The President of Everyone? Crucial Issues Suffer when Most Voters Don't Matter

by Paul Fidalgo // Published September 13, 2007
A FairVote Innovative Analysis

Facts in the Spotlight

Number of the 11 largest population states that were closely competitive
in the 1976 presidential election: 10
Number of such states that were competitive in 2004: 4

Number of the 13 smallest population states that were closely competitive
in the 1976 presidential election: 5
Number of such states that were competitive in 2004: 1

When the presidential primary season was still in formation, Washington oracle David Broder took note of the new emphasis given by the candidates for the Democratic nomination to the concerns of urban voters. "With a batch of big-state primaries looming on Feb. 5," wrote Broder in a July 20 column, "[the candidates] are focusing on problems of poverty and programs to help blighted neighborhoods."

Big states with large urban populations may indeed have their moment in the sun if the contests in largely rural Iowa and New Hampshire do not determine the nominees straightaway. Unfortunately, that moment - as badly needed as it is - may be fleeting.

Important issues off the radar: The very states that Broder cites as beneficiaries of candidate attention (California, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York) are, in the general election, all considered safe states for one party or the other. As soon as the parties have effectively wrapped their nominations (which may be as early as February"¦or possibly earlier!), it is possible that those very issues that the candidates once held so close to their hearts will suddenly drop off the radar. Because of the Electoral College, those states will be once again relegated to spectator status, sitting idly by as they wait for a handful of swing states to choose their president for them. As FairVote"s Presidential Elections Inequality report shows, the number of competitive states has sharply decreased in the past generation.

It is not only urban issues that might be left behind when safe states are ignored by the presidential campaigns. As the United States is striving to compete in the information age, states with high tech economies should command significant attention, but most of them (such as California, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, and North Carolina, among others) hold little mystery as to their electoral outcomes for November, 2008.

And there are few issues more fundamental to basic survival than that of the availability of water, but states that have been classified as having "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions (including California, Idaho, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Arizona) do not, on the whole, qualify as battleground states. Should something so fundamentally essential be allowed to go unaddressed by the potential leader of the land?

The flaw in the system: The point is that it is difficult to ensure a president"s accountability to an electorate that has no real say in that president"s hiring. We always hope that the issues of urban blight, high tech competitiveness, and drought - as well as many others - will get their due by a president who sees themselves as responsible to the entire nation. Our electoral system, however, does almost nothing to promote that kind of noble behavior. Even the new warm glow that the primary candidates might feel for urban America may dim sooner than expected. As more and more states play an ever-more-violent game of leapfrog, the ensuing chaos may make it impossible to know to whom a candidate should answer.

Solutions: There are ways to change the system that will make candidates accountable to the maximum number of Americans. The parties can agree to change the primary system so that states are given equal chances to be important players in the nomination process, as with the FairVote-backed American Plan, a system that creates clusters of primaries of increasing state size as the season goes on. By rejecting the Electoral College and directly electing the president by means of the National Popular Vote plan, Americans can know that their vote is of equal value no matter where they live, and that they have a president who is answerable to everyone.

To learn more, see FairVote"s report, Presidential Elections Inequality: The Electoral College in the 21st Century.