Massachusetts Passes Electoral Reform; Right Wing Freaks Out

Yesterday, the Massachusetts state legislature passed a law changing the way its electoral votes will be allotted. This is part of a movement to switch to direct election of US presidents by popular vote.

The idea is that each state’s electors will vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote. But this law will not take effect until enough other states have passed similar laws. So far, five states have done so: Hawaii, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, and Washington.

Makes sense, right? One person, one vote is how we elect senators and representatives, school board members, and so forth, and it seems to work fairly well.

But, of course, there may be arguments against it. The Boston Globe quotes an opponent of the measure as saying,

“The thing about this that bothers me the most is it’s so sneaky. This is the way that liberals do things a lot of times, very sneaky,” he said. “This is sort of an end run around the Constitution.”

Cogent, well thought out, and well articulated. All except the part between quotation marks.

Okay, maybe the bit about “end run around the Constitution” carries some weight. The most obvious way to change the way presidents are elected would be to amend the constitution. But that would require two thirds of the states to ratify it, and this project seeks to achieve substantively the same effect without as much trouble, one state at a time.

A glance at the comments at Free Republic elaborates on why this law is a bad idea. Apparently the main argument is that it happened in Massachusetts and other states that went for Obama in the last election, and since liberals sank the Titanic, killed Davy Crockett at the Alamo, and tempted Eve in the garden of Eden, everything they do is automatically tainted with evil.

Another argument is that Massachusetts is foolish for passing this law, since it means that if a majority of Massachusettsans vote one way, but a majority of the rest of the country votes another, then Massachusetts’s electors will vote differently from the people in their state.

Um, yeah. That’s pretty much the idea. But apparently some people have a hard time wrapping their head around this. Some of the people making this argument show signs of not having read enough of the article to realize that this law will only kick in if states with a total of 270 electoral votes all do the same thing. These people are also often under the impression that Sarah Palin can get a majority of votes in 2012.

Others appear to be under the impression that if this passes, only the populous states will matter, and that smaller states will be taken completely out of play. I’m guessing that this arises from some idea that since California and New York reliably vote Democratic, that everyone in those states votes the same way. In fact, a look at a county-by-county map of the 2008 election shows what I thought everyone already knew: that every state has both Democratic and Republican voters.

In fact, this plan would make states like California and yes, even Massachusetts worth campaigning in for Republicans. Maryland is solidly Democratic, but that’s mainly because of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Outside of that area, people are a lot more conservative. (Of course, by the same token, Democrats would want to campaign in Austin and Little Rock.)

Under the present system, my vote is taken for granted by both major parties: the Republicans don’t want to tailor their platform to win my vote because they know they won’t get Maryland. And the Democrats can afford to take Maryland for granted because it’s not like it’s going to suddenly turn red. The end result is that elections are settled by a handful of swing states.

If the president were elected by popular vote, then a hundred votes in downtown Baltimore would be just as valuable as a hundred votes in rural Kansas, so all fifty states would be in play. (Actually, I’ve heard enough horror stories from friends in Missouri and other battleground states that I might come to regret what I just wrote. I think the saying “be careful what you wish for” applies here.)

One nightmare scenario I saw mentioned was that one-person-one-vote would lead to “mob rule”. Meaning, presumably, that if a majority of people wanted a certain person to be president, that’s who would be chosen. Of course, these are the same people who defended California’s decision to strip millions of people of their right to marry the one they love by calling it “the will of the people”.

I suppose that popular elections could skew toward city residents. On one hand, this is perfectly fair, given that there are more people living in urban than in rural areas. But there might be concern that only cities would be worth campaigning in, and both parties would ignore rural areas.

Of course, as I mentioned before, a vote in the city would still be worth as much as a vote in the country, and the fact that there might be as many people in a Manhattan block as in a hundred square miles in Nebraska doesn’t change that. This is reflected in the fact that advertising space and time (and other dimensions that advertisers may have discovered) are more expensive in more densely-populated areas. If the market is efficient, then reaching a hundred Manhattanites costs as much as reaching a hundred Kansans. Then again, my gut feeling (I don’t have any numbers to back this up) is that advertising is cheaper per person in Manhattan than in rural Kansas. Population density does come with economies; for instance, you don’t need a car to stuff leaflets under a hundred doors in Manhattan. Of course, if this makes cities more attractive to political parties, then advertisers will notice, and the market can sort things out.

But all in all, I get the impression that a lot of conservatives have a hard time distinguishing “what’s good for me” from “what’s good for the country”. That, and a fetishistic attachment to having things be the way they were in the olden days, back when travel and communications were difficult, and women and brown people couldn’t vote.

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