Friday, November 2, 2012

Reason #263: The Horse Race

When people talk about the results of the 2004 presidential election, they talk about Ohio. Ohio and its 20 electoral votes (now down to 18, as the makeup of Congress has evolved) played more or less the same role as Florida in 2000--it was the last state to matter on election night, and whichever way the state went, so went the presidency.

In the end, George W. Bush brought it home and won the state by around 120 thousand votes, bringing his total in the Electoral College to 286 and securing the big win. Watching from my home, I specifically remember a lot of Democratic hand-wringing over the use of Diebold electronic voting machines, and the extent to which Oho's Republican Secretary or State had made things difficult for the other side to get their votes in.

But here's the thing that always bothered me about that: say John Kerry had waved a magic wand and another 200 thousand votes had come out of the ether. He'd have won the presidency with 271 electoral votes...while still losing the popular vote by almost 3 million.

Three million votes - that's more than two percent of the total electorate that year. And he'd still have been the president.

That meant two things for me, going forward--one, John Kerry didn't deserve to have won that election; Bush didn't win it, Kerry lost it. Two, the Electoral College had to go.

The Electoral College was created as an intermediary between election by the congress, which had historically been the typical way of doing things, and direct election by the citizenry, which was only kind of the whole point of this country. Like many things about the beginning of America, it was a baby step in the right direction. Unlike many things about America, it's never really been improved upon.

That's always been kind of a philosophical problem, but the more strongly divided the country gets, the more it becomes a practical problem. The reason the disparity was so great in 2004--and more to the point I'm really making here, the reason Mitt Romney has arguably been winning the horse race (in other words, the popular vote polling) for most of the last month while never getting close in the electoral college--is that the red states are getting redder, and the blue states are getting bluer.

A majority of people in Ohio may never support Mitt Romney, but the portion that supports him (or any Republican) in places like Kansas and Alabama is getting bigger and bigger. The same goes for blue states like New York, where Obama is up by 26 points, and would win even if Hurricane Sandy had been made of fire and locusts. But even if Romney gets 99% of the vote in the red states, their proportion of the Electoral College won't go up.

Like any good liberal, I'll be happy to see Romney lose next week (and he will) no matter how much of the popular vote he gets. But the bigger issue here is that this system is built on shaky ground that only going to get shakier in the next few elections, and I think if there's one party that can get something done about it, it's the Republicans.

Look, it's very debatable whether they actively caused John Kerry to lose Ohio in 2004, but they certainly didn't help matters--and that's leaving aside the undeniable clusterfuck that was Florida in 2000. We've seen the same kind of thing in the House of Representatives ever since Obama took office. The thing is, when they want something badly enough? Republicans are amazing at bureaucracy.

It's pretty safe to say that whatever else happens, the Democrats aren't going to get the House back next week, which means Republicans will continue to have at least a modicum of power in the second half of the Obama administration. So what do you think they'll do if they decide next week that the only thing standing in their way isn't Obama, but the Electoral College?

Further Reading

United States Presidential Election, 2004 - Results

National Archives - What is the Electoral College?

Real Clear Politics: Romney vs. Obama

First Thoughts: A status-quo election?

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