02/04/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

Monkeying Around With Democracy

Extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress have contributed to increasing public disgust with "politics as usual." Much of this occurs because drawing the lines of Congressional districts, a process usually controlled by the party that controls the state legislature, has led to increasingly safe voting districts, where a Democrat or a Republican has a considerable advantage in getting elected because that party predominates in the district. Running in a safe district allows the candidate to take extreme positions - both while campaigning and in congress - without fear of losing when re-election time comes.

In the run-up to the last presidential election, the attractiveness of using one's power in state legislatures to play around with the conduct of elections led beyond creating safe districts to laws to prevent voter fraud (when evidence of significant voter fraud was lacking). Some states also passed laws to limit the hours of early voting with the expectation that this would create such long lines that some people would give up.

Now we are seeing proposals, such as in Virginia and Wisconsin, to change how the Electoral College operates in a state. The proposals would change the "winner take all" electoral college system into one in which the candidate who wins a congressional district gets the electoral vote for that district. In the case of Virginia, in the 2012 election that would have meant that Barack Obama, who won all 13 electoral votes, would have gotten only four - since Democrats are heavily packed into more urban districts which he won by large margins.

Republicans are being accused of spearheading many of these changes because they failed to win the last two presidential elections but control the majority of state legislatures. But Democrats are not immune. Indeed, according to press reports, when they were losing Virginia in presidential contests, they supported the same electoral college change for their state that Republicans now advance.

There is not much new under the sun. After all, Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill in 1812 to change his state's senate districts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party, and thus gave us the term "gerrymandering". But that does not mean the practice is healthy for democracy, especially as it gets more sophisticated (using technology) and more controlled by increasingly party-dominant states.

We need a yardstick to measure the value to democracy - not political parties - of any proposed change in electoral laws. That yardstick ought to include whether the change strengthens or diminishes majority rule and trust in government - in the long term.

By that yardstick, proposals to award electoral votes by Congressional district rather than "winner take all" fall short. First, if the current Virginia proposal had been in effect for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney would have won nine of thirteen electoral college votes while losing the popular vote by nearly 150,000. According to press projections, if the Virginia proposal had been in effect in all fifty states, Romney would have won the electoral college and thus the presidency while losing the popular vote by five million votes.

Second, awarding electoral votes via the "Virginia plan" could well lead to narrowing a presidential campaign to a small number of Congressional districts. For example, in the 2000 presidential election, according to Congressional Quarterly, 359 of 435 districts were "safe." Would a presidential candidate even bother to campaign in those districts if there were almost no chance of winning them? Indeed, the outcome of a presidential election might be almost guaranteed before campaigning began. What would that do for democracy, in which contesting views and the energy created by campaigns are vital stimulants to citizen commitment and activism? Admittedly, campaigning now is mostly confined to swing states, which is not that healthy either. But would confining it to swing districts be a valuable improvement?

Third, awarding electoral votes by congressional district would create an incentive for even more gerrymandering. Not only would drawing district lines to favor one party now "guarantee" a seat in Congress, it could lock up an electoral vote. Instead of 80 percent of districts being "safe," that number could go up, leading to even more extreme partisanship than we have already.

Fourth, the "Virginia plan" might well lead to throwing presidential elections into the House of Representatives. In the last election, Ron Paul, the passionate libertarian, withdrew from the race because he could not get the Republican nomination. But what if he didn't need it? He could run as a third party candidate with the assurance of gaining some electoral votes in districts where he had strong support. So could a "Ralph Nader" candidate on the left. The result might well be that no candidate gets a majority of the electoral college. Under the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives then has to choose the President. That would not exactly breed confidence and trust in majority rule.

Fifth, one advantage of the electoral college, that way it now operates, is that it ensures the person elected president has a majority of the electoral college votes. That's at least one kind of mandate. But a president selected by the House and who received less than a majority of the electoral college enters office without much of a mandate at all.

While going to the proportional awarding of electoral college votes in a state sounds "more democratic" than winner-take-all, that does not mean it would enhance democracy. The fact that only one political party, whether Democrat or Republican, waves the flag for reform ought to give us pause. Changing election laws solely to give that party an advantage adds fuel to the fire of national anger over politics in America.