Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Though state efforts to topple the Electoral College are stymied, North Carolina is tinkering away. The state appears likely to become the third, after Nebraska and Maine, to ditch a winner-take-all system and instead give out one electoral vote to the winner of the presidential vote in each congressional district (plus two for the winner of the state).
That change could have big consequences. North Carolina isn't a swing state. Even with John Edwards on the Democratic ticket in 2004, Bush carried it easily in 2004.
But, using the new system, Kerry-Edwards would have won 4 of the state's electoral votes and, in 2000, Gore would have won 3, giving him a 270-268 victory over Bush. So, add something else to that "Gore would won if" list, right after if Nader hadn't run, if he chose Bob Graham as his running mate, if he'd paid attention to Tennessee, if he'd embraced the Clinton legacy, if Florida didn't use butterfly ballots and if a butterfly hadn't flapped its wings in China.
The reason this is happening in North Carolina and not some other state is that there's a disconnect there between state and federal politics. While Republicans win federal elections, Democrats still control the legislature and the governorship. The Democrats see a chance to give their nominee a few electoral votes he or she wouldn't otherwise get.
The same dynamics were in play in Nebraska when Democrats forced through the congressional district system in 1991. Republicans have long since taken back power, but haven't bothered to go back to winner-take-all, presumably because they realized Democrats never win any of the state's districts anyway. (If anyone can tell me why Maine moved to this system in 1969, you win a prize -- the prize of being well informed.)
There are few other states where the same disconnect between state and federal politics exists today. Republicans, in fact, only have complete control (legislature and governorship) of states Bush carried twice, so don't expect to see them making this change anywhere.
Democrats have some options, in particular Louisiana, West Virginia and Arkansas, although Democrats have hopes of winning the latter two outright in the 2008 presidential race. I'd mention Colorado too, but voters there overwhelmingly rejected a district-based system in 2004 and, besides, Colorado is a swing state now anyway.
For this idea to catch on more broadly, legislators would have to buy into the non-partisan argument in its favor: That a non-swing state can attract the attention of presidential campaigns by putting each of its congressional districts up for grabs.
The problem: gerrymandering. Of North Carolina's 13 congressional districts, only one, the 13th, is truly competitive in presidential elections (Kerry took 52% there in 2004, Bush won it 50%-49% in 2000). A couple of others are marginally close, but, with Ohio and Florida to worry about, don't expect to see presidential candidates spending much time in North Carolina.
Written and compiled by staff writers and editors, GOVERNING View is an on-the-ground, and sometimes behind-the-scenes, look at the topics we're covering in print and online. From notes on what's up in statehouses, county courthouses and city halls, to encounters with people, places and things, GOVERNING View is a window into the side of state and local government you don't always see.