The Electoral College Needs to Go

By Craig Bosman
The presidential race couldn’t be hotter, but Californians see very little of it that doesn’t come from a glowing screen. In fact, at this point, nearly 80% of the country gets little attention from the candidates. Why? The electoral college.

If we are generous to the Obama campaign and say North Carolina is still a swing state, and Michigan and Pennsylvania are in the bag, that means there are only nine states that really matter in this election. They are, in order of electoral vote size, Florida (29), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), and New Hampshire (4). These nine states have a population (2010) of 65.6 million. This is only 21% of America.

Meanwhile, 79% of the country goes largely ignored, except to serve as the pocketbooks and ground force to power campaigns in swing states. It’s essentially useless for would-be volunteers in Berkeley and most of the country to canvass their neighbors’ houses to get out the vote; instead, plans are made to drive hours away to Nevada, the closest place a vote really matters.

It’s not just that Republicans in the 19 “blue states” this election, which comprise 45.5% of the country’s population, and Democrats in the 23 “red states” (33.2% of the population) might as well stay home when it comes to the presidential race. It’s that the very nature of campaigning and even policy-making is changed by the need to focus on such a narrow slice of the country.

When’s the last time you heard a candidate mention a touching personal story that didn’t happen to occur in a swing state? Or the last time a candidate of either major party held a big rally — not a fundraiser — in California? What about the typical location of presidential debates? For that matter, regardless of whether it was good policy or not, would the auto industry bailout have happened if it didn’t so strongly affect important swing states? Defense spending is surely spread across the country, but would it play quite as strongly if Virginia wasn’t a swing state?

We’ve heard about the 99% and the 47%. These numbers are burned in political minds. Let’s add one more: we are the 79%. The 79% who don’t live in a 2012 swing state and whose vote matters far less than the 21% who do.

We are far from a homogenous country, and there are important regional differences that presidential candidates might ignore in a popular vote. To help mitigate this, we already have the powerful Senate. But it’s also not fair for presidential campaigns and policy to be squarely driven at, say, centrist Ohio voters, to the detriment of the vast majority of the country. In electing the president of all Americans, the time has come for one person, one vote.

The nine swing states have the following population characteristics (all population numbers from 2010 Census):

Meanwhile, the non-swing states, 79% of the population, break down as follows:

Breaking into almost-certain Obama and Romney states, they are as follows:

Craig Bosman is a graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy.