Many changes are needed to strengthen American democracy, but the manner in which we choose our president stands near the top of the list.
The Electoral College's "winner take all" approach in 48 of 50 states effectively disenfranchises voters in any state which consistently leans towards one party or the other in presidential elections. If 51 percent of the voters in a state vote for the Republican (or Democratic) candidate, then all of that state's electors are awarded to the victorious candidate. Thus, minority party voters in historically one-sided states have their votes rendered meaningless. In my home state of Kansas, which votes predictably Republican in national elections, the Democratic voters are second-class citizens. The same is true for Republican voters in states like New York. This violates a basic tenet of democratic government; all votes should count the same when it comes to electing the leader of our country.
The net effect is campaigns, in using their resources based on political reality, focus their attention and candidate visits on a handful of purple states, or "battleground" states, where the outcome in that state is uncertain. The other 40 odd states are treated like non-voting territories, with the exception of occasional visits at fundraisers. In this system there is simply no point for a presidential candidate to traipse around a state where one party's dominance leaves no earthly question as to which candidate will win a majority of the vote and thus all of the state's electoral votes. And the record on this point is clear; this year 93 percent of all campaign spending on TV advertising has occurred in just nine states.
Of course voters in battleground states like Ohio or Virginia are feeling really special. But as a Kansan, I think the voters back home get as much attention from the presidential candidates in the general election as people on Mars (there is probably more attention there because of the recently landed rover). This also has profoundly negative consequences for down ballot elections in those effectively disenfranchised states, making it more difficult for both party's candidates at the congressional and state legislative levels to run competitive and well financed campaigns. The process also discourages newer faces entering our political system.
I also believe that the winner-take-all system discourages turnout and depresses civic engagement across the country. American voters go to the polls in record low numbers compared to most of the other world's democracies. With rising partisanship in the electorate, fewer and fewer states qualify as battleground states each cycle and American voter apathy increases. Citizens are rational actors and understand the system and how they are disenfranchised from it.
So what can be done to fix the way we elect our president? The best choice would be to simply abolish the Electoral College, and replace it with a pure popular vote for president, giving Americans in every state equal power to select the country's leader. This would be a giant step towards a better democracy. But that would require a constitutional amendment and, barring a major crisis, the political obstacles to such an amendment now seem too great to overcome. Instead, states can do as Maine and Nebraksa have done under current law and designate their electors by congressional district on a winner-take-all basis. There are many viable options being discussed to revise this process and all of them should be on the table.
Perhaps if this presidential election gives the victory to a candidate who has won the majority of the electoral college votes but lost the popular vote the public might be outraged enough to demand that political leaders work up an alternative to the status quo. The same is true if there is a tie in the Electoral College and the decision goes to the House of Representatives, at which point each state has one vote, so North Dakota has the same impact on the election as California. Now that is real democracy!
These are not just abstract questions that political scientists can pontificate about. With 80 percent of the states effectively disenfranchised from the system, the essence of our participatory democracy is at stake. The election for president is going to be very close. Another election where the winner in the Electoral College vote and the national popular vote differ will further erode our nation's confidence in the resiliency and strength of our political system. At this point, how much more erosion can we withstand?
Here is the bottom line: our democratic institutions and national vitality require a change in this antiquated and potentially dangerous system. All citizens deserve an equal chance, and equal power, to participate in the election of our president. There is no perfect solution, but the Founders realized that change in our system of government would be periodically necessary to maintain the vibrancy of our democracy. That change is needed now.