Why do we tolerate elections in which only two states matter?

REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk
Republican presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida speaking at a campaign stop in Cleveland, Ohio, on August 5.

As regular readers of this space have sensed, your humble and obedient and ink-stained wretch is fairly obsessed with the vagaries of the U.S. system of politics and elections. Also governance, but that’s for another day.

And by “vagaries” I mean features that don’t work well and don’t make sense. I don’t delude myself that there is a perfect system, but I do believe that our system is ridiculously hard to change, that each of these bugs is beneficial to some faction that will be able to defend it, and that many Americans are so brainwashed about the alleged excellence of our system that they are disinclined to think seriously about how it could be improved.

That little diatribe summarizes a great deal of my previous expostulations, so let me get to the one about which I am fulminating the moment, namely the Ohio and Florida one.  

Political scientist and Brookings scholar William Galston published in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal a little analysis of the Republican presidential field titled “The Five Plausible GOP Candidates.” For reasons with which he is satisfied, Galston has discerned that 12 of the 17 declared candidates are implausible and the nominee will be chosen from among this five: Govs. John Kasich or Scott Walker, former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sens. Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. He seems fairly focused on Kasich and Bush.

He explains this in his piece (although you may have to be a WSJ subscriber to get past the paywall). I’m not so sure he’s right, but he’s smarter than me, and that’s not what set me off. In his last paragraph (and it’s also alluded to in the subheadline on the piece) he writes:

“From a Democratic standpoint, a moderate-conservative Republican ticket representing the two largest swing states would be cause for concern. In fact, Bush-Kasich would be scary. Kasich-Rubio even moreso.”

Kasich is the governor of Ohio. Bush and Rubio are both Floridians. An Ohio-Florida (or Florida-Ohio) ticket would give the Republican ticket home-field advantage in the only two states that matter.

Only two states that matter? Think that’s an exaggeration?

Some election history

Maybe a little, but consider: The last ticket to the win a presidential election without carrying either Ohio or Florida was the Kennedy-Johnson ticket in 1960, and they may have stolen that election and it’s ancient history anyway.

Since then there have been 13 presidential elections. In 11 of those, the winning ticket carried both Ohio and Florida. In two other elections (1992 and 2000, both of which were utterly weird and wild), the major party tickets divided the two big swing states (if, that is, you believe that George W. Bush carried Florida in 2000). So, really, in a meaningful sense, 1992 (when Bill Clinton carried Ohio and George H.W. Bush carried Florida) was the only election in which any states mattered very much other than Ohio and Florida.

Yes, there are a few other swing states, but Ohio and Florida are the big electoral prizes. Pundit Larry Sabato has already identified the six states that will be in-play. In descending order of electoral votes they are Florida (29), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), Iowa (6) and Nevada (6). Yeah, sure, Virginia isn’t that much smaller than Ohio, so maybe three states will, maybe all six. The point is the same. Most states won’t and, for campaign purposes, will be treated as if they don’t.

Is this a feature or a bug? I say it’s a “bug” embedded in the Electoral College system, aided by the winner-take-all rule, and by changes over the years in Ohio and Florida.

In the years after the Civil War, Ohio was a solid Republican stronghold and Florida was part of the “Solid South” that always gave its electoral votes to the Democratic ticket. But for more than three decades now, those two states have been the biggest of the perpetual swing states. Therefore, in any close election, any ticket that carried them both would win.

You know this. You hear it every four years. But how often do you rebel against the idea that voters in those states matter so much more than in the other 48 (or 44)?

Not what the Framers intended

For the record, the way the Electoral College system functions has almost nothing to do with anything that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had in mind. And the winner-take-all rule is nothing they intended and is a complete triumph of partisan advantage-seeking. I personally would be happy to do away with the Electoral College, but that will require a constitutional amendment. It would be a huge step in the right direction if the winner-take-all rule was abolished so that each state’s electoral votes were awarded to the tickets according to the proportion of the state’s votes a ticket received.

