A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
Virginia Governor Bob Mcdonnell has come out against a state senate proposal on the Electoral College. It would have shifted Virginia from a winner take all system to one with votes based on congressional district results. However, another Virginia GOP plan, one to redraw the state’s congressional districts lines is still on the table. It’s move that would shore up their party’s strength in the state. Changing district lines to favor the party in power is not a new idea, but in recent years it’s been, for the most part, a Republican tactic. Please join us to talk about what new election rules may mean for election results and our government.
- Rob Richie Executive director, FairVote
- Amy Walter National editor, Cook Political Report
- John Farrell Contributing editor, National Journal and author of "Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned" (2011)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Virginia has become the latest state to enter the redistricting fray, a move that's almost always aimed at boosting political club for the party in power in recent years, given state legislative control has been largely a Republican phenomenon. Joining me to talk about what redistricting and other election rule changes could mean for future election results and ongoing partisan gridlock: Rob Richie of FairVote, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report and John Farrell of National Journal.
MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us, enter the conversation if you like. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, everybody. Thanks for being here.
MS. AMY WALTERGood morning, Diane.
MR. ROB RICHIEGood morning, Diane.
MR. JOHN FARRELLHello.
REHMGood to have you all. Amy, talk about these two election rule changes proposals floated by Virginia state senators.
WALTERWell, in Virginia, there was a proposal and it actually made it through a subcommittee to change the way that Virginia allocates its electoral votes. As you know, right now, there are 13 electoral votes in Virginia. Whoever wins that state wins all 13. Republican state senator had said, hey, how about if we allocate by congressional district and just -- I know this is a coincidence, but the Republican candidate for president, Mitt Romney, actually then would have won the state because he won more congressional districts than Barack Obama.
WALTERSo he would have ended up with nine electoral votes to Obama's four. And the -- as you pointed out, this made it -- certain way through the process, made through subcommittee, but at the same time, the more powerful members of the Republican legislature said, it's not going to make it through full committee. We don't support it. And then Bob McDonnell actually came out and said, I don't support this at all. So that bill is dead now.
WALTERIt's also worth noting that I think there had been 13 different times, including when there are Democrats in charge in Richmond, when the idea of splitting the state proportionally -- in other words, not allowing a winner-take-all system but a proportional bi-congressional district vote -- would be the way that the state would allocate its electoral votes. But at the end of the day, none of these have come to pass, of course.
REHMToo risky to endorse for the governor, John Farrell?
FARRELLI think so. But also, once you start messing around with the Electoral College, you really open up Pandora's Box. You know, for example, right off the cuff, tell me why Wyoming and Idaho get two U.S. senators and California gets two U.S. senators. I mean, Republicans are supposed to be the party of states rights, but in this case, you know, it's not the state that's important anymore.
FARRELLSo why not start addressing some of the other parts of the Constitution as well that are sort archaic and don't do well for your party? You could see Democrats making a compelling argument that California deserves 15 senators rather than two.
REHMBut, Bob Richie, I gather there are some states that currently do apportion votes based on district results.
RICHIEThat's right, Maine and Nebraska. And actually in 2008, Nebraska had one of its congressional districts won by Obama. So that was the first time that it did result in either of those states splitting their electoral votes. It's part of our history though and part of what I guess I would say to Jack or just to make sure people are clear on is that the winner-take-all rule, meaning you get all the electoral votes in a state if you win the popular vote, is not in the Constitution, wasn't what the Founders intended. It's pretty clear.
RICHIEJames Madison, say, was very strongly against it. And it's really there for very partisan reasons, states wanting to help their side get as many electoral votes as possible. This kind of tactic also was clearly partisan, but it is part of a tradition of states trying to do what's best for themselves, and what we like is we actually think states should do something. They should just do something else which is this national popular vote plan which is also trying to fix a broken system, which I think is where we really are. We have a broken system.
REHMOK. I want to get to that in a few minutes. But these rule changes in Virginia would have benefited Republicans. But that's not all is the case, is it?
WALTERThat's right. There's always the unintended consequences of any of these. First of all, you have no idea what's going to happen down the road, and I think your point is also good, the one about the legacy issue. Is this going to impact McDonnell or other Republican governors who are actually up for re-election? Obviously, Bob McDonnell can't run for re-election, but there's talk about making these similar changes in places like Wisconsin and Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania. All of those Republican governors are up for re-election in 2014.
