Things To Act
Wednesday, June 16, 2004
The Electoral College Meets Direct Democracy (Meets National Partisan Politics)
While this issue's been on my radar for a week or so [sometimes, at least, I get to read interesting things at work], it's starting to appear on others' radars as well, getting mentions on sources as diverse as Kausfiles, RealClearPolitics, and PoliticalWire. So I'll finally get around to posting about it.

Briefly, out-of-state financial backers are trying to put an initiative on the ballot in Colorado to switch the way the state's electoral votes are allocated to proportional representation. Colorado papers provide an article and two editorials (both opposed). Punditry therefore requires that we try to predict what happens next.

In the short term, assuming the backers get enough signatures and survive all legal challenges, the measure will have an effect on the 2004 presidential election (thanks to an ex post facto clause). Colorado is currently considered safe for Bush, who won it by 9 points in 2000. Assuming a similar spread in 2004, under the initiative, Bush would likely get 5 electoral votes to Kerry's 4. If all states voted the same as in 2000, Bush would still win (thanks to population shifts and redistricting), but if battleground states break differently in a close race, interesting things could happen (either NV or WV going Dem would leave a perfect tie in the College with a probable Bush victory in the House, for instance, but AR switching Dem would let Kerry win outright). In any event, such a scenario gives the temporary advantage to the Democrats.

Now one can argue that Colorado's voters, preferring President Bush, might be smart enough to realize that the initiative works against their interests, and vote it down. However, a surprising number of silly initiatives get passed by the voters anyway, and the rhetoric surrounding this issue combined with a slick ad campaign just might convince the voters that unilaterally disarming in the Electoral College games might be worth it. But that slick ad campaign has to come from somewhere, and unless I miss my guess, Democratic leaders might be a tad reluctant to start pouring in the cash.

The first (and obvious) reason for this is California. If this passes in Colorado (and especially if Bush loses the election because it passes in Colorado), it can certainly pass in California, and there will likely be no shortage of Republican money to assure that it's on the ballot with overwhelming "yes" campaign funds well in time for 2008 (it's already too late for 2004). Republicans' loss of 4 of Colorado's electoral votes would hit hard in a close election, but Democrats' lose of something on the order of 25 electoral votes in California would leave them in far worse shape.

But let's assume that Democratic leaders can't kill the CO campaign, and the situation escalates. Once California goes, the next logical move would be for the Democrats to put the issue on the ballot in all the other Red states with the initiative. Following which the Republicans could try the same in Blue states (we'll assume for the sake of argument that by this time state leaders won't be able to kill the issue even in states strongly dominated by one party). And if we assume that the battleground initiative states get caught up in this as well, when the dust settles (possibly by the 2012 election), we could have proportional division of electoral college votes in 24 states. Who benefits?

Running some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations, the Republicans seem to come out way ahead. Assuming that all initiative states vote the same percentages as they did for Bush and Gore in 2000, and following strict rounding, we get an approximation of how many electoral votes each party could expect under the new system. We whimsically assume that Maine and Nebraska, despite following the congressional district plan already, switch to straight proportional division, but we ignore DC (though it has the initiative) both because Gore won overwhelmingly enough to get all 3 votes even under PR, and because we're too lazy to consider how easy it would be for Congress to override any such initiative. The numbers are as follows:

11 non-initiative states are reliably Republican [TX (34), KS (6), LA (9), IN (11), KY (8), VA (13), TN (11), NC (15), SC (8), AL (9), GA (15)] for a total of 139 electoral votes.

9 non-initiative states/districts are reliably Democratic [HI (4), NY (31), VT (3), MD (10), DE (3), NJ (15), DC (3), RI (4), CT (7)] for a total of 80 electoral votes.

7 non-initiative states are battleground states [NM (5), IA (7), MN (10), WI (10), WV (5), PA (21), NH (4)] for a total of 62 electoral votes.

11 initiative states are reliably Republican [AK (3), ID (4), UT (5), MT (3), WY (3), CO (9), ND (3), SD (3), NE (5), OK (7), MS (6)] with a total of 51 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 33 Republican and 18 Democratic (with MS and UT rounding just barely breaking for Republicans).

3 initiative states are reliably Democratic [CA (55), IL (21), MA (12)] with a total of 88 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 37 Republican and 51 Democratic under a simplified scenario. Nader actually would have gotten two of CA's votes in 2000 (one from each party), and CA would probably be much more in play than most smaller states, so these numbers could probably swing more than the others. But we're working back-of-the-envelope.

10 initiative states are battleground states [WA (11), OR (7), NV (5), AZ (10), AK (6), MO (11), OH (20), MI (17), ME (4), FL (27)] with a total of 118 electoral votes. Under PR, these would split 59 Republican and 59 Democratic (with close rounding breaking Blue in OR and Red in FL (barely)).

Now follow the bouncing ball. Under the current setup, Republican safe states include 139 + 51 = 190 electoral votes, and Democratic safe states include 80 + 88 = 168 electoral votes. This leaves battleground states with 62 + 118 = 180 electoral votes (which gives 190 + 168 + 180 = 538 electoral votes, of which 270 are needed to win, and so our math checks). Thus, under the current setup, Republicans start with a base of 190 and need to win 80/180 (44%) of the battleground votes to win. Democrats start with a base of 168 and need to win 102/180 (57%) of the battleground votes to win.

Under a PR setup in the initiative states, following our back-of-the-envelope calculations above, Republicans would get 139 + 33 + 37 + 59 = 268 electoral votes! Democrats would get 80 + 18 + 51 + 59 = 208 electoral votes. 62 electoral votes would be left over in our 7 non-initiative battleground states (and television stations in those states would make a bundle every four years). Republicans would have to win just one of those seven states to win the election outright, while Democrats would have to hold all seven to win (of the seven, Bush carried WV and NH in 2000, but the other 5 went for Gore, so it's not totally hopeless, just quite hard). And don't forget the 2 CA votes Nader might have gotten. If he did, then our hapless Democratic candidate can only get 207 + 62 = 269 electoral votes (assuming all our other close calls broke the same way), and the election goes to the House unless he can cut a fast deal with Nader (the details of which he almost certainly won't like).

Now the fact is that some of those close calls might break the other way (with sufficient campaigning). And of course, population shifts and ideological trends will render this analysis obsolete all too soon (the post-2010 redistricting will certainly make a muddle of it). But my impression is that going down this road strongly disadvantages the Dems. In the current system, as they slug it out over a dozen and a half or so battleground states, they can afford to lose a few battles and still win the war. Under PR in initiative states, they could afford to lose far fewer battles. Given that a Republican retaliation is all but certain in CA at least, Dems would probably be wise to nip this one in the bud (and don't forget that once CA is in play, minor parties can make a credible grab for one or two electoral votes, which in an election as close as 2000 was could let them play spoiler).

Opinionjournal's Electoral College calculator and this page of 2000 election results were useful for performing above calculations. See initiative states here.

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