Richie's May 9th Democracy Minute: The Ever-Shrinking Presidential Battleground

by Rob Richie // Published May 9, 2011

Video of the day: Vermont governor signs the National Popular Vote legislation, with commentary from a range of backers of the proposal.

Full minute: Republican political guru Karl Rove has a new Wall Street Journal commentary analyzing the 2012 presidential election and the role of the Electoral College as currently organized by states. One can agree with or challenge his math about Republican prospects, but one thing you can’t challenge is his acceptance of the field of play being so small– and so familiar as to which states’ voters count in contrast with the large majority who are just window-dressing from the campaigns' perspective.

Rove certainly knows how to win campaigns with current Electoral College rules, having played a key role in George Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. One of his senior campaign colleagues in 2004 was Matthew Dowd. In August 2004, Dowd said that the Bush campaign hadn’t done a single poll outside of 18 states in more than two years. So think about it – one of the best-funded campaigns in history didn’t need to know what a single person in 32 states and D.C. thought about any issue. Is that American democracy as we want it to be?

Looking to 2012, Rove now sees only 14 states in play. Going through his list, there are no surprises. They’re all among the 15 states that in the fall of 2008 earned more than 98% of campaign spending and more than 98% of campaign events. If you weren't a voter in one of those states, you were left to make donations, contact voters that mattered in the swing states and work on your cheerleading skills. But you could not participate in a meaningful election on an equal basis with the favored Americans in the Florida, Ohio and the usual swing state crew.

The root of this problem with today's presidential elections is the winner-take-all rule established by statute in nearly every state. With a winner-take-all system, campaign activity is irrelevant once it’s clear which candidate is going to win that state. In a state that is projected to go 56% to 44%, moving your share of the vote from 44% to 46% or from 56% to 58% doesn’t mean anything, and the campaigns don't try to do it. We see the same problem in U.S. House elections, the great majority of which are never to be competitive due to winner-take-all and thereby make political participation meaningless in any real sense. And that’s not how democracy should be.

FairVote's reform solutions are the National Popular Vote plan for president and proportional voting systems for legislative elections. See a brand new video from National Popular Vote on the most recent state win in Vermont (one where our former staffer Chris Pearson provided key support as a state legislator) and our latest “super district” congressional map showing how a modest proportional system could work in Indiana.

Instant runoff voting elections hearing in Maine and upcoming in 2011. Maine’s state legislature today is hearing testimony on legislation to enact instant runoff voting (IRV, or “ranked choice voting”) for elections for governor. Maine has had a series of gubernatorial elections won with well under 50%, including less than 40% in 2006 and 2010, with much talk of “spoilers” and potentially illegitimate winners. Here's an excerpt from a news release from Maine state representative Diane Russell:

Ranked choice voting (RCV) significantly reduces the spoiler candidate effect while increasing the marketplace of ideas in elections.Voters rank candidates in order of preference, and their votes are initially allocated to their first choice candidate. If after this initial count no candidate has a majority of votes cast, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and votes for that candidate are redistributed according to the voters' second preferences. This process continues until one candidate receives more than half of all votes cast, upon which they are declared the winner.

"Maine has a long history of viable independent and third-party candidates. Ranked voting preserves that rich tradition while ensuring  governors are elected with a mandate from the voters to implement their agenda," said Rep. Diane Russell who sponsored the bill. "We should be encouraging a marketplace of ideas while avoiding the spoiler effect."

Governor LePage was elected with 38.33% of the vote and Governor Baldacci was elected with 47.15% in his first term and 38.11% in his second. Governor King is the only recent governor to be elected with a majority, earning 58.61% in his second term. In his first term, he was elected with 35.37%.

Among IRV in the United States this year are mayoral elections in Maine’s largest city of Portland and in San Francisco (CA), Telluride (CO) and Takoma Park (MD). IRV also will be used in city elections in St. Paul (MN) and Hendersonville (NC) and for a firehouse primary” held by the Democratic Party in Charlottesville (VA). Winners of Charlottesville’s firehouse primaries with IRV all won in 2009 and will be favored this year. See recent coverage on the upcoming IRV elections in Charlottesville, San Francisco and Portland.

And that’s our minute.