WALTERSo the impact there, of course, on their ability to win re-election with charges that they were actually rigging the system. And finally, you know, you get -- I always believe in the rule of, you know, you get -- sometimes, you get a little too cute by half, right? Whenever you think that you are rigging the system to benefit your party, what you come to find out is it backfires in some way, shape or form. And remember, in order for this to benefit Republicans, they would need more than one state to do this.
WALTERI mean, taking away a handful of President Obama's final total would be nice for Republicans. It wouldn't give them the Electoral College. And I was actually down in Charlotte, N.C. this week -- this past week with the Republican National Committee. There was some talk about this from some members. Obviously, the press was talking about this a lot as well.
WALTERBut when you talk to the leadership in the Republican Party, they understand fundamentally that if they can't win the popular vote, then they can't win the presidency. And losing the popular vote the last five out of six elections is really taking a toll on this party, and that if they can't do that, then trying to find ways around it are not the answer.
REHMBut people have been trying to change this Electoral College, the electoral system for a long time. He -- Rob Richie mentioned what FairVote is up to. Is there any effort toward simply eliminating the Electoral College, Jack?
FARRELLWell, I think that, again, for a conservative who believes in states rights, the danger in messing around with the system this way is that you open up the whole question of what else do we mess around with. And one way is to get rid of the Electoral College and just elect people by popular vote, and that of course, would reduce the values of the states, which are, in some ways as we move on, anachronism. But I wanted to pick up on something Amy said, which is like sort of talking about Republicans. You know, Democrats do this kind of stuff, too, and I think...
FARRELL…the classic unintended consequence was in 2004, you had Gov. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts and you had John Kerry, who had a chance to become elected president. So they changed the law in who gets to -- how they pick a senator and -- with the idea that they were going to keep it in a Democratic seat and keep it away from Romney. They had a special election, and Scott Brown and the Tea Party won. So sometimes it can come back and bite you horribly.
REHMJohn Farrell, he is contributing editor to National Journal. He's also author of the book, "Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned," that was published in 2011. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Rob Richie, how different would the presidential race have been if the Electoral College was eliminated and we went straight to popular vote?
RICHIEWell, we all can remember just how focused the candidates were on just a handful of states, and they're all very familiar states. We're in this new partisan environment where 35 states really from the get-go are just not going to get attention at all. And in fact, that many states got less than 100 of the attention in this cycle and in '08 that their population numbers would have deserved and could have an equitable treatment by the candidates as far as their time and their spending.
RICHIEAnd Barack Obama only visited eight states in the general election. Mitt Romney visited 10, including those same eight. Only 12 states got a total -- got a visit from any of the four candidates. And it's going to be essentially the same playing field in 2016. So if you have a popular vote election, which could be done by abolishing the Constitution or...
WALTERWow. Now, that's (word?).
RICHIEThat would be a shocker. Whoa. Abolishing the Electoral College, but this national popular vote proposal is a state means to achieve the same policy goal. That would mean that every vote is equal wherever it's cast. If you get excited about the election in Maryland or Washington, D.C. or Alaska or Hawaii or, you know, Wyoming or so on, you can get out there and get your neighbors to participate.
RICHIEAnd you can participate knowing that your vote is being treated equitably and every vote is equal because we have a 50-state party system where other parties are active and running congressional candidates and so on that you would have those entities out there participating and trying to get people to vote. And you'd also have this shocking guarantee that the candidate with the most popular votes would win, which is a nice outcome in a representative democracy as well.
REHMSo we're probably going to get a lot of tweets out there saying, Rob Richie, let's do away with the Constitution.
WALTERAbolish the Constitution.
REHMJust make sure you understand he made a mistake.
RICHIEAnd actually, you don't even need to change the Constitution to do the popular vote plan, which is the exciting part of it.
REHMWhich you would need to do if you fooled around with the Electoral College.
RICHIEItself. If you fooled around with states having electors, correct. But if you, you know, this plan, just to make sure people know what it is, it's a state plan.
