The Third Ring

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

If you’ve finished digesting the two-ring circus that yielded results for the House and Senate in Tuesday’s elections, I’d like to draw your attention to the third ring, where contests for governor have taken place.

Thirty-seven states elected governors this year. This is the largest number of gubernatorial contests ever in a single year. Three of these states — California, Florida, and Texas — which together elect almost a quarter of the U.S. House of Representatives, were all in play.  In Florida and Texas, Republicans held on to the governor’s office.  California’s governorship changed hands — from Republican to Democrat.  Four more states — Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio — all considered to reflect the country’s mood in the coming presidential election, have changed from Democratic to Republican governors this year.

In all, while final tallies aren’t in in all states, it looks as though the Dems will lose their leases in nine governors’ mansions, the Republicans will pick up nine, one will go to an independent (Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island, a man about as progressive as a Republican, which he used to be, can get.) Only Hawaii joins California in moving into the Democratic column.

What difference does it make? Two things.

First, 2011 will be a redistricting year. Based on population tallies in the 2010 census, states will redraw House district lines, somewhat satisfying the one-person/one-vote requirement that each congressional district have roughly the same number of voters. State legislatures draw the districts, with the governor deeply involved, if he is of the majority party. A majority-Democratic state legislature and a Democratic governor will have no problem agreeing that the districts are appropriate even if they give the advantage to registered Democrats in every district.  Of course, the same is true if the shoe is on the other foot.

The practice of drawing district lines to benefit one political party or interest group is called Gerrymandering, named for a district drawn in 1812 to benefit the party of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. A local paper drew a picture of the district as an animal resembling a salamander. (Note: The Gerry family in Massachusetts pronounces the name with a hard G, as in garbage, no aspersions intended. If you use the term, don’t call it a Jerrymander and be prepared to show off your superior knowledge when someone tries to correct you. Gerry Studds, Massachusetts’ first gay congressman, was a member of the family and must have spent half his life telling people “it’s Gerry, not Jerry.”)

In Massachusetts, where the governor is a Democrat, as are about 140 of the General Court’s 160 state representatives and 36 of the 40 senators, there will be little disagreement about how the districts get redrawn, except that we’re probably going to lose one of our 10 House seats (down from 16 when I came to the state in 1967). The question of which of the 10 Democratic representatives goes will probably be decided by who’s willing to take whatever state job the governor offers. Or else, the area around Lowell will get cut up, giving the ax to Nikki Tsongas, widow of the late Congressman Paul Tsongas, because you know how it goes with women in politics when a man’s career is at stake.

But there’s more to it than who gets elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, 2014. 2016, 2018, and 2020, until the next census and redistricting  — see how important this is?  There’s also the matter of the electoral college vote in 2012, 2016, and 2020.

The Constitution gives the state legislatures the authority to decide how the presidential electors will be chosen. These are the folks who actually vote for the president after the quadrennial election (and you thought you did it, didn’t you?) Each state gets as many electoral votes as it has representatives in Congress plus its two senators. In some states each candidate’s party names the electors. In others, the respective parties in the state legislature do it. In most states which electors get to vote for the president is a winner-take-all proposition; the candidate who gets the most votes in the state, even if it’s only 50 more than the other candidate, gets all the electoral votes. In other states allocation of electors is by congressional district. Are you getting why redistricting matters so much?

There’s a move afoot, and it’s picking up steam, to allocate electoral votes according to the popular vote. The Federalists must be flipping in their graves. The last thing they wanted was for the unwashed masses to elect their leaders; that’s why the cursed us with the Senate.

The National Popular Vote movement wants to establish popular election of the president.  Here’s an excerpt from their 1-page explanation of what it’s all about.  There’s more information here.

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and the District of Columbia).

The bill has passed 30 legislative chambers in 20 states (AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, HI, IL, ME, MD, MA, MI, NV, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OR, RI, VT, WA) and is endorsed by 1,922 legislators.

The bill has been enacted by states possessing 73 electoral votes — 27% of the 270 necessary to activate the law (HI, IL, MA, MD, NJ, WA).

The shortcomings of the current system stem from the winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in each state).

Because of the winner-take-all rule, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation’s 56 presidential elections (1 in 14 times). Furthermore, near misses are also common. A shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of 3,500,000 votes.

Another shortcoming of the winner-take-all rule is that presidential candidates have no reason to pay attention to the concerns of voters in states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In 2008, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their campaign visits and ad money in just six closely divided “battleground” states. A total of 98% went to just 15 states. Voters in two thirds of the states are essentially just spectators to presidential elections.

The winner-take-all rule is not in the Constitution. It was used by only 3 states in the nation’s first election in 1789. Maine and Nebraska’s present-day district system is a reminder that changing the method of electing the President does not require a constitutional amendment.

Under the National Popular Vote bill, all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC). The bill would take effect only when enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes — that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

I find this idea appealing, not because I am still a Democrat, but because it is fair to every voter, party member or not. The National Popular Vote’s work is done in Massachusetts; our legislature has passed the bill and our governor has signed it, so there’s not much I can do to help.

Except tell you about it.

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4 Responses to “The Third Ring”

  1. In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado– 68%, Iowa –75%, Michigan– 73%, Missouri– 70%, New Hampshire– 69%, Nevada– 72%, New Mexico– 76%, North Carolina– 74%, Ohio– 70%, Pennsylvania — 78%, Virginia — 74%, and Wisconsin — 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska — 70%, DC — 76%, Delaware –75%, Maine — 77%, Nebraska — 74%, New Hampshire –69%, Nevada — 72%, New Mexico — 76%, Rhode Island — 74%, and Vermont — 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas –80%, Kentucky — 80%, Mississippi –77%, Missouri — 70%, North Carolina — 74%, and Virginia — 74%; and in other states polled: California — 70%, Connecticut — 74% , Massachusetts — 73%, Minnesota — 75%, New York — 79%, Washington — 77%, and West Virginia- 81%. 

    Now, the National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas (6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia (3), Maine (4), Michigan (17), Nevada (5), New Mexico (5), New York (31), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii (4), Illinois (21), New Jersey (15), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (12), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), and Washington (11). The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Washington. These seven states possess 76 electoral votes — 28% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.
    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  2. The chronological age of several of our current US Reps in MA suggests someone may choose to enjoy retirement and will ease the need to ax anyone! :-)

  3. Deb, you may be right. They all look so young to me. ;) )

  4. Toto, thank you. If you’re working with National Popular Vote, I’d like to talk with you about writing a guest blog — something, perhaps, about what people can do who want to push this project along. You can get in touch with me at tb40 / at / mwilliamson.com. I hope you will.

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