Electoral College flunks fairness test in big states

by Scott MacKay // Published October 3, 2004 in The Providence Journal

The Constitution gives voters in small states more clout.

It isn't considered diplomatic to say that a vote in Rhode Island doesn't count as much as one in Ohio.

But Sen. Lincoln Chafee said as much two weeks ago at an environmental forum in Providence. Chalk it up to the Electoral College, the 18th century system that decides presidential elections.

As the 2004 vote approaches, the votes of New Englanders are important mostly because if the six states vote as a bloc for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, they would erase the advantage President Bush would receive for winning his home state of Texas.

Texas has 34 electoral votes, the same as the six New England states. As the weeks dwindle to the Nov. 2 election, it will be such electoral vote considerations that will dominate the strategies of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.

About 105 million Americans voted in the 2000 presidential election, but the real contest then, as now, is the race to capture 270 electoral votes, a majority of the 538 awarded state-by-state.

It is the Electoral College that governs presidential elections. It:

Makes the presidential campaigns focus on the so-called-swing or battleground states that will make-or-break the race for Electoral College votes. This means there is virtually no campaign in states seen as overwhelmingly pro-Kerry or pro-Bush, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island for Kerry and Texas and Utah for Mr. Bush.

Means some voters matter more than others. The Electoral College gives voters in small states -- which tend to have less racially and ethnically diverse populations -- more say in choosing a president than voters in larger, more diverse states. Gives the 22 smallest states, which together have less than California's population, nearly twice its 55 electoral votes.

Establishes the two-party system in the United States and makes it almost impossible for a third-party candidate to win the White House.

IT IS ONE of the ironies of the 21st century that presidential elections in an Internet era can be decided by the Electoral College, a system set up in the 1780s by men who traveled on horseback and by clipper ship.

To understand how this relic of the nation's birth wields so much power today, we take you back to 1789 and the system erected by the Founding Fathers (there were no founding mothers; women could not vote) for choosing a president.

First, the early leaders of the country did not have much respect for average citizens. "They really didn't trust ordinary folks,"' says Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University.

So they restricted voting to white males who owned property. And they only allowed those voters to select one part of the federal government -- the U.S. House of Representatives.

U.S. senators were chosen by state legislatures until 1913, when Progressive Era agitation led to a constitutional amendment that provided direct election of senators.

And they established the Electoral College to pick the president, which in those days was made up of community and political leaders in each state.

And then they required presidential candidates to receive a majority of the electoral votes.

In this way, the founders believed, they would eliminate regional favorites by forcing candidates to appeal to a coalition of states, thus weaving together a young nation.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE sounds complicated and arcane -- the sleep-inducing chapter from the Political Science 101 textbook -- but in the way it has evolved over the years, it is fairly easy to understand.

First, remember that each state's electoral vote is equal to its number of U.S. senators added to its members of the House of Representatives. Rhode Island, for example, has two senators and two representatives and thus has four electoral votes. Massachusetts, with 10 representatives and two senators, gets 12.

In almost every state, electoral votes are awarded on a winner-take-all basis; the candidate who gets the most popular votes wins all the electoral votes. The candidate who wins Rhode Island -- whether he wins the state by one vote or 100,000 -- gets all four electoral votes.

Because each state gets two votes for its two senators, California, with more than 30 million residents, and Vermont, with about 600,000 each start with two electoral votes.

The rest of the electoral votes are determined by the number of representatives a state has, which is decided by the size of a state's population, as measured every 10 years by the Census Bureau.

In this example, California with 50 times the population of Vermont has just 18 times as many votes in the Electoral College.

But even in the House there is some inequality, because each small state gets at least one representative no matter how many people live there, even if the population is not large enough for a House district.

THE ELECTORAL College may seem like an anachronism, but it worked without incident or fanfare from 1888 to 2000, through two world wars, the Depression, the Korean and Vietnam wars and the social upheavals wrought by the Civil Rights and Women's movements. There was no controversy because the Electoral College mirrored the popular vote winner.

Then came the 2000 election, when Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes but lost the electoral count to Republican George W. Bush after the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court.

To change the system nationally would be daunting; it would require a constitutional amendment and ratification by three-fourths of the states. Just 13 small states could block any change.

YET, CHANGE is bubbling up from the states; Colorado is holding a closely-watched referendum this election that would dump the winner-take-all approach and award that state's electoral votes proportionally as a percentage of the statewide presidential vote.

States are allowed to apportion electoral votes proportionally if they choose to.

The winner-take all nature of the Electoral College means this year that candidates do not campaign in the nation's largest cities -- Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. That is because California, New York and Illinois are seen as Democratic and Kerry strongholds.

Candidates also avoid Houston, Tulsa and Salt Lake City, because Texas, Utah and Oklahoma are viewed as locks for Mr. Bush.

PRESIDENTIAL campaigns are reduced to the states where public opinion polls and historical voting results show the Kerry-Bush joust as competitive. At this point, about 14 states are in play, a figure than can shift with changes in voter perception of candidates, as measured by polls.

Republican bastions tend to be places with older, whiter populations, in the Rockies and the Plains states. Republicans also dominate in the South, where white voters have shifted to the GOP in national elections since the Democrats became the party of civil rights in the 1960s.

"The Republicans have become the old white guys party," says Garrison Nelson, the political science professor at the University of Vermont. "You can pretty much see that in who they nominate."

The GOP has never had anyone who was not a Protestant male on its presidential ticket since 1964, when U.S. Rep. William Miller of New York, a Roman Catholic, was chosen.

By contrast, the Democratic Party had its first Catholic nominee in 1928 -- former New York Gov. Al Smith -- and nominated the only Catholic elected president -- John F. Kennedy in 1960. Democrats have also had a women -- U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro of New York in 1984, and a Jew, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman in 2000, as vice-presidential candidates.

YET, MARC GENEST, political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, sees "Democratic whining" in this view. A good part of the Republican hold on the Electoral College is based on population shifts from the older industrial states of the Alleghenies [mountains] and the Midwest, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, to the south and southwestern states as Texas and Florida.

Because Americans move to where jobs are plentiful and because political opinions change, the Electoral College advantage is fluid, shifting over time. New England once preferred Republicans, but in the last three presidential elections the region has voted solidly Democratic, except for New Hampshire's support of Bush in 2000. Utah was once Democratic; it is now Republican.

"The electoral college is not set in stone; there have been many changes over the years," says Genest. "Not all the small states are for Bush; look at Rhode Island and Vermont."

FROM INSIDE a campaign, the Electoral College calculus dictates pretty much everything, from deciding where a candidate stumps to money spent on TV commercials and lawn signs, says Tad Devine, who has a major voice in deciding state-by-state strategy for Kerry.

The Kerry and Bush campaigns use elaborate computer models which include such variables as historic voting figures, polling results and population data to help determine where to send candidates and money. The campaigns rank the states in order of support: Rhode Island and Massachusetts are at the top of Kerry's list Devine says.

"The most precious thing you have to consider is the candidate's schedule and time," says Devine.

POLLS SHOW a close Bush-Kerry race in New Hampshire, the only New England state considered to be a true battleground. Devine says the Kerry campaign is confident of a victory, but cannot take it for granted; New Hampshire is the most Republican state in New England; its governor, U.S. senator and two U.S. House members are all Republicans and about 75 percent of the legislature is in GOP hands.

So New Hampshire voters can expect to see Kerry and probably Democratic vice-presidential aspirant North Carolina Sen. John Edwards before the Nov. 2 election; voters in Rhode Island and Massachussetts likely won't. Mr. Bush too, is taking New Hampshire seriously, the president campaigned in New Hampshire last Friday, accompanied by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is popular in the state.

In 2000, Mr. Bush took New Hampshire by about 7,000 votes out of almost 600,000 cast in a state where third-party candidate Ralph Nader collected about 22,000 votes.

AS OF YESTERDAY, Kerry was on the air with TV commercials in 14 states, about the same as Mr. Bush. The key battleground states haven't changed much since the beginning of the campaign, with both the Kerry and Bush camps focused on Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Iowa, Nevada, Virginia, Colorado and Arizona.

Political partisans in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are participating in the presidential election -- but not in their home states.

"Despite popular belief, there are lots of Republicans in Rhode Island who want to help President Bush's campaign," says Particia Morgan, Rhode Island state Republican chairwoman.

So the state GOP is organizing weekend bus trips to New Hampshire to help canvass voters and work telephone banks, says Richard Eannarino, a GOP activist from Jamestown who is recruiting volunteers for a trip on Oct. 16.

"We're going to stay overnight and do whatever they need us to do," said Eannarino.

Democrats, who have a larger volunteer base in Rhode Island are doing the same thing every weekend. College students from the state's campuses have been fertile ground for Kerry volunteers, says Seth Magaziner, president of the Brown University College Democrats.

"It is just Electoral College reality," says Kevin Conroy, Kerry's Rhode Island coordinator. "We'll be sending volunteers up to New Hampshire right up until Election Day."