The Lonely Centrist

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More Self Parody at the New York Times: Electoral College Reform in California

Reading the editorial pages of the Onion... er, I mean New York Times,is always a hoot. Today the Daft, ... er, Gray Lady unloosed a salvo against a proposal circulating in California to allocate the state's electoral votes by congressional district, rather than winner take all. There are many good arguments against this proposal, not the least of which is the perception that one party - in the case the Republican - is trying to change the rules to affect a predictable outcome that will favor that party, as is often done with the campaign finance laws of which the Times is so enamored. On the other hand, there are also legitimate, neutral arguments for this proposal, which is used now in two small states, Nebraska and Maine. But the Times, as always, has no nuance - just a partisan screech.

The Times calls the proposal, "a sneaky initiative that, in the name of Electoral College reform, would rig elections in a way that would make it difficult for a Democrat to be elected president, no matter how the popular vote comes out. If the initiative passes, it would do serious damage to American democracy."

Damage to American democracy? The Times doesn't say how this would be, other than its apparent identification of the interests of the Democratic Party with American Democracy. (It's probably that "demos" root that causes the confusion). The Times insist that this initiative is supported by a "shadowy group," with a "misleading" identity, although - confusingly to we simple-minded readers - the Times article begins by informing us that this is a Republican initiative, launched by "a prominent Republican lawyer" (presumably the Times knows his name, but if they don't, the Sacramento Bee informs us that it is Thoms Hiltachk - maybe this is not so "shadowy" after all.) (The Republican Party - "a shadowy group." LOL) The proposal is "bad faith" and "mischief." "No principled voter" should support it. Instead, the Times suggest an alternate reform that would make it harder for Republicans to win the presidency. Go figure.

Of course, the Times didn't always feel such a plan was quite so disreputable. On October 2, 2000, the Times published an op-ed by Michael Lind, who wrote:
Fortunately, it is possible to transform our presidential elections, while keeping the Electoral College and without amending the Constitution. All we have to do is change the way that the states allocate their electoral votes.

Today all but two states -- Nebraska, which has five electoral votes, and Maine, which has four -- give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the state's popular vote. If every state were to divide its electoral votes among the candidates on the breakdown of the popular vote, presidential politics would be reinvigorated.

For example, even if a majority of Californians and New Yorkers preferred the Democratic candidate, the division of their electoral votes would give a Republican candidate an incentive to make lots of visits to these states and to listen to voters' concerns there.

On August 15, 2004, it published a letter to the editor by one Joe Cobb of Dana Point, California. If you've ever tried to get a letter into the Times, you know it ain't easy, and while they publish a few letters with an opposing point of view, you've got to be a pretty big wheel, and/or have what they think is a pretty strong arguent, to reach print. But Mr. Cobb did, arguing:
There is another possible reform, which is to follow the lead of Maine and Nebraska. Those states already allocate electoral votes on the basis of the popular vote in each Congressional district, instead of using the ''winner take all'' method. They also give two electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.

If all states used this method, it would bring the electoral vote into much closer alignment with the popular vote. It would also preserve the benefits of the Electoral College: restricting the impact of voter fraud or irregularities to localized areas, preventing overwhelming majorities in a few states from obviating the voters' choice in less populated areas, and assuring that candidates need to campaign nationwide.

Now, in fairness to the Times, they have long opposed the California plan. But compare the careful, intelligent, measured tones of this 1992 editorial to the one quoted above. Here is what the Times wrote then - so far as we can tell, the last foray by the editorial board into this particular proposal:
Changing the way America picks its President calls for national consensus. It deserves serious thought, not just partisan, state-by-state wrestling in the heat of a campaign year. That's reason enough for a sigh of relief that Florida's flirtation with a proposal to split its electoral vote seems to have ended, at least for the moment.

Under the Constitution, each state has as many electors as it has representatives and senators; a majority of the national total is needed to win. Florida currently gives all its electoral votes to the Presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes statewide. The new plan gives candidates one vote for each Congressional district they carry; the statewide winner would get the other two.

Maine uses this system, and Nebraska will, starting this year.... Florida, the fourth-largest state, has 25 electoral votes -- and usually votes Republican for President. That's why Democrats wanted new rules and Republicans didn't.

Applied nationwide, a district-by-district system would yield electoral votes roughly proportional to the popular vote -- rather than lopsided electoral majorities as in 1988, when President Bush took 48 states but only 53.4 percent of the popular vote. In close elections, it might change the outcome.

A split-vote system would also open opportunities for third-party and independent candidates like Ross Perot. It is hard for such a candidate to wrest a whole state away from established parties.

The proposal's backers also argue that it would impel candidates to give the Florida voters more attention instead of writing off the state, as the Democrats did in 1988. But critics say the state would get less attention because the split prize would be worth less.

This year's unusual race, which includes a plausible third candidate, makes piecemeal reform even less attractive than usual. In the heat of the moment, there's no way legislators can remain focused on reform rather than partisan interests.

In fact, on the merits, I actually agree with the Times. California shouldn't switch. But the difference in tone and quality between its 1992 and 2007 editorials, thinks the old Centerman, is demonstrative of the decline of a once proud, influential editorial page into screaming paranoia.

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