RICHIEIt's passed in eight states and D.C. It's sort of halfway to what its goal is, which is to have states join together collectively to give all of their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in all 50 states, the whole country and to do so as a group once their number of electoral votes in the participating states as a bloc can guarantee election of the candidate with the most votes nationally.
RICHIEAnd so far, nothing changes because the number of states that have passed it can't provide that guarantee. But each year, we're getting new wins. We're getting more and more states passing it. And at a certain point, we can have a popular vote for president.
REHMRob Richie, executive director of FairVote. We've got lots of callers waiting. I know they want to weigh in. We'll do so after a short break.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about a number of proposals out there to not only redistrict in Virginia that is to draw new voting districts but also talk about the Electoral College, what's happening again in Virginia. Gov. McDonnell said he was perfectly happy with the way the Electoral College worked in Virginia and was not going to pursue something new and different.
REHMHere in the studio with me: John Farrell, contributing editor to National Journal, Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report, and Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote. And to you, Rob Richie, here's a tweet, "National popular vote will shrink the battleground states, not grow them. Eight states out-populate the entire 42 others."
RICHIEWell, I think there's -- sometimes people treat popular votes as a mystery that we don't really know how they would work. But, in fact, we use them for everything else. And we know how popular vote elections work. We use them for every governor, every senator, and you just don't run campaigns that way. When you need a vote to win -- when you need to win the popular vote statewide, you may put more energy where you think you're going to get more votes. But you're not going to ignore people because every vote's equal.
RICHIEIt just simply is -- doesn't make any sense. And the math doesn't really work out either in that one too 'cause that person -- it's actually 11 states. And you'd have to win every single popular vote in Texas, New York, Florida, California, you know, every different kinds of states. No way that's going to happen. So you have to build a national coalition of votes. I mean, it's not a mystery that popular vote elections mean that you seek votes everywhere.
REHMSo you were saying just before the break that there is fair amount of support out there for it. Where is that support coming from?
RICHIEWell, it's been kind of a mixed of states. The idea was introduced in 2006. Bills have been introduced in all 50 states in D.C., and it's passed chambers in a lot of states. More than 2,000 -- more than 2,100 state legislators have voted for it or sponsored it. And, you know, it's Hawaii, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Vermont -- well, there's more. But Maryland was the first. And one thread to be clear is these are states the Democrats control. And I think there was a certain kind of energy coming from the 2000 presidential election.
RICHIEBut it's one that gets a lot of Republican support as well. And I'll just site a Gallup poll that just came out last Friday. More than 60 percent of Republicans, more than 60 percent of Democrats and more than 60 percent of independents all support a popular vote for president over the system. It really is the bipartisan - nonpartisan solution.
REHMAmy Walter, how much support of the federal level do you see for that approach?
WALTERWell, again, it goes to the bigger question for these two parties, which is, you know, how much do they enjoy playing the current game. And I would argue they just sort of play whatever hand is dealt, right? Obviously, the Obama campaign changed the focus of the Electoral College from where Democrats had seen it in 2004. Back in 2004, it was you have to win Ohio or Florida. That's our only path. That's how you get 270. That's how you win the Electoral College.
WALTERThe Obama campaign came in and said, actually, we can expand the playing field here. There's a demographic reason we can do it. There's a reason we can do it because of our candidate. And all of a sudden, states that weren't on the map before, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia, became competitive states, right? So they -- every year, it seems that the map, even though we know, doesn't change that drastically. It's not like 45 states are going to come into the mix in 2016. It does change with the changing candidates and with the changing demographics.
REHMAll right. Jack Farrell, let's come back to Virginia and drawing of the lines which state senators there would like to see happen. What are they after?
FARRELLThe Republican Party has a big problem which is that the demographic tide is against them. And they can respond two ways, and they're sort of responding both ways at once. In some cases, they are trying to strike more moderate positions and luring more minorities into ranks for Republican Party. And they've got some great success.
FARRELLYou've got Asian-American governors in Louisiana and South Carolina. You have the first black senator from the South in South Carolina. And in today's front page, you see that there's a coalition of Republicans, including Marco Rubio from Florida, who are pushing a new immigration law that will help the party with Hispanic voters.
REHMWhich we'll be talking about tomorrow.
