Electoral Logic

09/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Peter A. Ubel Physician and Behavioral Scientist at the University of Michigan

We are in the midst of what will certainly be the most expensive presidential campaign in history. The political powers are already inundating us with negative ads. The candidates are flying around the country in a frenzy, holding events and rallies with their partisan flocks. And the parties are putting finishing touches on their made-for-TV conventions, each of which will cost millions of dollars only to give the respective candidates a temporary boost in the polls.

Am I the only person who finds this process horribly inefficient? Why so much money, energy and time just to leave us with another election that will be determined by anti-Castro Cubans in Florida and exurban evangelicals in Ohio?

Fortunately, there is a better way, a truly American way to maximize the efficiency of the campaign. No, I'm not talking about settling the race with a hot dog eating contest. (My money would be on McCain.) Instead, I'm referring to a Scalia-like return to the Constitution, to the spirit of our founding fathers. I'm talking about taking the Electoral College to its logical conclusion, and awarding Electoral College votes not state-by-state, but county-by-county. My bold plan will give Americans what they want -- the Constitutional right to remain blissfully ignorant about presidential politics. At the same time, it will allow a small cadre of voters to become energized by politics, because their concerns will actually matter to the candidates.

Let me briefly illustrate this plan.

I live in Michigan, a swing state that will be overrun by the campaigns well before November. As a Michigander (or, as some prefer, a Michiganian -- unless you are from the Upper Pennisula, then you are a Yooper and everyone else is a Troll -- because they live "under the bridge," but I digress), I'll be forced to unplug my phone and turn off my radios and TVs, to avoid the robo-calls and incessant advertisements that will inundate my unfortunate state come November. A county-based Electoral College plan would relieve me of this burden. My home is in Ann Arbor, you see, which is solidly Democratic; thus, under a county-based electoral plan, my neighbors and I will be robo-call free. My friends in Saline, a heavily Republican area, will also be spared. Detroit, Traverse City, East Lansing, and a few other Democratic strongholds -- off the hook. Rural Michigan, a consistent Republican bastion -- virtually ignored by the campaigns.

By my estimate, there would be only a couple counties in the entire state of Michigan up for grabs, with a total population of around 1500 voters. Assuming other states are like Michigan, and recognizing that Michigan has a larger population than most states, I roughly calculate that the county-based electoral College will leave the choice of our next president of the hands of 63,171 people (plus or minus 73 people, given the current rate of foreclosures).

Think about how efficient our campaigns would be if the candidates spent their time courting only these 63,000 people. The campaigns would quickly abandon television and radio ads, recognize that most of the advertisement revenue would be wasted on voters like me, who live in uncontested counties. Rallies in sports stadiums, town hall meetings in elks clubs -- these, too, would be abandoned in favor of campaign events that targeted the "Swingin' 63K."

Even the political conventions would be more efficient with this plan, as each campaign would abandon its delegates in favor of flying the 63,171 "people who matter" into Colorado and Minnesota respectively, to court them up close.

Some people will no doubt complain that this county-based system abandons the idea of one person one vote. That it disenfranchises too many Americans. But it is the current system that disenfranchises voters. In our current system, Californians and Texans, New Yorkers and Louisianans, Montananites (you know, the people who wear those cool hats) and Mississippians, ... all would be irrelevant to presidential politics, and thus their specific needs are ignored. A county-based Electoral College system would force campaigns to address issues in each of the 50 states (except North Dakota, according to my most recent analyses, where only one county is up for grabs with a total of seven voters; no system is perfect, alas).

What's more, the new system, by focusing on such a small number of voters, would inevitably raise the quality of political debates. Like Iowans before the presidential primary, these voters would become extremely knowledgeable about politics. Heck, a good portion of them would have time for one-on-one meetings with the candidates, looking them in the eye to ask them unvetted questions (a chance to find someone to replace George Stephanopoulos on Sunday mornings), maybe even bowling with them (although the Obama campaign may try to interest them in a friendly game of H-O-R-S-E instead).

Disenfranchised? If that means being able to avoid negative campaign ads and dinner-thwarting robo-calls, then please disenfranchise me! Thanks to the Electoral College, the majority of Americans who go to the polls in November will cast meaningless votes, for candidates who have ignored their states in favor of a handful of swing states. Clearly the founding fathers, in creating the Electoral College, had a desire to make presidential campaigning more efficient. We owe it to these great men, then, to take their initial inspiration to its logical conclusion, and make the process even more efficient. It is time to make almost everyone's votes meaningless, so the Swingin' 63K can do the important work of educating themselves about the candidates, and choosing our next president.