I've voted all my life in either Washington, D.C., or New York state. Most of that time, my vote didn't matter one bit and this year is no exception. New York, where I now live, is in the bag for Barack Obama. Even though it is called the Empire State, has 29 electoral votes and is the birth state of four presidents (and the home of others), it might as well be Podunk when it comes to the presidential race. Because of the Electoral College, New York isn't the Big Apple. It's nowhere.
New York is hardly alone in this (non) category. Most of the nation has watched the candidates return time and time again to a place called Ohio or to Florida, which is a <i>resort</i>, for crying out loud. These are two of the vaunted battleground states that will choose the next president for the rest of us. Speaking just for myself, I am not grateful.
What's true for New York is true also for California and most other states. Were it not for the need to do some fundraising, the candidates might spend the whole year in Ohio — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have been there a total of 14 times this month alone — or in Colorado. I have yet to see a single presidential spot on TV. Ohioans, in contrast, have been bombarded with zillions of them, almost certain years from now to prove deleterious to their health. Nevada is another swing state, and the lucky people of Las Vegas have weathered about 73,000 ads just since June. This cannot be good for growing children.
If we had a simple popular vote system, my vote would count the same as someone's in Ohio or Virginia. I would not be taken for granted and, even better, the winner of the popular vote would be the winner of the election. As things stand now, this is not always the case. In 2000, Al Gore got precisely 543,895 more votes than did George W. Bush, but (narrowly) lost in the Electoral College. Admittedly, this is a rare event, but the estimable political analyst Charlie Cook is now saying it could happen again. As long as the country remains more or less evenly split, the possibility of a popular vote win but an Electoral College loss remains all too real.
It's even possible to have an Electoral College tie. Should this be the case, the election gets thrown into the House of Representatives where the votes will be cast by states as a single unit. In other words, New York gets one vote and so does North Dakota. You got a problem with that? Probably not if you live in Fargo. It has a population of 107,349, which is approximately the number of people who live on my block.
The Electoral College is like some creaky old machine, just waiting to break down. It was devised to keep some power in the hands of small states and it is so convoluted that my crack research staff (Wikipedia) says a candidate could win by carrying just 11 states. California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15) and New Jersey (14) add up to the necessary 270 votes, which is a majority of the Electoral College but not necessarily of the nation. This ain't right.
The Electoral College is one of those compromises layered into the constitution to protect one special interest or another — slaveholders, small states — or a combination of the two. From time to time, efforts are made at reform, but they invariably fail. A stab was made after Richard Nixon won a narrow victory over Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968 but trounced him in the Electoral College. The attempt failed when pro-reform senators could not muster a filibuster-proof majority and Nixon quietly withdrew his support. Any such effort, though, would ultimately require a constitutional amendment and those are hard to get off the ground.
I appreciate that abolishing the Electoral College lacks the urgency of the fiscal cliff or the coming entitlements crackup. But an Electoral College tie or another election won by the loser of the popular vote will do incalculable damage to the public's faith in democracy. We can keep skating over this thin ice. Sooner or later, we're going down. In the meantime, I will steadfastly continue to vote no matter what.
Unless it rains.
<i>Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.</i>