FARRELLThere you go. On the other side of that, there is still this sort of -- my charming wife call sore loser tactics. And basically what they've been doing is throwing up an awful lot of obstructions to make it hard for the Obama vote, the new Democratic coalition to get to the polls whether it's making a stand in line for 12 hours or show a photo ID.
FARRELLOr in this case, in Virginia, they waited until a black senator went up to Washington on Martin Luther King's birthday to watch President Obama be inaugurated and with acute sense of awful timing decided that that was the day to ram through this redistricting plan than this black senator was holding up. So it's that kind of really awful.
REHMSo say that again.
REHMYou were saying that when all these Democrats went to Washington for the inauguration, Republicans voted on this measure.
FARRELLWell, they took advantage of the absence of a state senator. In this case, he happened to be an African-American state senator, which is -- now, the actual bill -- and this is really interesting because the Supreme Court is going to rule on a similar question next month but -- or have hearings on a similar question next month. The actual bill would actually possibly create another black district.
FARRELLSo it is defensible for Republicans to say this redistricting is actually going to help. What it does is it creates a new black district by taking a lot of black votes and putting him in one district, which means then that you're diluting the black electorate in other districts. And it's called packing or stacking. And so -- but rather than do it that way, they decided that the best thing to do would be to wait until Martin Luther King's birthday and reveal themselves as manipulators. And that's it.
REHMHow does the governor feel about that plan?
FARRELLThe governor doesn't like it. But he's getting some prods. And this morning's Washington Post had a wonderful editorial, which has said, "As he finishes his last year in office, Gov. McDonnell faces a stark choice: Does he prefer to be known for rubber stamping a hyper-partisan power grab by Republicans who use legislative skullduggery and cartographic trickery to seize control of what had been an evenly divided state Senate?" So he's getting a lot of advice from the bleachers on this one.
REHMSo, Amy, you said you were at the Charlottesville meeting last week. Did this Virginia redistricting plan -- what did you hear about it?
WALTERThere was not a whole lot of talk in the hallways about it. There was nothing coming from the podium specifically, though the RNC chairman Reince Priebus did say he was intrigued by it. I think that was his term because, again, it's not just Virginia but other states are also signaling that they're looking at this. Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin is one of those. At the same time, there's pushback from the leadership that, you know what, this is not the way we can win national elections.
WALTERLet's just -- let's be very clear. We have lost the popular vote. Winning over a state simply redrawing lines or reallocating the electoral votes isn't going to get us to 270. And fundamentally, we have to. And as Jack pointed out, deal with the changing demographics. This is why you're seeing immigration reform make it fast-tracked with the Republican support. This is why you were seeing Republicans at that conference in Charlotte talk about a new tone. They said, we need to be the party that smiles more, right?
REHMWell, now, also Bobby Jindal's comment.
WALTERThat's right. He said, and we have to stop being a stupid party, right? We have to stop nominating people who say really dumb things, many of which are scientifically incorrect.
REHMYeah. He was talking about people both within and outside politics. Jack.
FARRELLYeah. And the great assumption of this last presidential election was that Obama coalition would not come again together because the economy had not done well but just to make sure the idiot Republican tacticians decided that what they were going to do is do a lot of voter suppression laws. And what the voter suppressions law did is angered a lot of people whose parents were beaten or, in some cases, died for the right to vote.
FARRELLAnd they went out and voted in huge numbers, and the Republicans were surprised. You had 40 private planes at Logan Airport in Boston, ready to celebrate President Romney's election, and instead what you found was that black voters came to the polls in even greater numbers in many places.
RICHIEI just want to get back to this Virginia state Senate plan because I think it -- what it shows -- want -- just to make sure people know, you know, we're in a -- we're past the first election under the plan that was used in 2011. So it's a re-redistricting, right? It's a change in districts that were already used. It opens this -- we talked about Pandora's box earlier.
RICHIEYou know, I think a Pandora's box of talking about ways to improve our elections is one thing. This kind of Pandora's box is opening the idea of changing districts every two or four years, a shift of political power. You go in and you undo another party's gerrymander...
REHMYeah, depending who's in power. Sure.
RICHIE...which is, you know, you can certainly justify maybe in your own mind. But then you get this sort of shifting playing field, which, you know, the conversation will get to as, you know, does the single-member district system work in this kind of highly partisan environment and for multiple reasons? But one is, essentially, if you have, to use maybe a clumsy metaphor, but if you have a loaded gun without a lock in your house and you don't do something about it, it might get used.
