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Alter: C.A. GOP, N.C. Dems trying to steal elections?

Sunday, August 5th, 2007

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter calls out what he deems the “mischief” of gerrymandering and two current plans by Democratic and Republican politicians in North Carolina and California, respectively, which, he writes, attempt to “rig admission to the Electoral College for strictly partisan purposes.” Both plans would award candidates presidential electoral votes based on the number of congressional districts they win. In California, the attempt – a ballot initiative – may not be constitutional.

Alter explains why he thinks change would make certain votes “count” for more than others – and his own plan for direct election of the president by popular vote without having to amend the Constitution – after the jump.

Presumably, the argument to voters in TV ads would be to “make your vote count” and bring the presidential candidates back to California, which has been so reliably Democratic in recent elections that it receives few postprimary visits from candidates in either party. The Democrats would likely counter by saying that Republicans are trying a backhanded way to corrupt the election. With the presidential nominations settled by the time the initiative would be put up to vote, expect big money to be spent on both sides trying to win over the wild cards of California politics—the millions of independents.

Congressional districts, whose lines are drawn by backroom deals, are a weak structure for picking a president. With only three or four of California’s districts up for grabs (as a result of gerrymandering, which keeps them noncompetitive), the state would be visited by the candidates only slightly more often under the Hiltachk plan than under the status quo. And if the idea was somehow adopted nationally, it would mean competing for votes in only about 60 far-flung congressional districts—roughly 7 percent of the country. Everyone else’s vote would not “count,” if you want to look at it that way.

The monkey business underway this month in North Carolina is just as egregious—though with only three or four electoral votes at stake, probably less consequential. Democrats, who usually lose the state in presidential contests but control the legislature and the governor’s mansion, make no secret of their desire to win partisan advantage by going to the congressional-district formula.

At least in North Carolina it’s clearly constitutional. Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that the selection of electors is up to state legislatures “in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” When power is delegated to the electorate in referenda, the legal authority gets fuzzy; the Constitution, of course, supersedes state law. In any event, the Hiltachk referendum will face a challenge in court.

Is there a better way to make every vote count? Yes, and it doesn’t require a constitutional amendment abolishing the Electoral College. All it would take is some good mischief in state legislatures. In February, a bipartisan coalition of former senators led by Birch Bayh, Jake Garn and Dave Durenberger unveiled a campaign for a national popular vote. Under the plan, state legislatures would pass bills that pledged to award their state’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. It’s not clear which party this would help, but if adopted by as few as 11 states, it would guarantee that the candidate with the most votes actually won the election. Anybody got a problem with that?

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