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Should voters care about the rules for electing a U.S. President?

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Should voters care about the rules for electing a U.S. President?
by Alexander S. Belenky

Yes, they should, and the media coverage of the 2008 election campaign shows it.

The 2000 election demonstrated to many Americans that the Electoral College, rather than the national popular vote, decides the election outcome. Presidential candidates understand this as well and therefore focus their campaigns on “battleground” states.

Though the media still entertain the audience with national polls, trying to depict the 2008 election as a horse race, the candidates don’t seem to pay much attention to these polls. Everyone even remotely familiar with the Electoral College knows that, say, a 45% to 45% “dead heat” in the national polls can translate into 0 votes to 538 votes, 269 votes to 269 votes, or any other ratio of votes in the Electoral College (assuming that all the 538 electors are appointed).

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Today, the “rules of the game” in presidential elections are such that the national popular vote doesn’t matter in deciding the election outcome, and even a small fraction of the votes cast nationwide can win a candidate the Presidency in the Electoral College. In 1948, 16.072% of voting voters could have elected a President, and from 1948 through 2004, this percentage was within the range of 16.072 to 22.103 [1 pdf].

Thus, the nation as a whole doesn’t have a say in presidential elections, and only the states do though their says have different impact on the election outcome. But in today’s America, where citizens consider themselves Americans first, and Texans, Californians, and New Yorkers second, in electing a President, the will of the nation should matter as much as the will of the states.

Yet, under the existing election rules, even if an overwhelming majority of voters oppose the particular ideas and policies of a candidate, and even if a majority of the states do as well, the candidate still can win the Presidency. Though the Founding Fathers suggested how the states should be treated in electing a President—one state, one vote—currently, this isn’t the case. Instead, in electing a President in the Electoral College, where state electors are supposed to follow the will of a plurality of state votes, each state has the number of electors based on its population. Since states don’t have equal representation in the Electoral College, this violates the “one state, one vote” principle in electing a President by states.

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Currently, state electors are chosen by popular vote in all the states and in D.C. though this manner of appointing electors can be changed by each state legislature at any time, as the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed in Bush v. Gore in 2000. In presidential elections, the will of the states in the Electoral College remains superior to the will of the nation, which doesn’t have any constitutional status and is ignored if the two don’t coincide.

As long as this is the case, presidential candidates will have little incentive to provide a comprehensive analysis of issues concerning all Americans, since they can get away with promises to tackle the issues instead of implementable plans addressing underlying problems. As a result, voters can rely only on candidate promises rather than on any trustworthy analysis of these promises by independent, nationally recognized experts, and this makes candidate character and personal qualities the decisive factor in presidential elections. Americans will be left with simplistic national media coverage, focusing on verbal exchanges among the candidates and their running-mates and mutual accusations in negative advertisements. Even if the candidates eventually decide to talk about the issues in detail, only residents of “battleground” states may have the luxury of watching or listening to corresponding discussions.

Certainly, presidential debates touch issues of national importance. But without profound preliminary discussions of these issues among the candidates and corresponding independent experts, the debates can cover the issues only superficially, favoring the candidate who is wittier and quicker on his feet. Finding out how deeply candidates understand the issues, and to what extent their promises are implementable is likely to remain outside the picture.

It’s hard to believe that leading TV and radio talk shows don’t understand that, under the existing election rules, a substantive discussion of the issues of national importance such as, for instance, teaching mathematics in schools [2] is doomed to be “left behind.” Certainly, as long as the candidates remain silent about election rules, there is not much for the media to cover about these rules. But reporters can always initiate a dialog on any topic by asking the candidates corresponding questions and airing and publishing their answers.

Yet, the media diligently ignore the topic of election rules, offering their viewers and listeners the opinions of numerous pollsters and election analysts on how far “to the right, to the left, or to the center” the candidates go or have already gone. While this may interest political junkies, such information can hardly be helpful to ordinary voters, who expect solutions from their leaders no matter to which part of the political spectrum they are close, both in general and at a particular moment in the election campaign.

Talking about what combination of states would likely secure at least 270 electoral votes if the election were today certainly helps the media draw attention to the race; however, all such assessments may be interesting only if they are based on trustworthy polls, which may not necessarily be the case. Finally, nobody in the media presents information reflecting how particular moves of the candidates affect the polls, and without this information one can hardly conclude what the strategic abilities of the candidates and their teams are, which would help many voters in making their decision on Election day.

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As a result of ignoring the topic of election rules in the media, many voters confuse the Electoral College—a mechanism for electing a President—with the “winner-take-all” principle—a particular principle of appointing state electors. (According to this principle, which is currently employed in 48 states and in D.C., a presidential candidate who receives a plurality (or a majority) of state votes wins all state electoral votes.) Even when discussions of election rules ensue at the state level, these discussions are heavily politicized, diverting the attention of voters from the substance of the discussions.

In 2007, voters from the Republican minority in California attempted to hold a state referendum on replacing the “winner-take-all” principle with the district one, currently employed in Maine and Nebraska. However, this move didn’t receive fair coverage in the media. A few fragments aired on national TV programs and an overwhelming majority of newspaper articles focused on the politics behind the move rather than on the substance of an attempt to find a way to better reflect the will of Californians in appointing state electors. Though, if implemented, the idea wouldn’t bring more attention of the presidential candidates to the state anyway [3], the media focused on politics rather than on logic and common sense in communicating information about the attempt to the voters.

Can we, the people, do something to change the status quo with discussing the rules of U.S. presidential elections? The MIT conference To keep or not to keep the Electoral College: new approaches to Electoral reform http://cesf.mit.edu/electoral/ aspires to do just that by bringing these election rules to the limelight.

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Alexander S. Belenky is the author of the books "Extreme Outcomes of US Presidential Elections" (2003), "Winning the US Presidency: Rules of the Game and Playing by the Rules" (2004), and "How America Chooses Its Presidents" (2007). He is Guest (more...)

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