Advancing a Free Society

Keeping Luck Out of the Presidential Equation

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Another Sunday in the National Football League brings a familiar result: the winless Indianapolis Colts register barely a pulse; the winless Miami Dolphins, arguably the ugliest thing to emerge from South Florida since Miami Vice’s pastel suits, surrender a fourth-quarter lead.

Although the two teams don’t play each other this season, they’re on a collision course: the “winner” (make that: the bigger loser) gets the draft rights to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

This doesn’t sit well with some sports scribes, who think the fix is in – Quarterback Luck, as opposed to Lady Luck, having everything to do with two teams seemingly doing their best to be their worst on any given Sunday.

So what can the NFL do in the name of integrity?

The simplest fix, as some are now floating, would be for the NFL to go with the National Basketball Association’s lottery system (yes, that would make it a “Luck of the draw”), in which all non-playoff teams get a shot at the number-one pick.

But even that’s controversial, as each year at least one NBA franchise is accused of dumping games to get a better position in the lottery. Moreover, the selection itself has sparked conspiracy talk – specifically, 1985 and Patrick Ewing landing in the lap of the New York Knicks.

This isn’t the only reform talk in the world of professional sports these days. In the aftermath of a scintillating World Series, some baseball purists want to know why home-field advantage for the Fall Classic is decided by the outcome of baseball’s all-star game – a strange way to decide things in that: (a) top players sometimes skip the game; and (b) the two teams’ managers play it like a kids’ soccer game, making sure as many players as possible get on the field.

Sadly, there’s another “fall classic” that’s the subject of reform talk: presidential elections, and the role of the Electoral College in deciding our leader.

The latest state to take a stroll down reform lane: Pennsylvania. Republicans in the Keystone State flirted with and then abandoned the idea of moving Pennsylvania to the same system as Maine and Nebraska – the winner of the state’s popular vote gets two electoral votes, the rest are allotted on a per congressional district basis.

Why would Pennsylvania Republicans favor such a change? If the new system were in effect and President Obama carried the state as he did in 2008, the Democrat’s take would like fall from 20 electoral votes to only 8, as at least 12 House districts are expected to vote Republican in November 2012 (back in 2007, California Republicans talked about mounting an initiative effort to make the same changein the Golden State, a treasure trove of 55 Democratic electoral votes).

This isn’t to suggest that Republicans are the only ones playing games with the Electoral College.

In August, California became the ninth state to pledge its electoral votes to the winner of the national vote. It’s a popular idea in blue-state America, where Democratic lawmakers apparently are still obsessed with the outcome of Bush v. Gore (for the record: federal law stipulates that states representing a majority of electoral votes – 270 out of 538 – have to agree in order to shift the way votes are awarded in those states; California and the other eight states add up to only 132 votes).

Meanwhile, there’s the usual congressional hodgepodge. In recent years, that’s included bills to ditch the Electoral College in favor of direct popular elections, or allot electoral votes proportionally by popular vote.

Here are two reasons why such reform ideas are flawed:

  1. A direct popular election could be a ticket to fraud. Democrats will call for same-day voter registration in all 50 states (currently, it’s done in only nine states). That leads to thorny questions of voter-identification and vote-verification. A close national election would almost certainly result in litigation (some frivolous, some serious) and curious maneuverings by state election officials.
  2. States currently in political vogue would fast lose their charmed status. Last week, President Obama campaigned in Nevada. He stuck to closed-door fundraising in California. You’ll see the pattern continue for the next 12 months: Obama will work the smaller but more competitive states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico. Of the “mega” states, only Florida in contention. Obama will mine California, New York and Illinois for money, not votes. But switch to a popular election other and most states with less than a dozen electoral votes will be reduced to “fly-over” status. And that just doesn’t seem fair.

Is the current electoral system perfect? Of course not. Then again, the winner of the popular has also carried the Electoral College in 48 of the last 52 elections, the exceptions being the elections of 2000, 1888 and 1876 – plus 1824, when the House of Representatives decided the contests by contingent election because no candidate had an electoral-vote majority.

That’s not so shabby a track record. And, unlike the NFL and the NBA, no one’s ever accused a political franchise of seeking losses for advancement.