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Keeping options open when it comes to the Electoral College

Posted: February 2, 2012 - 12:09am

The National Popular Vote movement is starting to gain attention in Alaska, following a hearing on Senate Bill 39 which would, if passed and signed, commit Alaska’s three electoral votes to the candidate who wins the most votes across the country.

The idea does have some definite advantages — along with a few problems that make it an imperfect, but not unworkable solution. Those benefits and drawbacks will be touched on soon, However the Alaska Legislature decides to proceed with this idea, if they do at all, he National Popular Vote (NPV) group does deserve credit for not only pointing out the silly way we elect the leader of our country, but also for getting a fair number of the right people talking about changing it.

To this point, eight states and Washington D.C. endorse the measure legislatively, but aren’t yet bound to a compact because one isn’t created until states with a combined total of 270 electoral votes agree to cast their electoral votes in such a manner.

The concept passes constitutional muster (Article 2, Section 1 states “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress …”) without an amendment, since it works within the existing framework of the Electoral College.

One of its benefits would be avoiding races where the candidate with the most popular votes failed to win the electoral vote and, thus, the presidency. This, of course, happened in 2000 when Al Gore claimed more than 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush did, yet still lost the electoral vote 271-266. It also happened in 1824, where popular vote winner Andrew Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams after neither man could claim a majority in the Electoral College, and the House of Representatives picked Adams. Had just a few very tight state races in 2004 been flipped, John Kerry would have been president, despite trailing Bush by more than 3 million popular votes.

It would also end the idea of “mandates” driven by electoral vote counts. Barack Obama won the 2008 Electoral College by a more than 2-to-1 margin, yet won just under 54 percent of the popular vote. His election, hailed as a landslide, was not the only such Electoral College blowout that didn’t reflect the true reality of how the voters felt.

The NPV movement also states the change will end the current practice of waging the presidential contest almost exclusively in so-called battleground states. It’s no doubt true that 30-plus states, including Alaska, will not see any campaigning, because the electoral votes in those states have long been in Republican or Democratic pockets. Neither Obama nor his Republican challenger will address Alaska’s issues — or Oklahoma’s or Massachusetts’ — because there’s nothing to be gained by doing so.

However, it’s less clear if the NPV will fix this issue. If the goal is to win each person’s vote, it only makes sense to spend time, energy and money in the places where the most people are. That means big cities, of which Alaska has a dearth. Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, is the 64th biggest city by population in the U.S. Sixty-three other media markets would take priority over Anchorage. As it is now, if a state is a battleground, many cities, large and small, will get attention from presidential races. That does little for Alaska now, but political views have a funny way of changing.

Which leads to the second concern with NPV. If Alaska does become a closely contested state, its three electoral votes might be meaningful in a tight presidential race. One half of 1 percent of the overall electoral vote may not seem like much, but when it’s compared to the one-fifth of a percent of the votes Alaska would get under a popular vote scheme (based on population, assuming the overall population of Alaska is in the same proportion to the overall U.S. population as the number of registered voters in both entities is). And, since those three electoral votes are concentrated, not divided, they carry more weight. (For example, if Gore had won Alaska by a single vote, he’d have won the electoral vote and the presidency. There aren’t enough popular votes in Alaska to make that kind of difference).

One possible compromise answer lies in proportionately awarding electoral votes based on how candidates fare in an individual state. That wouldn’t help Alaska’s influence grow much, since the electoral votes would almost always be split 2-1 (a candidate would need nearly 84 percent of the popular vote in Alaska to carry all three electoral votes, something that didn’t happen even with an Alaskan on the ticket). But it would force candidates to run truly national campaigns, as a swing of a few percentage points one way or another in more populous states could mean the swing of electoral votes. Instead of California’s 55 electoral votes resting solidly in the Democrats’ bank or Texas’ 34 being cast in red ink, the votes in those and other bigger states would be distributed based on a more accurate breakdown of how the state’s votes were cast. Yes, states with more people would still get the bulk of the attention from candidates, but, in a tight race, any state where a vote was in play would get noticed.

The NPV movement’s work has been fantastic in getting states to look at alternatives to winner-take-all vote counting in individual states. And, just because their proposal isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of attention. But, if our Legislature is open to alternatives, it should be discussing a wide variety of them and picking the best one (or a hybrid). A change in presidential voting procedure isn’t likely to happen more than once in a great while, so it’s vital to get the change right. A discussion inclusive of all the options would do that.

• Ward is deputy managing editor of the Juneau Empire. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the Empire’s editorial board.

• Editor's note: This column has been changed to reflect the correct percentage of popular votes a candidate would need to claim all three of Alaska's electoral votes under a proportional vote system. A candidate would need nearly 84 percent of votes cast to sweep the electoral votes.

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