With three weeks to go, the U.S. presidential election is coming down to a fight over about a half a dozen “battleground” states.
Mind you, every U.S. presidential election comes down to a fight over half a dozen battleground states, usually the same ones: Florida and Ohio; Iowa and Wisconsin; North Carolina and Georgia, if the Democrats are having a good year, Pennsylvania and Michigan if the Republicans are. Keep a close eye, in particular, on the key counties of –
Hold on. Before any know-it-all pundit is allowed to flannel on about “battleground states” or “races to watch,” they should be made to answer this question: Isn’t every state supposed to be a battleground state? Don’t the voters in California and New York, Kansas or Kentucky, have just as much right to be heard, whether by the candidates or the media, as those in any swing state?
Yet look at the coverage. Watch the campaigns. The battleground states I mentioned make up, between them, barely a quarter of the population of the United States. Yet they take up virtually all of the focus. The other three-quarters of the population might as well not exist, for all the attention they receive. They are spectators at their own election.
There’s a simple reason for this. The president of the United States is not directly elected by the population at large; rather, the people vote to send representatives of either party to the Electoral College, which elects the president. That in itself is not the problem. The problem is that nearly all of the states (48 out of 50) award their entire slate of electors to the candidate that wins the most votes.
It doesn’t have to be a majority – a plurality will do. And it doesn’t matter how narrow the margin. Win the state by a single vote and you get all of its electors. Winner take all.
So a state such as California, which has a population of 40 million – as many, almost, as Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Georgia combined – but which the Democrats are a lead-pipe cinch to win, is not worth so much as a visit by either candidate. No Electoral College votes will be shifted either way.
But a state such as Georgia or Ohio or even Iowa, where the vote is on a knife-edge, is the object of the most vehement wooing. They have a fraction of California’s population, but many times its electoral throw-weight.
The same thing happens in Canada, of course. Here, they’re called “swing ridings” or “safe seats,” electoral districts – indeed, whole regions of the country – that are either vigorously courted or completely ignored, depending on whether their votes are evenly divided or not. The reason is also the same: The winner-take-all electoral system that is the common feature of our two democracies, in which a simple plurality of the vote, sometimes as little as 30 per cent, is enough to win 100 per cent of the representation.
Imagine if instead states awarded Electoral College votes proportionately – that is, in proportion to the candidates' share of the popular vote. So a candidate who won, say, 48 per cent of the vote in California would get, not zero out of the state’s 55 electors, as at present, but 26. On the other hand, the candidate who won 52 per cent of the vote in Florida would be entitled to just 15 of its 29 Electoral College votes, rather than all of them.
Such a small change in the rules – yet it would change everything. Rather than writing off most of the country in favour of a handful of swing states, candidates would be obliged to campaign nationwide – for there would be votes to be won, or lost, in every region and every state.
Imagine if Canada did the same. Suppose we elected, not one member of Parliament for every riding, winner-take-all, but several, each party represented in rough proportion to its share of the vote in that riding. The effect would again be transformative. Imagine if the Liberals could no longer afford to ignore the West, as at present, both because there were seats to be won there and because they could no longer count on sewing up a majority by the time the votes were counted in Ontario and Quebec.
Imagine if the Conservatives had a shot at winning a decent share of the seats in Quebec, not by making extravagant offerings to the province’s nationalists in hopes of someday catching one of its periodic waves, but simply in the ordinary course of events. Imagine if every party had an incentive to campaign with equal fervour and equal concern in every part of the country, every election, rather than catering exclusively to its regional base.
The stark divisions that we take as an inevitable part of our politics – regional, but also cultural, linguistic or economic, so far as these are unevenly distributed geographically – would no longer be so stark. There are other reasons to favour proportional over winner-take-all voting systems, but that is surely enough on its own.
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