OK, none of that will happen anytime soon. But if you look at the late stages of a presidential campaign when the campaigns completely ignore 40-some of the states and focus entirely on the swingiest of the swing states, just ask yourself if this in any way advances the democratic quality of the election or the legitimacy of the mandate that the winner receives.

Why should we be OK with an election for the highest office in the land in which only a few states seem to matter?

And then, of course, although I don’t see it happening much in recent history, in the spirit of Prof. Galston’s analysis, we could have parties deciding to stack their tickets with candidates that have special appeal to Florida and Ohio.

How is this a good thing?

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/14/2015 - 10:57 am.

    Here’s what we do:

    People who oppose the electoral college system do so for the reasons mentioned and those people generally suggest we go to a national popular vote to decide the presidential election. But there is a compromise position for those who find that idea a bit untrustworthy.

    Instead of 538 electoral votes awarded to the 50 states, award one electoral vote to each of the 3,144 counties in the country. There are 87 counties in Minnesota. Whichever candidate wins the popular vote in a given county, wins that county’s one electoral vote.

    Instead of a winner-take-all in each state, candidates would win a state by a plurality of county electoral votes, but each candidate would surely win some in each state, which would make the outcome less predictable.

    With real electoral votes at stake in each state, this would increase the likelihood that the candidates would campaign in each state and the results nation-wide would be less predictable.

    I don’t know if a change in the constitution would be required or not.

    • Submitted by Scott Wood on 08/14/2015 - 04:16 pm.

      People vote, not acreage.

      Your proposal would permanently hand the election to the Republicans (no doubt why you proposed it), as it completely ignores population (compared to the Electoral College, which just skews it a bit) — at least, until states start gerrymandering county lines to gain voting power. Can a state make every household its own county? Maybe just in the areas that vote a certain way? No thanks.

      And yes, it would absolutely require a Constitutional Amendment, because you’re changing the number of electors each state gets.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/14/2015 - 06:43 pm.

      So a county

      in Montana that has a population of two (and one of them’s a cow)
      gets the same vote as a county in New York (say Brooklyn) that has a population of about a million.
      Real democratic!

    • Submitted by Tom Lynch on 08/14/2015 - 06:51 pm.

      Counties? Really?

      This has got to be one of the most bizarre ideas I’ve ever heard. Some counties have a million people or more. Others have 10,000. But each gets one electoral vote? How can a system like that be fair? Why wouldn’t states create more counties in order for their state to have more electoral votes? A system like this would be an incredible boon for the GOP. More of their voters are in sparsely populated rural areas wheres Democratic voter are more concentrated in urban areas. How about we count each voter(no matter where they are) and give the candidate with the most votes the office.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/14/2015 - 07:00 pm.

      A superficially appealing idea, but flawed

      Mr. Tester’s suggestion is much like the proposal that Oregon Republican’s floated about twenty years ago, namely to elect state officials by county. As an attorney friend explained, this would give disproportionate power to areas west of the Cascades that are so sparsely populated that one high school serves the entire county.

      Minnesota’s population is about 5.5 million. Of those, 1.2 million live in Hennepin County, while Ramsey, the second largest, coming in at about 500,000. This means that about 1/3 of the state’s residents live in either of these two counties. Nineteen of our counties have fewer than 10,000 people.

      Our electoral system has evolved to embrace the notion of one person, one vote. Where these persons are urban or rural is irrelevant. As long as they are U.S. citizens, residents of the state, and over 18, their vote is supposed to count. Right-wingers may not like the fact that more people live in urban areas than in rural areas, but in fact, they do.

      Mr. Tester’s county-based system would mean that the vote of a person in Traverse County (population about 3500) would have 342 times the weight of a vote in Hennepin County. I’m sure Republicans would adore such a system.

      After the 2008 election, some right-wingers complained that it was unfair that Obama won, because the total area of the states that went for McCain was greater than the total area of the states that went for Obama.

