Electoral reform has crept into the fore of American politics again, as President Obama told the nation in his recent second inaugural address; "our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote." This statement was in reference to various changes in voting laws made and proposed throughout the country, primarily by Republicans, in preparation for Election Day back in November 2012.
Now that 2012 is over, about a week ago Republicans got started working on changes for 2016.
While both parties engage in shameless gerrymandering, Republicans have generally pursued two extra forms of electoral changes. First, they have sought to disenfranchise populations which reliably vote Democratic (minorities, college students, etc) by making voting requirements increasing and often unreasonably burdensome. Second, they have recently begun seeking to change the way states which often lean Democratic in president elections award their Electoral College votes.
Both types of changes present serious concerns to democracy. The first should be obvious — systematically creating disproportionate burdens on portions of the citizenry is inherently anti-democratic. On this point, former Secretary of State Colin Powell (R) recently stated, "the Republican Party should be a party that says, 'we want everybody to vote,' and make it easier for people to vote and give them a reason to vote for the party, and not to find ways to keep them from voting at all."
The second tactic — the change in the way individual states award Electoral College votes — is a bit subtler. At present, each state decides how to award their Electoral College votes. All states, save for the small Nebraska and Maine, presently engage in a "winner-take-all" system. Those two states award their vote by congressional district — and this is 'reform' being sought currently by Republicans across the country. While this may sound benign enough, the consequences could be deeply troubling. If Republicans in states like Virginia, California, or New York succeed — states that have gone blue in the national elections but have a lot of red in their legislatures — those states would also distribute their electoral votes by congressional district. What's the desired result? When a Republican wins a "red" state, the candidate would get all the votes. But when a Democrat wins one of these "blue" states, the candidate would only get a portion of the state's vote, leaving the Democrat to a sizeable disadvantage nationally.
While I have written elsewhere about the problems with the current system, Columbia University statistics and political science professor Andrew Gelman writes of the 2012 election, "Romney needed about 50.5% of the national two-party vote to have had a 50/50 chance of winning in the Electoral College." He notes that this is certainly a bias that should be fixed. However, Professor Gelman continues, "in contrast, the bias that would ensue if the electoral vote were conducted via congressional districts — that would be huge."
Electoral reform is often a dry, complicated subject. But make no mistake about its importance. Elections are the very processes by which We The People express our views, and as such require more attention from our generation. While our national (and many state) election laws are antiquated and in need of real reform, we must be vigilant of the consequences of those reforms. Concerns of fairness, accuracy and access should characterize electoral reform, not partisan maneuvering. That might smack of naiveté and idealism, but maybe it has to — our democracy depends on it.