would have to approve the change in the state legislature.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:59 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you want to implement what you seem to aim for, why not do away with this intermediate layer of electoral colleges? That way the proportion of direct votes for a candidate would influence the overall outcome much more; I guess it even could make third parties a viable alternative, since they could gather up small percentages from each state and gain a small number of seats this way...
posted by PontifexPrimus at 7:03 AM on November 3, 2008


For answer straight from the horse's founding fathers' mouth, read federalist 68.
posted by TedW at 7:28 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]


OTOH there is something to be said about states that always go red or blue. Isn't the opposition party being somehow disenfranchised? My vote won't count because the majority is of the other party. Never has, never will. The whole one man one vote thing goes right out the window in those states. Gerrymandering has its purpose if it is to give an under represented party a chance to make their vote count.
posted by Gungho at 7:36 AM on November 3, 2008


Suppose Florida did this. The 27 electoral votes would have split 14-13 the past two elections. Giving any campaign little reason to spend time and money down there. You'll get 1 net electoral vote, possibly 2-3 if you really focus on the state, but that's bad campaign strategy.

Colorado proposed this in '04. If this had been implemented they'd be off the electoral radar and the Dems certainly wouldn't have had the convention in Denver.
posted by cmfletcher at 7:37 AM on November 3, 2008


@googly: You're right about Ohio, and I'm not suggesting already-swing-states change anything. I'm suggesting non-swing states change.

@DevilsAdvocate: On the first part of your answer: I'm not suggesting a state split its votes proportionally. Please re-read my question. On the second part: Okay maybe not New York, but there are other states whose legislatures are one party and presidential voting is reliably another (North Carolina pre-2008 comes to mind), and you never see anything like this in those states.

@Electrius: Huh? States can allocate their electoral votes any way they want to. It's in the Constitution.

@Tomorrowful: What I'm suggesting has nothing to do with congressional districts.

@PontifexPrimus: That would require either a constitutional amendment, or interstate compact (what National Popular Vote is doing). Neither is likely to succeed.
posted by Dec One at 7:43 AM on November 3, 2008


@cmfletcher: You seem to be talking about distributing electoral votes proportionally. That's not what this question is about.
posted by Dec One at 7:44 AM on November 3, 2008


Correction: I should have said 13-12 with a net +3. Which is the equivalent of a Delaware or North Dakota.
posted by cmfletcher at 7:50 AM on November 3, 2008


Here's what Hendrick Herzberg wrote about a Republican-proposed ballot initiative in California last year that tried to change the electoral college system in that state to something very similar to what you are proposing.
posted by billtron at 8:20 AM on November 3, 2008


There is a proposal for large states (California, New York, Texas) to assign their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. This would force a presidential campaign to campaign nationwide, to the benefit of large states and the detriment of Nebraska.

The Constitution says that states can determine how to allocate electoral college positions, so this wouldn't require an amendment.
posted by Pants! at 8:21 AM on November 3, 2008


Just an FYI - California tried doing this through the Presidential Election Reform Act. An estimated 22 percent of California could have been redistributed by the government "legally" allocated to the Republicans. Such bills are often very partisan in nature, and would be challenged heavily in court for being unconstitutional (only members of California's legislature may appoint electoral votes, a voter initiative cannot).
posted by antonymous at 8:26 AM on November 3, 2008


@billtron: That's not similar to my proposal at all. The idea in my proposal is to create one large swing district.
posted by Dec One at 8:31 AM on November 3, 2008


Ah, my mistake on not fully reading the question. In that case you've gotta convince the states majority party that it's in their best interest to drop easy electoral votes in exchange for national attention.

The other wrinkle is 3rd party candidates. They may actually grab an electoral vote or two using a district system. Not in the best interest of either the D's or R's.
posted by cmfletcher at 8:38 AM on November 3, 2008


@Dec One: I'm sorry. I read that you mentioned assigning electoral points according to districts and I made the connection to congressional districts. If I had known that you were only interested in getting answers about arbitrary districts created in order to garner attention from presidential campaigns, I probably would have worded my comment differently or opted not to participate in the thread.
posted by billtron at 8:48 AM on November 3, 2008


1. Democrats in blue states don't want to take reliable electoral votes out of the Democrats' column (same for Republicans in red states)

Number 1 is the obvious reason. In fact, the republicans tried to do this by ballot initiative in California, but of course the democratic majority in the state voted it down. It would be foolish for the democratic majority of Californians to unilaterally hand over some of their valuable electoral votes to the opposition, while Texas for example, maintained winner-take-all for republicans. Your suggestion would only be feasible if all states agreed to the same rules. It's not going to happen unilaterally.

A much bigger problem is the unequal weighting of electoral votes. It would be better to eliminate the electoral college system completely and use the popular vote. This would eliminate the situation in which the votes of people in Wyoming have four times the weight of people in California.
posted by JackFlash at 8:53 AM on November 3, 2008


It might even help with issues of vote suppression. Currently, suppressing the vote (via bad voting machines, delays, misinformation, etc.) in a single highly predictable and cohesive region of the state is an easy way to tilt the election in a predictable direction. If this region becomes a district voting for its own elector, such tactics are likely to be less effective.