RICHIEAnd essentially, there's a certain kind of power that the legislators have right now that they're using if only, I think perhaps here, they may just be using it as a negotiating ploy to force the state Senate to go along with what they want on transportation or other policy because they have incredible leverage over them right now. So until the governor says, I will veto this, I think he's open to the suggestion that they're using this plan to actually negotiate with Democrats.
WALTERWell, and to Rob's point about, you know, doing this every couple of years and the (unintelligible), et cetera, you only think about redoing this electoral system proportionally, right, in some ways, it actually takes what would be a swing state and sort of encourages -- or discourages, I'm sorry, candidates from campaigning there, because if you know the district lines are so polarized and it's very clear who's going to win which district.
WALTERThis is a red district. This is a blue district. If I'm a presidential candidate -- and, P.S., it costs a lot of money to run in Northern Virginia because you have to advertise on the Washington, D.C., market -- I might be able to just avoid Virginia altogether because...
WALTER...I'm going to go spend money where it is actually more efficient and more effective. But each congressional district is so gerrymandered that to go in and to say, well, I'm going to -- now I'm going to compete more in a state to win those votes, actually it takes the incentive away to compete as opposed to trying to win the 13 votes in Virginia.
REHMAmy Walter of The Cook Political Report. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Got lots of callers who would like to be part of the program. Let's go first to Martins Ferry, Ohio. Good morning, Phil.
PHILYes. My question was about why not use a proportional allocation of electors instead of either popular vote or district plan or winner take all?
RICHIEWe did a good analysis of the different proposals. People can check it out at fairvote.org. Two ways to answer this: one is if you do it state by state, which is what one would need to do without a constitutional change, then you're opening these political doors toward, well, why are you doing it in Wisconsin and not in Texas?
RICHIEOr, you know, there are certain states where, say, the part like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which are the states that I think are still very much in play for changes to divide their electoral votes, these are states that Republicans haven't won since the '80s. And if they can get some electoral votes from a proportional plan, that helps them nationally, and they may be able to justify it within their state under sort of arguments of fairness, but we know the motivation really isn't that.
RICHIEWhen done nationally, it's really, of course, substitute for a popular vote because proportions don't always make states competitive. It's sort of a complicated argument, but basically there's -- there are certain thresholds when you -- a higher share of your vote gets another elector, and to pass those thresholds sometimes takes too much effort. So they would sort of ignore most states still.
RICHIESo I think that I -- but I do want to say, just to kind of -- just 'cause this conversation is looking going between legislative elections and presidential elections, we are strongly supportive of a proportional system for legislative elections because that's where they actually do make every voter be able to participate in a meaningful election compared to these incredibly gerrymandered congressional districts where most of us live in districts where there's no chance to have a meaningful vote.
FARRELLYeah. The other thing you have to remember, too, is that a lot of Republican strength in the country is achieved in the -- out in the state legislatures and in congressional elections and off-year elections when the big Obama coalition does not come together.
FARRELLYou know, in some ways, you're sticking a stick into a hornet's nest, and you're -- if you're a Republican and you're going to give voters who don't follow these state laws and these kind of -- or sort of archaic arguments a reason to show up in the off-years, and so getting back to the question of unintended consequences, you may end up having exactly the opposite of what you wanted. You may have...
REHMAnd what effect does this create in the halls of Congress? Do we have more conflict because of all this fooling around, lines being drawn, this line was this way, now it's this way? What happens?
WALTERRight. I mean, it takes away this concept that at least there's some good faith underneath all of this, right? And, look, most of the people who are elected to Congress sit in incredibly safe districts, and their only fear right now is a primary, not losing in a general election. So, certainly, they're invested in the current system as it sits and the gerrymandering as it sits. At the same time, they do understand, and they don't like the fact that their approval rating is somewhere below head lice and other things, right?
WALTERSo they would like to believe that they could still be this deliberative body that gets things done. But if they are -- if you are a legislator, whether you're at the state level or at the federal level, and what you feel like you're walking into a game that's already rigged, you're going to have very little faith that the person who did the rigging can be trusted on any other issue and whether it's immigration reform, tax reform -- go down the list.
