It’s possible that President Obama will lose the popular vote but be re-elected by winning a majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.
Would you Republicans be OK with that?
Or there could be a repeat of 2000 – when the Republican, George W. Bush, beat the Democrat, Al Gore, after Gore won more votes. Would you Democrats be OK with that?
There also could be a tie, 269 to 269. Then, according to the Constitution, the election would be decided in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which means Mitt Romney would win.
That’s the Electoral College. We don’t actually elect presidents by popular vote. Instead, each state has a certain number of electors chosen by the parties. Arkansas has six. When voters go to the polls, they are actually choosing those electors, who will meet state by state Dec. 17 to cast their ballots. Electors traditionally rubber-stamp the results of the popular vote, but nothing in the Constitution says they must.
Every four years, Americans are reminded that the "one person, one vote" principle doesn’t apply to the office they care most about. And every four years, they’re told the Electoral College has always worked in the past, that it protects states, particularly small ones like Arkansas, and that it prevents a chaotic national recount that would occur in a close election such as the one in 2000.
That last point is correct, which is why the Electoral College should be kept, but fixed. More on that in a moment.
What’s wrong with the current system? Start with the fact that we the people don’t actually elect the president. Don’t you think we should?
Then there’s the way electoral votes are awarded. In every state but Nebraska and Maine, a candidate wins all of a state’s electoral votes no matter the margin of victory in the popular vote.
A candidate therefore can lose big in a lot of states and barely win in a few states and be elected, which is why, four times in history, the loser of the popular vote ended up in the Oval Office. In fact, a candidate can win the presidency by narrowly winning the 11 biggest states and not even be on the ballot in the other 39.
So much for protecting small states.
Meanwhile, many states now vote so reliably Republican (red) or Democrat (blue) that the candidates don’t even bother campaigning in them. Arkansas is a red state. Its six Electoral College votes already have been counted by Romney and discounted by Obama. That’s why Obama hasn’t been here since 2006, while Romney has dropped in once just prior to claiming the GOP nomination to give a quick speech and meet with donors.
Instead, they’re both spending time where the action is: Swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
You think that won’t have an effect after the election?
Republicans who defend the Electoral College should know the map is not in their favor because of one state: Texas.
A presidential candidate needs 270 votes to win the presidency. Democrats start every election with 84 votes in their hip pocket in California and New York. Republicans counter with Texas’ 38.
But while Texas is very red right now, it soon may not be. Hispanics now comprise 38 percent of that state’s population. As a group, they are poor and young, two demographic factors that depress voter turnout. But as time passes, they’ll get richer and older, and when they do, they’ll start voting in greater numbers. When they do, they’ll lean Democratic. According to one recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo poll, Obama leads Romney among that demographic, 70-25.
That means Texas may be a swing state before too long. If it were to swing toward the Democrats in a particular election, that would give the party 122 votes counting California and New York – almost half needed to win.
I started this column saying the Electoral College should be reformed, not scrapped. Three simple changes are needed. First, replace the winner-take-all system with a proportional one like in Maine and Nebraska so that each state’s electoral votes mirror the popular vote. In other words, if a candidate gets 50 percent of the popular vote, he or she gets half the state’s electoral votes.
Second, because Arkansas’ six votes are too few to proportion accurately (how many does the winner get with 57 percent of the popular vote?), the second change needed is to multiply each state’s current number of electoral votes by 10.
With those two changes, future candidates would chase a share of each state’s votes – including Arkansas’ 60 – instead of focusing on all the votes of only a dozen states, as they do now.
Finally, count electoral votes, but don’t have human electors.
Remember the scenario at the top of this column where a 269-269 tie goes to the House? It doesn’t have to reach that point.
If there is a tie this year, the campaigns would turn their attention to the 538 electors. Can you imagine the promises that would be made to try to convince one to flip?
If that happened, one American would choose the next leader of the free world.
That’s one person, one very big vote.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org