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The Broken Electoral College: Tale of Two Carolinas

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I wrote this piece with my colleague Andie Levien. It addresses how our antiquated Electoral College rules allow a mere four-percent vote shift to make all the difference in how a state's voters experience the presidential election.

President Barack Obama owes a lot to the Democrats of South Carolina. After his breakthrough win in the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, he lost to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire and broke even in the Nevada caucuses. South Carolina represented the last sanctioned primary before 22 states voted on February 5th. With Clinton's greater name recognition and national connections, Obama needed to reverse his momentum to avoid falling hopelessly behind. South Carolina Democrats voted for him by a landslide, with Obama securing 55 percent of the vote to Clinton's 27 percent.

In his efforts to secure this victory, Obama campaigned vigorously in South Carolina prior to its primary, holding more than 40 events across the state. But after his landslide win, he hasn't been back.

Not once.

While Obama has made numerous trips to North Carolina -- including five events in the last two months of the 2008 general election and 15 public events and three private events as president -- he has not visited its southern neighbor. He did not return last week, even though he accepted the Democratic nomination in Charlotte, just ten miles from the South Carolina border. The president has visited South Korea more than South Carolina.

The issue takes on an added poignancy given Obama's status as the first African-American president. South Carolina ranks third among states in its percentage of African Americans. But as in several other states in that list's top ten, including Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee, Obama lost to John McCain in 2008.

In South Carolina, for example, McCain won 54 percent to 45 percent. The president did only 4 percent better in North Carolina -- increasing his percentage from 45 percent to 49 percent -- but that increase was enough to deliver him a narrow win and all of the state's electoral votes.

The vastly differing ways Obama's political team treats North Carolina and South Carolina helps to highlight how state laws governing the Electoral College hurt most states. As with 46 other states (all except Nebraska and Maine), the Carolinas have passed "winner take all" laws to allocate all their electoral votes to the popular vote winner in their state -- an approach to allocating electoral votes that was criticized by early American leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, but which allows a state's majority party to maximize its partisan advantage.

Once a state has a winner-take-all rule, major party campaigns will focus resources on that state only if their candidate is not comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. States must be within a "tipping point" range of about 46-54 percent in order for a campaign to decide to spend tens of millions of dollars of ad money and send their candidate there. Once a state is categorized as outside that competitive zone, resources devoted to that state will plunge -- voters go from being wooed with intensive polling, field organizing, and campaign ads to hearing absolutely nothing except requests for donations to be spent in other states.

North Carolina has 15 electoral votes compared to South Carolina's nine, but that's not what matters to campaigns. What matters is that in 2008 Obama won North Carolina, but fell 9 percent short in South Carolina. Given that few expect Obama this year to exceed his 2008 advantage in the national popular vote, his vote percentages are likely to decline in most states. That makes it easy to give up on winning over South Carolina's undecided voters, or to encourage more turnout on Election Day.

South Carolina Republicans have also been ignored after their primaries, of course. John McCain's victory in 2008 was critically important to his securing the nomination, but he didn't visit the state in the general election either. South Carolina voters in November 2008 were as politically irrelevant as voters in the 40 states that have been written off this year because of the cold political calculus that comes with the winner take all rule. This inequality leads to lower turnout and less civic engagement.

The National Popular Vote plan, an interstate agreement that has already been passed into law in states representing nearly a quarter of Americans, would end the kind of gross inequality among states we see in current presidential elections. Once passed into law, law in states controlling at least 270 electoral votes, participating states would award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, rather than the individual state's winner. Under this system, South Carolina voters would be as valued as voters from North Carolina -- as they should be in a nation that prizes accountability and the democratic principle of "one person, one vote."