Thursday, September 15, 2011

Federalism is for chumps

That's the case I make in this week's Scripps Howard column, written in the wake of the Pennsylvania GOP's proposal to change the way the state casts its electoral votes:

When it comes to presidential voting, anybody with a democratic bone in his body knows that the Electoral College is a patently unfair way of electing a president. Eleven years later, the elevation of George W. Bush to the presidency -- even though he lost the popular vote -- rankles mightily.

A pure popular vote would be great, but is unlikely. The Congressional district scheme proposed by Pennsylvania Republicans might actually be the next best thing -- though, oddly, experts calculate it would've given Bush a wider margin of Electoral College victory in 2000 had it been used nationally -- since it somewhat mitigates the abilities of big states to dominate voting: Each district has roughly the same amount of voters, and just the one electoral vote.

But presidential voting rules should be uniform, the same law adopted by all 50 states. That won't happen. Each state gets to decide how it casts its Electoral College votes -- and now we see, thanks to Pennsylvania, that the system lets politicians game the presidential campaign system in favor of their party. The motive here is transparent political hackery.

And it reveals federalism to be a chump's game. To some extent, federalism -- with its emphasis on the states as a counterpart to the national government -- treats the states like quasi-independent nations who govern themselves and just happened to be in alliance, like NATO or the United Nations. That hasn't been functionally true since at least the Civil War. The president is the chief executive of a single big country, not 50 little nations. There's no reason a candidate should face 50 different sets of rules in order to be elected.

We are one country. We have one president. We should have one clear, democratic set of rules for electing that president. We don't. That makes the system vulnerable to corruption and the un-democratic desires of party elites. It's a lousy way to run a country.

Ben starts his take: "On this question, the Constitution is clear: With certain specified exceptions, the states get to say how they run their elections." And that's factually true. But on this question, the Constitution is incorrect to do so.

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