As we closed in on Election Day 2012, there was increasing discussion of the possibility that President Obama might lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote, and thus be re-elected (a replay of the result in 2000 when President Bush won the presidency by winning the electoral vote while VP Al Gore lost the election though he won the popular vote). That’s an outcome that has occurred only three times in history, in 2000, in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote but handily won the electoral vote, and in 1876 when Rutherford B Hayes eked out a one electoral vote victory over Samuel Tilden, though Tilden won the popular vote by a three percentage point margin.
(In 1824 there was a free-for-all with four candidates splitting the vote and none getting an Electoral College majority. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives, which picked Andrew Jackson as president.)
This year, the possibility of an electoral vote tie was even posed, with the presidential victor to be named by the House while the VP would be named by the Senate. Fortunately, it didn’t happen, with President Obama prevailing in both the electoral vote (332 – 206 if Obama ends up winning Florida) and in the popular vote (50.3% - 48.1%).
Still, the election seemed to take place in only a dozen or so battleground states, with those of us in the other states barely knowing there was a presidential contest going on if not for all the emails asking for campaign donations. Here in California, though, we have the largest population of any state and with 55 electoral votes, the largest block of electoral votes in the country, we saw only a tiny amount of presidential campaigning. I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of presidential campaign TV commercials (all for Romney) that ran here in Sacramento. Yup, we were the cash cow for both candidates and (for the Obama campaign at least) the national campaign phone bank, but neither of the candidates spent a second of time campaigning here. It was much like that in the other states that were not in play.
Some have proposed solving this by eliminating the Electoral College, calling it a relic of a pre-industrial electorate long vanished from the American scene. Some have called for it to either be made ceremonial, by awarding electoral votes in proportion to each candidate’s popular vote, or by doing away with it all together. Doing so in modern times would have changed the result only in the 2000 Bush-Gore election, giving the victory to Al Gore who won the popular vote 48.4% to 47.9%.
But doing away with the Electoral College would also cause presidential campaigns to pay attention only to the most populous parts of the nation where the bulk of the popular vote is concentrated. In such a scenario, Nevada, which was a battleground state this year, would have hardly known a campaign was taking place. States like New Hampshire, with its four, and even Iowa, with its eight electoral votes, would have been in that same boat.
So, I’d suggest restructuring the presidential vote this way: determine the winner by adding the percentage of the popular vote each candidate wins to the percentage of each candidate’s electoral vote. That would weight the popular and the electoral vote 50-50. As a result, candidates would have to spend more time in populous areas (here in California we might see a presidential candidate at something other than a fundraiser). But less populous areas would still count because candidates would also need their electoral votes.
It is much like the way we allocate representation in Congress, making the House membership proportionate to the population of each state, but giving each state equal representation in the Senate. The effect would be to put more states in play in a presidential election and that to me would be a great benefit to all the American people.