Of course the flip side is, as already mentioned, this setup is extremely vulnerable to gerrymandering. Conceivably, the "predictable and cohesive region" mentioned above (an urban area, for example) gets 1 elector for its 120,000-vote margin of victory (80% to 20%) while the other 5 electors represent wins by 20,000 votes each (45% to 55%) in the other direction. You lose a lot of power being in a big-majority district. You could say the same about a big-majority state, but the widest margins on the state level are around 20%.
posted by originalname37 at 9:11 AM on November 3, 2008


So if you're a state that's not a battleground, wouldn't you want to do something about it? Like figure out a part of your state that could be a battleground district, and award all the votes of that district to the winner of that district?


Because it takes the current system, whereby some people's votes mean more than others by state, and makes it even more unequal by causing the same effect within the state.
posted by sondrialiac at 9:18 AM on November 3, 2008


It would be better to eliminate the electoral college system completely and use the popular vote. This would eliminate the situation in which the votes of people in Wyoming have four times the weight of people in California.

It would also eliminate campaigning for votes anywhere but major cities. There's no way candidates would spend the money to cover all of that ground west of the Mississippi (give or take a few hundred miles) when they could, for a lot less money, push their margins in the top 50 metro areas.
posted by originalname37 at 9:32 AM on November 3, 2008


It would also eliminate campaigning for votes anywhere but major cities.

When you put it that way, I want to take it home and have its babies.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:47 AM on November 3, 2008 [2 favorites]


What I'm suggesting has nothing to do with congressional districts.

Well... you could have said that. You cited Maine and Nebraska, which do use CDs, so it seemed a reasonable assumption to me that you meant "congressional" when you said "district."

Besides, said "Districts" still have to be drawn by somebody, which means gerrymandering is a danger.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:00 AM on November 3, 2008


It would also eliminate campaigning for votes anywhere but major cities. There's no way candidates would spend the money to cover all of that ground west of the Mississippi (give or take a few hundred miles) when they could, for a lot less money, push their margins in the top 50 metro areas.

So what? Are people still standing on the train platforms to find out the candidates' policy positions? Is there no television or internet in middle America? Do you hear the people in California complaining that they missed out on all those Obama and Palin rallies or that they just can't get enough TV political ads and robocalls?

Or as ROU_Xenophobe said: "When you put it that way, I want to take it home and have its babies."
posted by JackFlash at 10:05 AM on November 3, 2008


I think it's more a matter that moving to an all-proportional system would make for a hellish transition.

For example, if, say, California switched to a proportional system, but none of the other states did, that would totally fuck the Democrats, since they'd lose approx 40% of their electors from that state.

However, many states (including California) have a law that if most other states were to go proportional, they would, as well. The difficulty is in getting that many states to go proportional all at the same time.

My guess is that it won't happen within our lifetimes unless there's another 2000-style debacle.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:28 AM on November 3, 2008


However, many states (including California) have a law that if most other states were to go proportional, they would, as well.

Actually, no. There is, however, a proposal to have states agree to allocate their electors based on the national popular vote winner.

One of the problems with an all-proportional system is that a) it increases the likelihood of an electoral college tie, and b) it may increase the influence of third parties to act as kingmakers or spoilers.

Your proposal is somewhat creative but does not seem to address the inequality issue at the heart of the electoral college; in fact, it seems to make it worse. States favor one group of residents over another all the time, but it's not clear how this sort of divvying up would appeal to anyone who wasn't in the battleground district, and might even be opposed by a good proportion of the district itself. States cannot and probably should not treat blocs of residents unequally, and constitutionally (at each state's level) they may be forbidden from doing so.
posted by dhartung at 11:59 AM on November 3, 2008


Because it takes the current system, whereby some people's votes mean more than others by state, and makes it even more unequal by causing the same effect within the state.

Agree and disagree slightly. While the idea is less and less relevant in today's world, the idea of the United States is right there in the name- it's not one country, it's a federation of fairly independent States. We don't vote for the President- we vote to direct our state how it should vote for president. I'm not sure if it ever happened, but it's certainly legal for a State's legislature to simply pass a law saying that "Idaho is voting for Bob Barr" and never even have the citizens vote.

So it really isn't relevant whether my vote in Illinois has a different weight than your vote in New Hampshire, because we are technically voting for two different things. No more relevant than saying that my vote for Senator has less weight than yours for your Senator. It's a State election.

Conceptually, the President is more of a representative of the 50 states' governments than a governor of all the people. There are very few areas where the president has actual power (treaties, appointments). All actual power comes from the people through the Congress. The president is legally bound to enforce the laws passed by them.

But I do agree that changing the winner take all system to something more proportional would be troublesome. I like the oddball layers of obfuscation that our government has- it limits the power of the majority. Like the NFL- the various salary caps and revenue sharing messes up a lot of stuff, but it does give parity. If presidential elections were simple, direct majority, vast swaths of people and ideas would become irrelevant. That's fine if you agree with the majority, not so fine if you don't.
posted by gjc at 4:31 PM on November 3, 2008


I'm not sure if it ever happened, but it's certainly legal for a State's legislature to simply pass a law saying that "Idaho is voting for Bob Barr" and never even have the citizens vote.

It has. Colorado in 1876 had become a state only a few months before the election. The Colorado state legislature opted to select the state's electors directly rather than try to arrange an election in such a short time.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:35 PM on November 3, 2008


As some others have said, a majority in the state legislatures would have to approve it, and they have no reason to do so.
posted by Nattie at 7:01 PM on November 3, 2008


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