Alex Keyssar on “How Not to Choose a President”

Alex Keyssar (professor of history and social policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government) recently published an op-ed called “How Not to Choose a President” for the LA Times.

The article was originally titled in a misleading way by LA Times editors (as “Dump Winner-Take-All”) that incorrectly suggested the Keyssar was a supporter of the Republican proposal to distribute CA electors by congressional district. Keyssar is not a supporter of that plan as is clear from a careful reading of the article.

The article discusses the history of electoral college shenanigans through the US’s history.

But this partisan battle for short-term advantage between Democrats and Republicans in California ought not obscure the larger truth: The strange method of electing presidents under which we currently operate needs to be fixed. The way the system works is, in fact, subject to partisan manipulation that could be decisive in a close election. Right now, any state legislature could legally decide to apportion its state’s electoral votes in almost any way it wants — “winner take all” (the system currently used in most states), or by district (as happens in Maine and Nebraska), or in some other as-yet-undetermined fashion. In late November 2000, for instance, Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature seriously considered ignoring the disputed popular vote altogether and choosing electors by itself.

A bit of history suggests that this should not surprise us. The winner-take-all system of allocating electoral votes — which we now accept as normal and which awards all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who wins a majority of the popular vote in the state — was itself the product of partisan maneuvers, put into place by politicians of different parties, including our revered founding father and democratic hero, Thomas Jefferson.

Indeed, “winner take all” became, and endured as, the primary method of choosing electors precisely because of partisan dynamics. Regardless of the broader democratic principles at stake, dominant parties in nearly all individual states had embraced the short-run advantages of “winner take all” by 1830; since then, few states have had an appetite for dividing up their electoral votes while everyone else was using “winner take all” — in part because doing so would appear to lessen the state’s clout in national politics.

If the Republicans truly believe that it would be fairer and more democratic to choose electors by district, then instead of introducing such plans piecemeal in states where they would benefit, they should introduce a constitutional amendment to create a national district system — one that would apply to Texas and South Carolina as well as California. And if the Democrats truly want to prevent procedural “power grabs,” they should sign on to such a proposal — or offer a “proportional plan” or (better yet) actively back a national popular election that would eliminate the electoral college altogether.

If both parties worked together on such legislation, jointly committing themselves to remedy a design flaw in our Constitution, they might even succeed in dissipating a bit of the cynicism that the electorate so frequently expresses about political parties that seem far more interested in their own welfare than the fate of the nation.

Some postings about Keyssar’s article with interesting comments:

  • The Ballot Access News
  • Jack Santucci at the Democratic piece:

    Alex Keyssar has a dangerous op-ed in today’s LA Times. In it, the renown Harvard law prof appears to endorse a Republican effort to dice up California’s electoral votes by congressional district.

    What irks me is that the main point comes at the very end of the piece. The rest reads like an endorsement. And there’s no discussion of the national popular vote approach, which is consistent with Keyssar’s logic below and overcomes the defects of both winner-take-all designs.


3 responses to “Alex Keyssar on “How Not to Choose a President”

  1. What’s dangerous is that it requires “careful” reading.

  2. The latest version of the online version of the LA Times article includes this text towards the top of the article:

    Presidential politics: The headline on an article by Alexander Keyssar in the Oct. 28 Opinion section suggested that the author supports divvying up electoral votes by congressional districts. He supports the idea of a national popular election that would eliminate the electoral college altogether.

  3. >What’s dangerous is that it requires “careful” reading.

    I used that qualifier since I saw that both you and BAN (at least initially) interpreted the article as pro-congressional redistricting (or at least not sufficiently anti-CR). When I first read the article I did not get that impression at all.

    The message that I got was “There is currently a partisan battle. There have long been partisan battles like this. A national solution is needed.” This is a message that I agree with.

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