Red states, blue states and the travesty of the Electoral College

In my year of wandering and wondering across America, I’ve thought often about how many of the institutions that bind us together have lost credibility. Americans have lost respect for public education, for established religion, for traditional media, for government and public service in general. For many of these institutions, it’s hard to imagine getting that credibility back.

Politics in general, and the election system in particular, have also lost credibility. Politics has always divided Americans, but elections have also worked to bring us together. We come together to debate the issues, evaluate the candidates and make decisions on Election Day. But the tribalism in American politics has grown worse in my lifetime. The debates don’t change anyone’s minds and the elections don’t decide anything. Mobilizing the base has become more important than persuading the undecided. Loud voices from all sides denounce the system as “rigged,” so the results it produces carry no weight. We don’t come together the day after Election Day; we just start the next campaign.

There are lots of factors involved in this decline: Big money donors drown out the voices of individual voters. Media has become more partisan, and even media that try to carry on the traditional role as objective reporters and judicious referees are denounced as biased. One party has convinced its voters that electoral fraud is rampant, while the other argues that voter suppression is tilting the results. Then there’s the Red State/Blue State business, which I criticize in my latest column from Texas.

I blame Chuck Todd, who popularized the shorthand way of painting states in primary colors during the long election night of 2000, and the graphics editors who perpetuated it. It’s now so prevalent that you’d think Democratic states were blue and Republican states were red since the days of the Founders.

But mostly I blame the Electoral College, and the winner-take-all formula nearly every state uses to allocate electors. It devalues the votes of those in the minority in their states; it depresses turnout; it has created a situation where national campaigns concentrate on a handful of “battleground” states and ignore the rest.

And in two of the last five elections, the Electoral College has awarded the White House to the candidate who came in second in votes. That’s just crazy, and undemocratic. No wonder the electoral system has lost credibility.

That’s why I was pleased to hear Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat who is giving Ted Cruz a stiffer challenge than anyone expected, call for the abolition of the Electoral College at a town hall event outside Austin last week. “One person, one vote,” he said, with the same weight given to a vote whether it’s cast in “blue” Massachusetts, “red” Texas, or “purple” Ohio.

More on O’Rourke in the column you may find in a GateHouse newspaper near you or here: