The Electoral College And Other Hazards

// Published October 23, 2008 in National Journal
Robert Richie co-founded FairVote in 1992 to promote fundamental electoral reforms such as instant runoff voting and proportional representation, greater voter participation and a national popular vote for president. With another Election Day fast approaching, Richie spoke with's Kevin Friedl about the coming vote, the possibility of a tie in the Electoral College and how Mitt Romney could have been the Republican nominee. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more insider interviews.

Q: Your organization is devoted to increasing the fairness of the democratic process. On the eve of this election, just how equitable is the electoral system we're going to be using?

Richie: The way I would answer it is, it's eminently unfair in a lot of pretty obvious ways, and particularly the differential treatment that voters receive based on where they happen to live.

It's most obvious in presidential elections. With the current Electoral College system, the candidates are zeroing in on a relatively small number of states, completely ignoring other states. And what we're seeing is a pattern of presidential candidates' attention that is going election after election.... We already saw in 2004, say, eligible voters under 30 were a third more likely to vote in the 10 closest battlegrounds than the rest of the country. I suspect that margin will get bigger this year. It's a real impact on how voters experience politics, their means of holding the presidential candidates accountable.

And that difference between districts and states that are close and those that aren't is something that we see in other races, too. U.S. House races are also divided into this category of, the great majority of them where really very little politics is going on -- the voters aren't being particularly closely engaged -- and then these battleground districts where lots of campaigning's going on, lots of attention, and this same phenomenon of, all of us have an interest in the future of our country, future control of Congress, the future control of the White House, but many of us have very little impact, based on the accident of where we happen to live.

Q: Are you encouraged at all by the relative widening of the battleground field this year, with Barack Obama in North Carolina and Missouri and many more competitive House races than four years ago?

Richie: It's all relative, and it is very, very modest. I think that it is interesting to see North Carolina, but you're seeing other states that are no longer in battleground status that were more so in 2004 -- like a West Virginia was still one that at least people thought could switch; the 2004 election confirmed that it wasn't going to be a battleground in close years. So it's a very small change. We've been doing a tracking of candidate attention and looking at campaign spending, and you really do have this essential dynamic of about a dozen states that they focus on and about 38 states -- about three-quarters of states -- where they don't. And that's actually about the same as it was in 2004; there's just a couple changes about which states are in and which states are out.

Q: Supposing there is an Obama blowout, or a larger margin than what we've seen in past elections, could that actually sap some of the momentum behind the cause of a popular national vote?

Richie: I think it won't.... What happened in 2000 did not lead to particular good reform energy in 2001, 2002. If you look at action in Congress, it was basically nil on this issue. And I think it's because it was so clearly polarized that Republicans weren't going to touch it, and Democrats would only touch it if they were just making a stand or something, but they knew it wouldn't pass. So people that actually wanted to pass things focused on the Help America Vote Act and some of the other laws.

I think that the National Popular Voteplan is not tied to 2000, and I think, if anything, 2000 has held it back.... So I actually think quite the reverse, that if we have kind of a comfortable election, the Electoral College in some ways isn't particularly controversial, we can just build on the fact that most Americans don't like it and work for changing it.

Q: At this point, with two weeks to go, are there any reforms that can still be done for this election?

Richie: Most of our work is typically beyond it. I should mention another reform that's not going to happen this November in the presidential level, but one that we think would be really good to have in high-level votes in the U.S., which is instant runoff voting, which is a ranked system where you get a majority winner rather than a plurality winner.... But obviously, you can't put that in at the national level in the next two weeks.... How polling places are allocated and how many machines in polling places -- you know, things that affect lines -- are done in a very unscientific way. There's very little direction, typically, from the state, a lot of counties don't have particular plans. They sort of come up with, "Well, we did this last time and we're going to try this this time..." They probably can't come up with new polling places at this point, but we're highlighting a problem: that one of the barriers to people voting on a busy work day is a two-, three-hour line, and sometimes longer. And I think we generally accept that as if it's a reality that can't be changed, but it really is a product of policies that can be changed.

Q: What other specific reforms would be realistic and desirable to have in place by 2010?

Richie: Well, the most exciting movement towards one of our ideas in the last couple years, I'd say, or the one that's moving most surprisingly rapidly, is the idea of universal voter registration, which is the international norm. In some ways, the ACORN controversy right now is a great way to think about it. People are saying, "Oh, ACORN did all these false registrations, there's voter registration fraud," but the broader question is, why the heck do we have private groups doing so much voter registration? Well, the answer is, because the government doesn't do it. And that's not what's the norm; the norm is, it's the government's responsibility to run good elections. And to run good elections, you've got to get people registered that might vote and make sure they're only registered once. You do those two things, you're ready....

I also think there are some opportunities as we go closer into the 2011 redistricting, for at least a look into whether we can make that process better. There's different components of what that might look like. That's another thing that Senator Obama has talked about, and Senator [John] McCain -- both have talked about redistricting as something that should be reformed.

We have a take that ultimately we need to go to some type of multiseat-district system, which actually Barack Obama's state, the state of Illinois, used to use for its state House of Representatives, where you had three members rather than one and a system where it took about a third of the vote to win one out of three seats. You could end up with not red and blue districts but kind of purple districts, different shades of purple, like a 2-1 district for one party or a 2-1 for another. And then every voter would have this opportunity to have a stake in the election, because they almost always would be able to elect someone they like. I think that we're going to have a Congress and probably a president who is at least open to having that conversation.

Q: Speaking of the House, we talked about the chances of an Obama landslide, or relative landslide. But there are also scenarios under which they each end up with 269 and the race would go to the House. Would that be a fair resolution?

Richie: It's nutty. I think it's actually utterly indefensible, not just the fact that the House votes but the way they vote, which I think a lot of people don't realize. They sort of assume there will always be a natural majority in the House that can pick a winner, but in fact that's not true, because it's one vote per state, and you've got to get 26 state delegations to give an affirmative yes vote or else you don't have a president.

Right now, we have a pretty close balance. I think Democrats have 26 delegations, but one of those is South Dakota, and [Stephanie] Hersethhas already said -- I don't know if she said it again this year, but she said it back when she first ran -- that if she were ever in this scenario, she'd vote the way her state votes. So then you knock off South Dakota, because that presumably would have voted for a Republican; now you're down to 25 states, and you need 26.... So one of the things I think that is interesting is whether defenders of the Electoral College will at least be willing to say there are certain aspects of it that don't make any sense, and that's one.

Q: I'll give you one other hypothetical. You've argued against the winner-take-all primary system. Do you think McCain would have won the nomination without that system?

Richie: He won prematurely, I think. He won without really being the certain majority pick of the party, and a lot of Republicans were gleeful there for a while because they were thinking, "Oh, the Democrats are beating each other up and we have our nominee, and he's a good general election nominee." But I think some of McCain's missteps were tied to the fact that he had never really made the case to his base -- kind of the enthusiasm factor was pretty low there for a long time in the Republican side. And I think if he'd had to keep working hard to win through a series of states, and then ultimately win a majority, if he did, that he would have been stronger. And if he couldn't make that case, then a nominee who might have been a more consensus nominee like, who knows, a Romney, or I don't know if it would have been [Mike] Huckabee -- but at least someone who more clearly, naturally, represented the party -- I think that they would have been better.

One thing that's interesting for 2012 is both parties have created a process to reform the schedule for 2012, and I think that that's kind of a side story, but one that we'll all be wildly talking about in 2011, 2012. We actually have a really good opportunity to make it better and look at that role. The Republicans in the past have supported proportional representation for all their states. Bill Brock's commissionin '99-2000 recommended that. I think maybe they'll have some second thoughts going into next year about how well the current system served them.

Q: How do you get this message out? Where, ultimately, will the political will to change these things come from?

Richie: I think the wedge of the national popular vote plan is a particularly interesting one because there's no complicated message to sell on that. There have been polls in the states where this has been most seriously debated... consistently 70, 75 percent of people are for the national popular vote over the current system. And it includes battlegrounds, small states, whatever; different kinds of states feel that way.

I think that if and when that moves forward -- and let's say in 2010 it's looking very likely that that's going to be the way we elect the president in 2012 -- I think that, one, that will make people realize that change can happen in the United States for a pretty big thing that we all notice. And, two, people will say, "Oh that's interesting -- our votes are going to be pooled together and count together for the first time. Well, that means we should maybe have a better voter registration system. Maybe that means we should have a better way to make sure we don't have lines and complicated problems in certain states." It will kind of be, I think, a push for higher standards and a greater investment in voting around the country. And, I think, an opportunity to say, "Well, what else should we do?"