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How to fix the Electoral College

Ohio, Virginia, Florida: If you don't live in one of these or a few other "battleground" states, you may feel disenfranchised in U.S. presidential elections. As a Marylander, no major party candidate competes for your vote — even if the nationwide polls suggest that the election is close.

Whether you are part of a voter majority or voter minority, a Democrat, a Republican or something else, as a Maryland resident you simply cannot affect the state outcome under the current "winner-take-all" system. On election night, you watch only as a spectator, asking yourself: Is this fair?

For Republicans in places like Maryland or New York, and Democrats in places like Texas, shouldn't their votes have some influence on the election outcome? Just who should elect our president? And how? How do we define "fairness?"

Gallup polls show that a majority of Americans support the introduction of direct popular vote for presidential elections. The current system gives priority to the states rather than the national popular vote. Many Americans support this system, despite the 2000 election aftermath.

The cornerstone of the first viewpoint is the "one person, one vote" principle, which underlies all the other elections in the U.S. The phrase :... one Nation, under God, indivisible ..." from the Pledge of Allegiance may suggest that the country needs at least one executive to be elected by the nation as a whole.

The second viewpoint reflects the vision of the Founding Fathers, who reserved two methods to elect a president to the states: first via the Electoral College, and, if that is unsuccessful, in Congress. They collectively rejected direct popular elections for the president. The creation of the Senate as part of the 1787 Great Compromise suggests that the Founding Fathers believed that the will of the states should prevail in addressing federal matters. Also, the Founding Fathers didn't vest the right to amend the Constitution in the nation as a whole. Rather, they vested it in the states as equal members of the Union, which means that the Founding Fathers recognized the will of every state. Finally, the Supreme Court has several times stated that the "one person, one vote" principle, mandatory in any statewide election, is not applicable in presidential elections. The Court has also stated that the right of a state to change a manner of appointing presidential electors (via its legislature) is plenary and independent of the process of other states.

Although the two viewpoints are starkly different, there are proposals for finding common ground between the two. Let's consider two such proposals.

The first is "proportional weighting." Each state awards a portion of its electoral votes to each candidate according to the percentage of votes favoring him or her. For Massachusetts, for example, with its (currently) 11 electors, this could result in 6.5 electors for the Democratic candidate and 4.5 for the Republican candidate. These fractional "electoral votes," 538 in total, go to Washington for the count of electoral votes by Congress (as they do under the current system). The national winner is the candidate whose sum of thus weighted electoral votes is the greatest (which, however, can be smaller that 270 if more than two candidates are favored by voters).

Under this scheme, Republicans in Maryland and New York and Democrats in Texas and Idaho can influence the outcome nationally, while the smaller states preserve their traditionally disproportionate influence on election outcome.

The second proposal is a "double majority" scheme. Here, the winning presidential candidate is the one who is the choice of both a majority of those voting nationwide and of a majority of the states. If there is no such candidate, then the Electoral College (and possibly, Congress) elects a president.

This proposal balances the importance of the nationwide popular vote and of the states as equal members of the Union in electing a president. Under this scheme, to win a majority of votes nationwide, the candidates will likely compete in large states, and to win a majority of the states they will pay attention to small states. Since the Electoral College still may decide the outcome, the "battleground" states will preserve their current status.

Introducing either proposal requires a constitutional amendment, and there are other proposals in addition to these two. We advocate a national discussion on the presidential election system that would address the ways to make it fairer and to encourage presidential candidates to wage truly nationwide campaigns.

Alexander S. Belenky (abelenky@mit.edu) is a professor at the Department of Mathematics at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, and a research affiliate at MIT's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals. He is the author of books and articles on U.S. presidential elections. Richard C. Larson is director of the center and MIT's Mitsui Professor of engineering systems. He is the author of books and articles on service science and its applications. Together with MIT's Professor Arnold Barnett, they recently held a conference titled: ''Does the Current Presidential Election System Serve America Well?'' http://cesf.mit.edu/electoral2012/

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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