Electing a President Proportionally 

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The entire state of New Hampshire holds fewer voters than the city of San Antonio, but if Mike Huckabee, Chris Dodd, Sam Brownback, Joe Biden, and other presidential wannabes flash their smiles in Bexar County during 2007 it will be to shake out wallets in Terrell Hills and Olmos Park, not shake hands on Commerce Street.

Because the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa caucuses are scheduled for January 2008, before citizens elsewhere in the country get to express their preferences, two small states exercise early and inordinate influence on the future of the human race.

The electoral success of such scoundrels and incompetents as Tom Craddick, Rick Perry, and Tom DeLay is not a strong argument for extending the presidential franchise to Texas. However, a bill sponsored by state representatives Roberto Alonzo, D-Dallas, and San Antonio’s Trey Martinez-Fischer (and voted unanimously out of committee last month), would challenge the primacy of New Hampshire and Iowa by shifting primary elections in this state from the middle of March to the first Tuesday in February.

By March 2008, it is likely that most candidates will have dropped out of contention and even that the presidential nominee of one or both parties will already have been determined. Yet, in early February, Texas could still make a
difference — except that Nevada and South Carolina have already scheduled their
primaries for January, and similar proposals to move primaries earlier in the calendar are either pending or approved in several other states, including California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. Furthermore, to maintain its status as “first in the nation,” New Hampshire threatens to move its primary up to December. So the result might merely be an increase in the number of months that the frontrunner must run in place before ordination at the national convention.

Much more disturbing than the fact that its primaries could come too late to affect anything is the way in which Texas is ignored during the general campaign. Because polls in 2004 consistently showed George W. Bush with a commanding lead over John Kerry in Texas, neither candidate bothered to spend much time or money here. Nor did either make much of an effort to win over voters in California and New York, where Kerry held an immutable majority. The candidates and their ads instead laid siege to West Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, states that were in play until election day.

The massive political advertising that voters in “swing states” are subjected to would surely benefit the Texas economy: Imagine the millions of dollars that would be spent on TV, radio, and newspaper spots and on the hotels, restaurants, and taxis required for each campaign visit. But if presidential candidates believe that it is in their best interest to ignore Texas, in order to concentrate on states in which there is genuine competition, they no longer have to take into account the interests of Texans in formulating platforms, positions, and promises. The result is that West Virginia exerts more influence over national policy than the second-largest state in the Union. A vote in San Antonio carries much less weight than one in Santa Fe.

This political attention-deficit-disorder results from a winner-take-all system in which candidates need only outpoll the competition by a single vote in order to win every one of a state’s electoral votes. Some states are solidly red, others solidly blue, but within each live hundreds of thousands of voters of the other color. Their votes are discarded by the electors, who represent only the state’s majority. A large minority of Texas’s voters is disenfranchised, and many others become so alienated by the system they refuse to vote.  

The Constitution offers a reasonable, legal remedy for this inequity. Article II delegates to the separate states responsibility for determining exactly how to allocate their presidential and vice-presidential electors. Like 47 other states, Texas assigns all of its electors to the candidate who receives at least one more vote than any other candidate. Maine and Nebraska do not, and Texas would do well to switch from a winner-take-all system to one in which Texas’s 34 electoral votes are proportional to the state’s popular vote. That simple reform would keep us in play until election day. National candidates would be forced to respond to the varied needs and interests of Texas voters. And because each vote would carry the potential to make more of a difference, more eligible voters would become actual voters, strengthening our system of representative government.

An act of the state legislature would be enough to ensure that Texas’s electoral votes are proportional to the popular
presidential vote within the state. If it is unlikely to occur, it is because of short-term partisan self-interests — it is probably a safe bet that the 2008 Republican presidential candidate will receive a majority of the votes in Texas, and the Republicans who control the legislature will not want to do anything to keep their candidate from receiving 100 percent of the state’s electoral votes. However, for most of the past century, all of Texas’s electoral votes went to the Democratic candidate.

Which way the majority may tip in the future is unknowable and irrelevant to the principle of fair representation. Assigning electors on the basis of the percentage of the state’s popular vote is not only the right thing to do; by ensuring that presidential candidates pay attention to Texas, it is also the shrewd thing to do. 


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