If New York abandoned its winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes in presidential elections, our state could start the transformation to become a powerful influence in national politics. Instead, Albany has legislated our state to irrelevance.
Article II of the U.S. Constitution expressly gives each individual state legislature the power to choose how to give out the state’s electoral votes. The New York State Assembly and Senate decided years ago—like 47 other states—that the candidate for President who wins the most votes of any other candidate on the ballot will be awarded all of the electoral votes our state has been allocated.
The Legislature should change our winner-take-all method. Here are three reasons why:
1. Generating Revenue
Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that do not use the winner-take-all method. Since 1972 in Maine and 1996 in Nebraska, those states have allocated one Electoral College vote to the victor of each of their congressional districts and their remaining two votes to the winner of the respective states’ popular vote.
In 2008, John McCain won four of Nebraska’s five electoral votes. Since the 2012 general election was expected by some experts to be a close call in both the popular and the electoral vote, winning the Cornhusker State’s 2nd congressional district’s single electoral vote—which had been won by Obama in 2008—became part of the path to victory for both the Obama and Romney campaigns.
The strategy was a costly one for the campaigns, but of huge benefit to the economy of the contested region: the Omaha metropolitan area. Reports indicate that the combined spending total of both candidates in Nebraska 2nd CD reached or exceeded $1 million.
If the nominees’ campaigns invested so heavily to rack up a single electoral vote in Nebraska, what would they have spent here vying for the four congressional districts in New York won by John McCain in the 2008 election?
2. New York Issues
When was the last time a viable candidate for the presidency talked seriously about the Alternative Minimum Tax disproportionally affecting you and your neighbors? How come national candidates never confront the breast cancer crisis on Long Island? When are they going to visit the shuttered businesses across large swaths of upstate? Why is the sky-high cost of education in New York not on their radar?
The local issues of concern to New Yorkers seem to be irrelevant on the national stage in part because our voice in the Electoral College has been muted by the foregone conclusion of the winner-take-all outcome.
New York is currently the third most populous of all the fifty states. Yet you would never know it from the sound of crickets during a presidential election. Obnoxiously loud in some states and eerily quiet in others, the Electoral College forces a national inconsistency of campaign attention during the contest.
According to a report published by the Washington Post following the 2012 election, the Obama and Romney campaigns spent $173 million, $151 million and $150 million on advertising in Florida, Virginia and Ohio, respectively—all states with smaller populations than New York. Contrast those figures with the money spent in New York State during the same election: $55,600. This figure represents the total cost of 202 ads in the Buffalo market, 4 in the Albany market and 1(!) in the New York City media market.
It’s not that the candidates completely ignore the Empire State. They make a point of coming to the Big Apple often. But instead of addressing voters, they mostly speak to donors, collecting big money contributions from New Yorkers and then jetting off to swing states to talk about the issues that matter to their denizens instead of the ones that matter to us.
It is no accident that it took 11 weeks for the federal government to vote for aid following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and only 11 days for it to approve financial disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which included aid for the critical swing state of Florida.
By making the candidates actually compete for our electoral votes—instead of encouraging the Democrats to take our support for granted and Republicans to write us off—a reformed system that plays up our state’s clout would force to the forefront issues of concern to New Yorkers.
The recent political climate has been rife with charges of voter disenfranchisement in a small sampling of states (Ohio, Virginia and Florida, most specifically) whose electoral votes have not been taken for granted by the two major political parties.
The winner-take-all system apparently satisfactory to our state Legislature ignores the input of a large segment of the Empire State’s voting population, encourages disenfranchisement and legally sanctions an unfair and unrepresentative outcome.
In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama garnered nearly 63 percent of the 6.1 million ballots cast in New York. In the winner-take-all system, however, he was awarded all 29 electoral votes. As a result, the nearly 37 percent of the state population voting for either the Republican or third party tickets were unrecognized in the distribution of Electoral College votes. Since the rhetoric today is all about getting more people out to the polls, why would our Legislature purposely perpetuate a system that encourages voter apathy?
I am not one of those advocates who supports the abolition of the Electoral College.
First, the 15 states that have a population less than Brooklyn would never vote for the constitutional amendment required to do away with the EC.
Second, in contrast to being the harbinger of popular appeal that some assume, a candidate competing in a direct popular vote model could simply design a message catering to those living in a small handful of the largest cities and be elected chief executive. The system in place now forces presidential contenders to address constituents who would otherwise be invisible with a direct popular vote: farmers in Iowa, coal miners in Pennsylvania, retirees in Florida, college students in Colorado, and so many others.
The Electoral College process also helped get, historically speaking, Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia to support turning four sheets of paper containing 4,440 words into the governing document of the nation. A direct popular vote would have made the least populous states in 1787 fear—and reasonably so—that their influence in the new union would have been minimal.
“If you can’t be with the one you love,” Stephen Stills once pined, “love the one you’re with.” Instead of abolishing the electoral process outlined in the Constitution, let’s make it finally work for our state. It is not hard to imagine the quadrennial influence New Yorkers could have if we adopted the congressional model used by Maine and Nebraska or a unique method based upon proportionality.
Albany could pass a law today making New York relevant again on the national stage. However, the reason New York lawmakers are resistant to change—Democrats want to retain power for their party—is the same reason Texas’ lawmakers feel the same way—Republicans want to retain power for their party.
The change we need would require politicians to put our state’s citizens ahead of party loyalty. There is little evidence to show that those in office have the capacity for this type of selfless endeavor. So the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we will hold our state’s legislators accountable to our interests or allow them to continue to work first and foremost for their own interests and those of their parties.
The ballot, and the 2016 presidential election, awaits.
James Coll is an adjunct professor of American and Constitutional history at Nassau Community College and the founder of changeNYS.org, a not-for-profit organization formed to educate New Yorkers about the need for non-partisan civic and political reform in the state.