      They were promoting the same fallacy that Mr. Tester is promoting, namely that acreage has voting rights.

      • Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 08/15/2015 - 06:58 am.

        One County, One Vote

        Ohio may have floated the idea, but some states actually used to do it that way. The New Jersey senate, for example, used to consist of one member from each of its 19 counties. Such apportionment practices ensured the over-representation of rural districts for decades. Baker vs. Carr (1962) and various national legislation weakened this practice considerably, but we keep trying to skew our democracy to make sure it is “democratic” for the right people.

  2. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 08/14/2015 - 12:18 pm.

    All states and all votes should matter

    In my opinion, NONE of the Republican candidates are plausible, believable or qualified to be the President of the United States. Each one is goofier than the next…. Not a bright bulb in the bunch. That anyone with intelligence would consider any of them seriously for the position is just: mind-blowing.

    We now have news/media in our faces 24/7, desperately grasping for something, anything to present as ‘news’. Changing the rules as they go along, lowering standards & expectations across the nation, not bothering to do serious journalism or verify the facts.

    The political & election processes have become a mangled mess, with gerrymandering and huge infusions of cash driving everything. Underhanded and growing efforts in red states to prevent certain populations from voting. It reminds me of the way the mafia used to operated….

    These Republican candidates are being paid for by the ever-growing Koch Brothers machine, which is in search of total Libertarian dominance: (i.e., no rules, no regulations, everyone doing whatever they want, whenever they want, regardless of the dangers or impact on the planet or on the population.)

    Every day I tell myself the circus that is ‘politics as usual’ in our country now is a sick, twisted joke and this will soon become apparent to all – and then the voting citizens will stand up and say, “Enough already! It’s time to get serious!”

    I’m still waiting….

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/14/2015 - 01:06 pm.

    It’s not

    that the other states don’t matter.
    If the Democrats managed to take Texas (38 electoral votes). or the Republicans California (55), it would have an impact on the election dwarfing Ohio and Florida.
    It’s that politicians invest their resources where they are most likely to have an effect. A dollar spent in Ohio buys more votes than one spent in California, even though California has three times as many electors.
    And I agree that the ‘winner take all’ feature is one of its most egregious faults, another way that a minority can elect the president.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/14/2015 - 01:43 pm.

    Missing observations in this piece.

    Significant facts are marginalized through omission here. They deserve mention, and they are highly relevant.

    There is actually a movement to institute a popular vote for the Presidency – WITHOUT need of a constitutional amendment – and it is alive and well. But don’t believe me – instead, believe the National Conference of State Legislatures – which states on its site, regarding the National Popular Vote (NPV) movement:

    “States with electoral votes totaling 270 of the 538 electoral votes would have to pass NPV bills before the compact kicks in and any state’s bill could take effect. Currently, 165 electoral votes are pledged to the compact.”

    “To date, ten states and the District of Columbia have passed NPV bills into law. Maryland and New Jersey passed laws in 2007, Hawaii and Illinois in 2008, Washington in 2009, Massachusetts and D.C. in 2010, California and Vermont in 2011, Rhode Island in 2013 and New York in 2014.”

    “In 2015, 6 states (Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oregon) have introduced legislation to enact the National Popular Vote. Nebraska’s bill has since died.”


    This leaves 105 needed for the compact to take effect and change the way our Presidents are elected.

  5. Submitted by John Appelen on 08/14/2015 - 02:34 pm.

    Proof as to Intent

    Please provide something to back this statement up. “And the winner-take-all rule is nothing they intended and is a complete triumph of partisan advantage-seeking. ”

    When you watch a football game where the win will be determined by the final field goal attempt, do you think to yourself only the kicker matters? And that everything that happened before that and all the other players are immaterial?

  6. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/14/2015 - 03:09 pm.

    Red and Blue, Me & You

    It may seem like only a couple of states decide the presidential elections, but that’s only because the rest of us have become very predictable in how our state will vote.