WALTERSo it just seems to create an era where everyone, then, just is looking at the other side as an enemy and as somebody that can never be trusted. And that certainly doesn't bode well for the process in general.
REHMI must say I found myself encouraged to hear that there would be a bipartisan immigration reform plan put forward simply because it seemed to send a message that, at last, somebody was willing to do something together. And let's hope -- we have no idea where it's going to go, how it's going to go, but at least they're willing to try. Short break here. More of your calls when we come back.
REHMAnd here's a question lots of our listeners are asking about. It comes from Randy who says, "We have the technology to blindly redistrict based solely on population density. We should remove the politics from redistricting, base it solely on even distribution of congressional districts based on population." Rob.
RICHIEThat's the first level of response to what we see out there that does make sense to a certain level, which is that it's clearly wrong when partisans draw districts to help their friends and hurt their enemies, absolutely. But to then say if you take that away, you'll have a fair plan is a leap that actually isn't justified by what we see in the country right now, which is that, say, all of New England does not have a Republican House member. There's not a single House member there.
RICHIEAnd then there's like a whole swath of the country from Arkansas to Idaho, actually, all the way to Eastern Washington where not a single Democrat wins. So even if you draw "fair plans," you still end up with incredibly lopsided representation in those areas and most districts not being competitive.
RICHIEAnd then you have the complexities of the way we use districts to create opportunities for racial minorities and the fact that the Democratic vote these days in the partisan terms is much more concentrated than the Republican vote and so that a "fair plan" tends to have a Republican bias nationally.
RICHIESo that's where we're excited about this, using a statutory answer to rethink the single-member district and go to these multi-seat district plans where voters in every district would be able to very likely help elect the candidate of choice, some kind of non-winner-take-all system grounded and things we're already doing at a local level.
REHMHere's one from Scott in Ann Arbor, who says, "California made two major changes to its electoral system before the last election, introducing gerrymandering reform and a fully open primary. How did those changes affect the outcome? Did they succeed in reducing the influence of the political extremes on the election process?" Jack.
FARRELLI'm not sure that I can answer the question about reducing the influence of political extremes, but I think that they certainly did make a move towards taking it out of the hands of the political professionals. The bottom line right now is that California is a very liberal blue state, and so the actual result of having a commission take -- supposedly take away the politics out of redistricting was not that greater significant.
WALTERYeah. And we had many more competitive House races. I mean, California, for a long time, had been placed with so many districts and so few competitive. And this redistricting plan, again, it was done as a commission of "regular people" who put this together actually helped to create some very competitive districts. We'll see if they remain competitive over the next decade.
WALTERBut -- we also saw that there were some unintended consequences going back to our term in an open primary where people who were expected to be the runaway favorite suddenly lost because they can't count on that traditional structure of a closed primary system that held them. And honestly, I mean, if we want to talk about polarization and the problems here, one big, big piece of this is the primary system. In states where the primaries are closed, first of all, it means that only Republicans can vote of Republicans, Democrats can vote for Democrats. But the other piece of it comes to voters too.
WALTERAnd turn out in primaries is very low. And if you choose not to turn out in a primary, you take some responsibility for the consequence of that result, and the people who turn out usually in primaries are the people who are the most committed, which means they're the most liberal and the most conservative. But these are -- it's the primaries where 5,000 votes, 10,000 votes determines the ultimate congressperson, not the November election.
REHMSo if you open the primaries to everyone instead of Republican or Democrat, how would that change things, Rob?
RICHIENot nearly as much as people think. And in fact, California had open primaries in a certain definition before this. They simply changed it to, in some ways, a no-primary system. There is just -- it's the top two finishers who go on to the November ballot. And one should stress, there's a couple of interesting examples of change that came from that and then overwhelming not interesting examples, like the party-endorsed candidates overwhelming won.
RICHIEThe general elections were overwhelmingly not competitive particularly going forward. There were sort of some changes like this Berman-Sherman race and others, but you won't probably expect that to happen again. And so they were sort of a one-time shake up. The point I would make is the reason why primaries are so important, as Amy says, is because general elections are often not competitive so the primary means everything.
