On a slow news day in August, a young man's fancy turns lightly to . . . the Electoral College. The old E.C. hasn't gotten a lot of attention lately. The upside-down election of 2000 brought all sorts of ideas about changing the way we elect presidents, but that talk faded as 2004 drew near and pretty much disappeared entirely after George W. Bush carried both the popular vote and the Electoral College count.
But 2008 will be upon us before we know it, and the Electoral College will be large and in charge again. Donkey Rising points us to a new study from FairVote on the toll it's taking on American democracy. Because the Electoral College system puts the emphasis on winning states, not votes, the race for the presidency of the United States plays out almost exclusively in the states that could conceivably be up for grabs. With each election cycle, that battleground gets smaller. In the 1960 presidential election, FairVote says, 24 states were highly competitive. By 2004, the battleground had shrunk to 13 states, and FairVote says it will get even smaller by 2008, when the only large states in play may well be Ohio and Florida. If a Republican wins both, the Republicans will hold on to the White House for four more years. If a Democrat can get at least a split, it's game on.
There's some good news for Democrats in the study: Florida and Ohio notwithstanding, John Kerry did relatively better than Bush did in battleground states in 2004, FairVote says, and Democrats are positioned to do better still in the battlegrounds in 2008. But overall, the report ought to be a depressing read for anyone concerned about the state of American democracy. With the campaigns' time and money dumped so heavily into so few states, it's to be expected that people are tuning out elsewhere. Still, the statistical evidence is pretty startling, especially when it comes to younger voters. In the 10 most competitive states in 2004, voter turnout among 18-to-29-year-olds was 64 percent, FairVote says. In the rest of the country, it was just 48 percent.