Baker misses key problem with Electoral College
Focus now is only on states with chance of flipping
AS PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP prepares to take office despite losing the popular vote, many Massachusetts voters may be less than thrilled about the Electoral College process But Gov. Charlie Baker describes himself as a “big fan” of the college. “I think the Electoral College preserves the importance and the status of small states,” Baker told State House News Service this week.
“If we really played this game on a popular vote only,” Baker said, “literally half the states in the United States would be disenfranchised and no one would campaign there and no one would care and I think that would be a huge problem.”
If only half of the states were ignored, that would represent a considerable improvement from where we are today. The Electoral College elevates only the handful of states that happen to have a roughly equal number of partisans living there, which is far less than half. Campaigns are only about winning or losing those states that show a chance of flipping between parties. All of the rest suffer exactly the fate Baker describes.
What’s more, the smallest states do not tend to be swing states, which for this article we describe as those decided by less than 5 points this cycle or flipping parties over the past two presidential elections. Only three of the smallest 20 states fit this description. The rest of the small states were correctly taken for granted and ignored, exactly as Baker feared. Analysis of the two campaign’s travel schedules shows not a single stop by either party’s nominee in any of the other 17 smallest states.
Without the Electoral College, Baker said, “I think you really sacrifice small states at the expense of larger ones, and I don’t think that’s good for democracy.” But this is exactly the situation the Electoral College enables. Five of the 10 most populous states were swing states, meaning the most time and attention from campaigns was spent in states with above-average population.
Another common defense (and criticism) of the Electoral College is that the extra electoral votes given to small states ensures election outcomes are not only decided by big states. But this does not affect the amount of attention small states receive from candidates. Nobody bothers campaigning in deep-red Wyoming or reliably blue Vermont, even though their electoral votes are vastly out of proportion with their tiny populations. Their electoral votes are taken as given, and with good reason.
The irony of the governor’s comments is that Massachusetts is a poster child for neglect under the current electoral system. Barring a complete upheaval or Republican landslide, Democrats are going to win the Bay State’s electoral votes by a huge margin. It doesn’t matter if their final margin is 23, 25, or 50 points in the state; the results in the Electoral College are the same. So no campaign will take the trouble of sending candidates or surrogates to ask for votes in the Pioneer Valley or hear about the priorities of North Shore residents.
If you’re a Massachusetts voter, your vote (or Baker’s, if he had cast one) simply doesn’t matter.
In this sense, the Electoral College joins the primary system in diminishing to near zero the attention most states receive from presidential candidates and skewing incentives away from candidates talking to voters all across the country.
Actually, Massachusetts serves some role in presidential politics beyond exporting mostly losing candidates. And but for five minutes in the spotlight before the primary, we actually get the worst of all worlds. Candidates come to Massachusetts to hold big-ticket fundraisers, then take that money and spend it targeting voters in other states. And because much of Massachusetts shares a media market with southern New Hampshire, both a swing state and the first primary state, we become collateral damage in the TV ad wars, forcing voters to channel surf around a toxic tidal wave of campaign and SuperPAC spots washing toward our neighbors to the north.
If the vote margin in Massachusetts mattered, maybe that would be different. Despite our Democratic leanings, there are plenty of persuadable voters. Compared to past elections, voters in the Greater Boston region swung strongly for Clinton, while Trump increased margins over Romney in Western Massachusetts. Imagine Trump landing in Boston and doing events around the city. Imagine Clinton or her surrogates stumping across Hampden and Hampshire Counties, trying to hold down the rural margins.
Forcing candidates to fight for every vote could translate to a more inclusive type of governing. Republicans could less afford to ignore urban centers, and Democrats would have to pay more than lip service to rural and exurban concerns.Defending the Electoral College makes more sense from a purely partisan standpoint – it has been almost the only hope of Republican presidential candidates in recent decades. But when it comes to the interests of Massachusetts, and most everywhere else, voters on both sides of our aisle who want their voices to be taken seriously would benefit from dumping it.
Steve Koczela is the president of the MassINC Polling Group.