RICHIESo you can either say, well, let's open up primaries or -- let's look at or -- and/or, look at ways we can change general elections so they matter, and that's what we're interested, you know, that same concept, popular vote for president. These non-winner-take-all fair voting systems for Congress would make the general election always competitive and represent the left, center and right in a way that I think is more in tune with a good political system should be.
REHMAll right. To Blanche. She's in Birmingham, Ala. Good morning.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
BLANCHEI was wondering if we had voting -- everybody voting, what would happen? Wouldn't we develop a lot of other parties coming in and -- which would change everything?
WALTERWell, Rob would be more of the expert on this, but my take would be, you know, again, if it's just purely a popular vote, it still would be the person with the most votes winning as opposed to what we talk about right now in the current electoral system, which is when we talk about the influence of a third party candidate, we talk about its impact on a candidate's ability to get to 270 electoral votes, right?
WALTERAnd if they don't get to 270, then it's the House of Representatives that determines who the next president is. That seems to be something that I doubt many Americans would like to see. They would much rather have, if there's a five-way or a six-way or a seven-way race for president, that the person with the most votes ultimately selected.
REHMAll right. To Harrisburg, Penn. Collin, hi there.
COLLINHi. How are you?
COLLINGreat. I, well, you know, like -- I'm always astonished that the Electoral College gets blamed all the time when it's politics that plays into this every single time. It's not the Electoral College. I think they give us the proper resolve, but politics get involved. And the one election I wanted to cite that really can demonstrate this problem is the 1888 election where President Cleveland, he won the popular vote, but he won in the South by 65 percent while in the North he couldn't. Well, Benjamin Harrison could barely get, you know, like, over 50 percent, I think.
COLLINSo naturally, he lost the popular vote but the nation did not. The South wanted Cleveland because he would favor an export tax on -- or he opposed and export tax on cotton and the North wanted that tax. So, you know, like -- that election resulted in what the nation wanted as a whole. The South really wanted Cleveland to stay in office and then not getting tax for cotton.
REHMAll right. So we have a mini history lesson there, Rob.
RICHIEYeah. Well, people use this Grover Cleveland example. He, of course, was an incumbent president, so he had already won under the Electoral College system. Was a rather bold president on certain things, and he was a believer in basically a free-trade kind of concept that we as a nation have moved to since then.
RICHIEBut initially, there were sort of regional interests that supported tariffs and things that helped their local businesses. And, hey, he won the popular vote. And so I think the nation actually did support what he wanted, but he actually didn't get it. But, you know, the fact that he didn't really, you know, these were a time of very closely contested elections as they are now.
RICHIEI think we should keep in mind that the main reason to -- for why we oppose the current system is that it -- it's because of the winner-take-all rule. It means that 40 states, 70 percent of Americans, are really locked out of elections. And Amy said that sort of shifts now in some -- not much. In fact, 2012, there was not a single new swing state. So we have this sort of very locked-in system, and that's the real reason to oppose it.
REHMAll right. Here is a tweet: "Would the popular vote idea exacerbate the urban-rural split? Would candidates with rural affinity feel their path is even more difficult?"
RICHIEI would say no because when -- if every vote is equal, let's say, you know, 15 percent of the country, it's hard to define exactly what rural is. But right now, most rural voters lived in states that are completely dead politically in a general election. In fact, almost every small state, Wyoming, Idaho, all these, you know, states are just out of the picture.
RICHIEThe farm states are mostly out of the picture. You've got Iowa and then -- but not Kansas or Nebraska. And -- but if every vote is equal and it's a close election, you've got to be aware of the vote everywhere. And if you ignore rural voters and that cost you two or 3 percent, hey, that can cost you the whole election.
REHMAll right. To Richmond, Va. Ellis, you're on the air. Ellis, please, turn down your radio. You're on the air. Ellis? I'm afraid we're going to have to let that caller go. Let's go to Debbie in Paw Paw, Mich. Good morning. You're on the air.
DEBBIEGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
DEBBIEI guess I would like to have explained what purpose does the Electoral College served other than confuse people.
DEBBIEI've heard -- I have heard various explanations having to do with, well, when the country was first started, it's just this, that and the other. But at this point, it seems to do nothing but obfuscate the whole issue.
REHMA little history there, Jack.
