It's hardly news at this point that, as it works today, the Electoral College undermines American democracy. It does so in three fundamental ways: First, it betrays the principle of majority rule, threatening every four years to deliver the White House to the popular-vote loser. Second, it reduces the general election contest to a matter of what happens in Ohio, Florida, and a handful of other swing states, leaving most Americans (who live in forsaken "red" and "blue" states) on the sidelines. This in turn depresses turnout and helps give us one of the worst rates of voter participation on earth. Third, because of its proven pliability, the Electoral College invites partisan operatives, legislators, secretaries of state and even Supreme Court justices to engage in constant strategic mischief and manipulation at the state level.
This last problem is about to make things much worse, as strategic actors try to exploit spreading discontent with the system by pushing "reform" proposals for purely partisan advantage. Thus, in California, top Republican strategists are now proposing a ballot initiative that would "reform" the system by awarding the state's electoral votes by congressional district. Its real purpose is to break up the state's 55 electors, which typically go to the Democrats in a bloc as inevitably as Texas, Georgia, and Oklahoma give their 56 combined electors to the Republicans. Following the proposed division of California's well-gerrymandered blue and red congressional districts, it is likely that the 2008 GOP nominee under this plan would carry away about 20 electors. In one fell swoop, this would ruin the Democrats' chances for winning the presidency.
This is very plainly not reform. It is tactical gamesmanship.
Save us the sermons about fairness on Fox News by carefully disguised "pro-reform" advocates. If this were truly just a fairer way to divide up electoral votes, why didn't Karl Rove and the highly placed political operatives behind this initiative choose to begin in the states in which they control the legislatures, like Texas, Alabama, or Utah?
I know. Don't hold your breath.
Citizens who are truly serious about transforming the Electoral College actually have a sturdy nonpartisan vehicle by which to move us to the kind of popular presidential election that citizens in nearly every other democracy enjoy. We don't need a new partisan trick to "fix" our presidential process. We need only enact the existing obvious solution.
The "National Popular Vote" plan, which is on the table in 47 states, has been signed into law in Maryland and had actually passed both houses in California in 2006 before it was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It simply calls for an interstate compact among all states to agree to cast their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. It becomes effective and binding when states representing at least 270 electors enter the compact. This is the way we will get to elect presidents as we elect governors and senators: everyone acting together, without games and subterfuge.
The plan has the backing of distinguished Republican statesmen like former Utah Sen. Jake Garn, former Minnesota Sen. David Durenberger, former Illinois Rep. John Anderson, former Alabama Rep. John Buchanan, and former California Rep. Tom Campbell, as well as distinguished Democrats like former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, and former New York Rep. Tom Downey. It has been endorsed by newspapers from the New York Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune to the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee.