GRAND FORKS — Lloyd Omdahl has serious cred as a political thinker. He served as North Dakota’s tax commissioner and lieutenant governor, and he wrote an important book about the state’s political history.
Still, he’s most important to me as a professor of political science. As a UND student, I took his courses, and the knowledge and insight he helped me gain have been important every day of my career as a reporter, editor and columnist.
So, I’m not looking to challenge or amend his argument in any way. Rather, I hope to extend it.
In his most recent column published in North Dakota newspapers, Omdahl admitted to thrashing the Electoral College and suggested that replacing it with direct elections would become “quite complicated.”
Quoting Omdahl, “The Electoral College violates equality in two major ways: the formula for allocation of electors and the variations by state in the number of votes cast per elector.”
A vote cast in North Dakota has about three times more clout than one cast in New York or California. That’s due to happenstance; North Dakota’s population is about 765,000, just about the number needed to create a congressional district. Yet the state has three electoral votes, or one for each 250,000 people.
California has 55 electoral votes, or one for each 720,000 people, based on recent estimates of the state’s population. In each of the other most populous states, the ratio is about the same, ranging from 694,000 people per electoral vote in New York with 28 electoral votes, to 763,000 in Texas, which has 38 electoral votes, and 741,000 in Florida, which has 29 electoral votes.
North Dakota is not alone in benefitting from the Electoral College formula. Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Vermont also each have three electoral votes, and five states have four electoral votes. Of these, Rhode Island, where population growth has plateaued, could lose a vote when congressional districts are reapportioned based on the 2020 Census. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, has three electoral votes for 710,000 people. Wyoming is most advantaged; each electoral vote there reflects 190,000 actual votes, the lowest ratio in the nation.
This is manifestly unfair, since it mocks the “one person/one vote” tenet that has governed American elections at every other level of government — one backed by the Supreme Court, which ordered reapportionment of state legislatures on that basis.
Unfair, but constitutional, nevertheless. That’s where the complications begin.
Omdahl points out in his columns that direct election of the president is the most likely alternative, but that would require amending the constitution in order to make a change in the procedure of electing a president.
Impossible? Perhaps, but still worth pursuing — in the interest of saving the republic.
Of course, direct election would change the character of American politics. As Omdahl points out, it would nationalize campaigns, since building the largest popular vote total would become the goal, rather than carrying stateS with the most electoral votes. That could be a way to bring attention to regional issues, since candidates seeking votes in every state would have to take an interest in more issues. That might make rural issues more rather than less important, as national parties broadened their focus.
Of course, there is a chance that parties would splinter, creating a multi-party system. That presents the possibility of even greater divisions among voters, and these would be reflected in national elections. It’s possible — but not too likely, I think — that more parties would field more candidates for congressional seats.
This isn’t inevitable, nor is it necessarily evil. Canada governs itself pretty well with four major parties. Germany has three. Some countries — Israel, for example — have many more. In these nations, it is not the head of government that is elected, however; that’s left to members of the elected parliament, in Canada the House of Commons, in Germany the Bundestag, in Israel the Knesset. Britain’s parliamentary system gives rise to third parties pretty regularly, but it is essentially a two-party system.
Each of those countries has its individual issues. In Canada, the number of voters is disproportionate. Prince Edward Island gets the equivalent of two votes for every one cast in other provinces. Germany deals with this another way by apportioning seats among parties on the basis of votes garnered nationwide.
So, there are working democracies with direct elections.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of direct election of the president of the United States is that a national campaign would engage every American. The framers didn’t intend that, but in their deliberations, they hit upon a way to harness large, rapid changes in popular sentiment — populism, in other words. They created the U.S. Senate to act as a brake.
It’s impossible to defend the Electoral College as representative. It’s clearly not. Nor was it intended to be. The disturbing result is a deeper and deeper divide in the county. Moving to engage people more directly and more fairly would help heal that, without removing the crucial role that the U.S. Senate plays in lawmaking.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.