FARRELLSure. I mean, the whole system, part of it exists because of tradition, and part of it exists because it's hard to change. But the theory behind the whole system is to pit voracious special interests against each other in the most cumbersome way possible with the idea that the end result at the end will be some sort of equanimity. And again, getting back to the question as to...
FARRELLYeah, yeah. Why is...
WALTERI don't think that helped.
FARRELLWhy is there, you know, why are there big states and small states? Why is there a U.S. Senate? The idea was to protect people in rural states, to protect the slave system in the South, which had three-fifths a value for a black person rather than a white person. It's a huge Rube Goldberg machine of which Electoral College is part of it. But the design behind the whole thing is to, in some cases, limit the kind of small-d democracy popular vote and keep it in the hands of folks who are more select, who are supposed to be wiser and who will act slower.
REHMThere was a concern about mob rule, Amy.
WALTERRight. I mean...
REHMAmong the founders.
WALTERThat's right. And we remember that's -- the Senate was also not directly elected for that purpose as well, right? And the legislatures we're the ones in control of appointing senators. So it did start from there. And now what it has turned into, in many ways, it is -- we think about it as -- all right, we look at some of the swing states and we say, what do they reflect? And, you know, Rob is right. It's not as if the battleground states changed drastically.
WALTERBut what we've seen over the years, of course, is with demographic change and people moving as well, that -- states that were once not considered particularly competitive now become very important. Texas is one of those states, Georgia -- that people see sort of as a demographical ticking time bomb, if you will. A lot of Republicans worried that they could lose both states and those electoral votes.
WALTERThat's a lot of electoral votes right there because of demographic changes there. Republicans who were, of course, never competitive in the South back in those days owning the South, and yet we see, because of moving in there, North Carolina competitive, Virginia competitive. Will there become a time when we start talking about other states being competitive?
REHMExactly. And the question you all have been talking about, competitive states. But how many competitive congressional districts remain?
RICHIEWell, it's actually a similar phenomenon. So obviously state lines are not gerrymandered, but the number of states that are competitive and spin in presidential elections has drastically reduced. Like back in 1976 when Carter beat Ford, three-quarters of the country lived in competitive states. And a lot more districts could be in play as well, sort of, year to year. But now we've seen a sharp decline and even potentially competitive House races and, of course, competitive swing states.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Rosemary Beach, Fla. Hi, Britton. You're on the air.
BRITTONHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BRITTONYeah. I have a comment. It's sort of a question but more of a comment for Rob. And the conversation has sort of shifted along the lines of my comment that, you know, that this original intent of protection against mob rule or even tyrannical sort of rule seems to be as much in play today as ever and, you know, you look at voting blocs like California or like New York where they're maybe not wholly monolithic, but largely they are.
BRITTONAnd, you know, you look at the difference in culture from, say, South Mississippi or Nebraska versus California or New York, and you have to think, you know, we've got these swing states that are critically important right now. How does that change in the context of a popular vote? Are we then only going to have candidates that visit Texas, Florida, New York and California and writes the rest of the country off?
BRITTONI just don't know that we're there yet. You know, at some point it seems like the popular vote is a good idea, but maybe the country is not quite monolithic enough or quite diverse enough yet. Maybe we're 20 years away.
RICHIEWell, I would say, one, is that the country is a lot less monolithic than the winner-take-all map makes it look like, right? So one exercise we did for congressional elections that helps inform this subject is that we were able to combine existing congressional districts from taking one -- ones that we're next to each other and to districts of 3, 4, 5, seats, so bigger districts. In every single one of those districts, both parties would have enough votes to help elect the candidate using the non-winner-take-all system.
RICHIESo you think of the most Republican areas and the most Democratic areas, there's always a substantial number of voters who disagree and are waiting to participate in and have their votes counted, when in representation and in a popular vote election, being able to be part of the game, right? And it's just not true that we win popular vote elections by writing people up. It's not a smart way to run when you're trying to win the most votes.
REHMAll right. And final email from Christina. She's in Kokomo, Ind. She says, "I'd be far less appalled by this re-apportionment idea if congressional districts were all drawn by non-partisan impartial boards." "For the moment," she says, "I'm relieved that GOP's wish to exploit partly-drawn districts in certain states is receiving such broad attention. Democrats do the same thing, and we shall see what happens." Thanks to all of you. Rob Richie, Amy Walter, Jack Farrell. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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