The Electoral College is an ethereal American institution, much cherished but oft-maligned. But criticism of the college would abate if we updated its functionality.
Currently, the United States president is selected by electors from each state and the District of Columbia. The number of electors for each state equals the number of their senators and congressional representatives - plus three electors for Washington - which totals 538. Their powers derive from the Constitution, Article II, Section I, but each state determines how electors are chosen and how they function.
In 48 states and Washington, electoral votes are cast on an all-or-nothing basis for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state. In New Jersey, for example, 41 percent of the voters have, in effect, no say in the electoral math of their home state. Only Nebraska and Maine use a variant proportional system.
On Dec. 17, electors in every other state will meet in their home states to award their votes to the candidate who won their state.
There have been criticisms, major and long-standing, of the present format and its consequences.
It is argued that swing states and their special issues receive the bulk of attention in campaigns, to the neglect of rest of the nation. In effect, swing states elect the president.
Because of this, voter turnout is suppressed and apathy becomes an ever-deepening problem.
The third popular criticism is that the candidate selected by the Electoral College may not be the victor in the popular voting.
These concerns, and most others, would be addressed if states required proportional voting in the Electoral College. Under that system, each candidate gets a share of the vote equal to their percentage of the popular vote. Just last week, a Pennsylvania legislator introduced a bill calling for proportional electoral voting in that state. Hopefully, other states will follow suit, as the system works best when all join in.
No Constitutional amendment is required, and this non-partisan plan is gaining traction on the internet. (facebook.com/Count My Vote and Experts123.com/a/CountMyVote.html)
The greatest advantage of this plan is that it retains the Founders' wisdom, which has installed the United States as the most-effective and longest-lasting experiment in self-government in history. It continues their system in which the states retain a check on the central government's power.
Each state has its own culture, pride, personality, and peculiar political and social issues that fit into a national dialogue of pubic policy. With a reformed Electoral College, that dialogue will be strengthened in future campaigns because every vote in every state will be consequential. Swing-state presidents will be no more.
A second advantage of the reform plan embodies the wisdom of the Founders as set forth in Federalist Paper No. 10, which addressed the danger of popular pressure in a democracy. James Madison, its author, feared the tyranny of the majority, as well as that of the elites. He warned that we should not vote on public policy by national plebescites. It is now possible to do this with computer voting on every important issue, including the presidency. But then the right of the states to determine many significant issues, such as gay marriage or Medicaid expansion, would be eliminated.
A third advantage would be increased voter turnout, since every vote counts. Proportional electoral voting doesn't absolutely guarantee popular election of the president. Currently, however, with the typical 60 percent turnout in a presidential election, a majority candidate might win with the approval of only 31 percent of eligible voters. This is a democracy edging toward extinction.
When you factor in the swing-state effect, a very small electorate decides the presidency. This office is the most powerful in the world. There should be many challenges to meet in order to obtain it.
If the reform plan were in effect for this past election, how would the results look? Well, with rounding to whole numbers (other methods may be devised), the electoral count would be Obama 276, Romney 262, much more reflective of the tight race. In the two closest swing states, results would be: Florida, Obama 15, Romney 14; Ohio, Obama 10, Romney 8.
Now look at the effect in the big, currently "safe" states. Instead of winner-take-all, it would be: California 34-21 for Obama; Texas 22-16 for Romney; New York, 19-10 for Obama. In Pennsylvania, it would be 11-9 for Obama.
Even in the reliable small states such as Vermont and Wyoming, the loser gets one of three electoral votes.
In New Jersey, the proportional vote would be 8-6 for Obama.
If you want a reformed Electoral College, petition your state lawmakers to enact this plan. It gives more power and value to the popular vote, while protecting state power.
Check and balanced!
Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of social science at Stevens Institute of Technology. Readers can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org