    Me? I’m watching Florida. If it comes out blue this year, that will be three elections in a row, and a real game-changer. It means the GOP’s path to the White House is a whole lot tougher from now on.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/15/2015 - 05:14 pm.

      That brings us back to ‘winner take all’

      A candidate gains just as much from a 55% majority in a state as from a 75% majority.
      So in this sense the only votes that count are those that have a reasonable chance of changing who has that majority.

  7. Submitted by Bill Willy on 08/16/2015 - 12:43 am.

    Just a side note…

    I’m pretty sure everyone is aware of this, but thought I’d mention it anyway…

    The Democratic Farmer Labor Party and the Grand Old Party are just two “special interest groups.”

    By that I mean it seems as if everyone in the country sees the DFL and GOP (and their collective “wisdom” and “influential national voice”) as something the “founding fathers” built into the Constitution, but they’re not. They’re just two special interest groups.

    So when we hear that the DFL says this or that issue should be resolved this way, or the GOP saying it should be resolved that way (or even if they both agree), it should hold no more water with any American than the views of any other two special interest groups that chime in on it.

    How do YOU think things should go? Or are you convinced that people “speaking on behalf” of the “two major parties” are “more qualified” to say and decide than you or me or the person down the road?

    No big deal, I know, but maybe something to have in the back of one’s mind as things go along.

    As to the question of votes, why is it so complicated? This and that person are running for president or dog catcher, all those that live in the affected jurisdiction of the candidates has the right to vote, they do that, the votes are counted, and whoever winds up with the most votes wins, and that’s that.

    Anything else, it seems, is just conflated (and profitable?) hocus pocustized manipulation of an ultimately simple concept that has been around since human beings devised a more civilized approach to “power and control” (who gets to say how things go) than surrendering it to the person with the biggest rock, the sharpest stick, or the sneakiest strategy.

    Or have I been missing something? Is there some legitimate reason the “one person, one vote” way of doing things is a bad idea? If so, please let me know what it is.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 08/16/2015 - 12:29 pm.

      Republic of States vs National Democracy

      I have never found a source that I really like, however I think it is more complicated because we are on purpose not a National Democracy. And I think that is a good thing.

      The populations of the cities can not easily force their will on people in the country.
      The populations on the coasts can not easily force their will on people in the midwest.

      Though this makes the politics more challenging and slows change, I think it does wonders for keeping us all one country and at relative peace with each other. Imagine the mess if the 51% could control policy from Sea to Shining Sea without gaining the support of the 49%…

      My interesting example is Iraq… The Shiites chose to walk all over the Sunnis and Kurds, and that has not worked out so well for anyone.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/16/2015 - 02:08 pm.

        One source you might try

        is “The Quartet”, by Joseph Ellis.
        It’s about the change from the Articles of Confederation of 1776 to the Constitution put into its final form by Governeur Morris in 1789.
        The Articles reflected the general desires of the 13 states (in the original meaning of nations) to establish their existence as individual nations independent of Great Britain. Americans then regarded themselves as citizens of one of the 13 states, not of a single nation, and the Articles reflected that (and nearly resulted in the Revolution being lost). They were the minimum structure necessary to temporarily unite (literally ‘These United States’) the thirteen
        A few visionaries (notably Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Jay) did foresee a future in which the 13 states would be united into a single nation (much bigger than any European nation, BTW) which would develop a sense of national identity over time. If the new Constitution had been put to a popular vote (not a common concept at the time) it would have failed.
        It was a grand compromise (a kluge in engineering terms) that made no one really happy, but allowed issues such as slavery to be fudged. The founders knew that the southern states (including Virginia, the most dominant state at the time) would not accept a Constitution that outlawed slavery, although that was their preference (Madison, for instance, foresaw the eventual civil war).
        So they came up with a solution that made no one happy, but which had sufficient ambiguity to allow it to evolve as the separate colonies achieved a state of nationhood. Few people today view themselves as citizens of their states first and as Americans second.

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