20200917 voters key states illustration
Why Florida is a battleground state like no other
01:53 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Robert Alexander is a professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for Civics and Public Policy at Ohio Northern University. He is also the author of “Representation and the Electoral College.” Follow him on Twitter: @onuprof. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

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Arguments over the Electoral College are as old as the nation itself. The presidential selection process was one of the most difficult issues that confronted the framers. Indeed, the Electoral College has been a frequent subject of debate throughout our nation’s history and continues to be as we approach the 2020 presidential election. The representativeness of the institution is at the heart of much of the debate.

Robert Alexander

Some of its most ardent proponents have claimed that the Electoral College promotes national campaigning, makes all voters important and helps prevent corruption in the presidential election. These are all claims worth evaluating – especially given public opposition to the body.

Even President Donald Trump recently criticized the Electoral College, stating: “The Republicans have a disadvantage. They lose New York, Illinois and California before it even starts,” noting that these states are “automatic.” He acknowledged the importance of states such as Florida, Michigan and North Carolina to win the presidency. The President is correct in his assessment that the existence of these so-called “swing states” has major implications for presidential campaigns – many of which undercut arguments made by proponents of the Electoral College.

Supporters of the current system often contend that without the Electoral College, presidential elections would be decided by the coasts, ignoring most of the country. Yet, most of the country is ignored in the current process. As Trump suggests, campaigns focus their attention on voters in a handful of swing states where the outcome is uncertain. Voters in these key “battleground” states are most heavily courted by the presidential campaigns.

In 2016, 94% of all campaigning took place in just 12 states and two-thirds of the events took place in just six states. More than half of all states did not have one campaign event in 2016 after the national party conventions. No candidate stepped foot in any state with just 3 electoral votes, undermining the argument that the Electoral College forces candidates to run national campaigns.

The same pattern has emerged this fall. Since the conclusion of the national party conventions in August, Over 70% of all campaign events – either virtual or in person – have been held in just six states (Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan and Minnesota). If you want to know where the presidential election will be decided, you need look no further than where the candidates are spending their time and money.

Although many policies have become national in scope there are some issues that continue to be parochial. For instance, we regularly see that campaigns stake out policies designed to woo voters in these key states. This is among the reasons we see so much discussion regarding coal, manufacturing and trade policy. In essence, campaigns have become contests to become the president of the swing states of America.

It matters then how representative swing states are relative to the rest of the country. Earlier this year, NPR classified the representativeness of each state by comparing state demographics to US demographics overall. The categories included race, age, education, income and religiosity.

They found that Illinois and Kansas would be the most representative states in the country. Yet, neither state will see candidates aggressively compete for their votes. Although New York state is the sixth most representative and the fourth most populated, voters in the state will be taken for granted in this year’s campaign.

Interestingly, according to the NPR data, half of the top ten most representative states are considered swing states this year: Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Nebraska. While the state of Nebraska is not considered a battleground, its 2nd Congressional District is. Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that use the district method of awarding their electoral votes rather than the winner-take-all method, meaning, as the name suggests, that electoral votes are determined on a district-by-district basis, rather than by awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who receives a plurality of votes in a state.

Yet, we must acknowledge that states that are competitive today may not be so in the future. How one views the changing composition of swing states is likely determined by which states fall out of swing state status and which ones take their place.

Missouri was once deemed a bellwether – voting with the winning presidential candidate in all but one contest from 1904 to 2004, but it has since fallen out of favor as a swing state. For much of the 20th century New York and California were contested states. Both states were competitive in presidential races up until 1988. The Republican ticket won the state of California in all but one presidential election between 1952 to 1988 and won six out of 10 elections in New York state from 1948 to 1988.

This year, both Texas and Georgia have emerged as competitive states after years of being neglected in presidential contests. Texas is the second most populated state in the country, while Georgia is the eighth most populated. If Texas and Georgia continue to drift toward the Democrats, we could see arguments over the Electoral College change considerably. Given the Democrats’ strength in many of the most populated states, the addition of Texas and Georgia to their coalition would give them many different combinations of states to cross the 270-vote Electoral College threshold – most of which vote reliably blue. If this were to happen, we might expect Democrats to embrace the institution while Republicans would look to change it.

Yet there is another byproduct of the battle to be the president of the swing states of America that can be pernicious and was a main concern of the famers when they created the Electoral College and that is the potential for mischief.

In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton made the case that the Electoral College process would mitigate against the “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, found that voters in swing states were specifically targeted in their social media campaigns. The Electoral College process would seem then to provide an efficient means to focus one’s attention on a few key states, rather than the entirety of the country in an effort to affect national outcomes.

A similar logic can be seen by actors within the United States. Hamilton also argued that the Electoral College process would work to prevent “cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Indeed, many advocates of the body claim that it helps prevent corruption and fraud. However, the prominent role of swing states creates incentives for political parties to engage in tomfoolery aimed to benefit their interests.

These battles can be seen in places like Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. Last year, a Republican strategist in Wisconsin was caught on tape maintaining that Republicans were always “suppressing votes in places.” Similarly, Florida’s battle over felon voting rights, controversies over ballot drop boxes in Ohio and Texas, and challenges over so-called “naked ballots” in Pennsylvania illustrate how the politicization of voting accessibility in a few states can have a disproportionate effect on national outcomes.

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    The 2000 election in Florida is especially instructive. Just 537 votes in the state provided George W. Bush with the margin of victory in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by 500,000 votes. Florida’s experience introduced Americans to terms such as butterfly ballots and hanging chads. It also underscored the importance of the media’s role in calling elections prematurely. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Gore paved the way for Bush to claim the state and an Electoral College victory.

    The existence of swing states would appear to complicate many of the traditional arguments on behalf of the Electoral College. Candidates take most states for granted – from the least populated to the most populated, campaigns devote attention to parochial issues aimed at swing state voters, and a handful of states carry an outsized effect on national outcomes. This final point opens the country up to more efficient means to engage in election shenanigans – both foreign and domestic.