Another Electoral College Entrenchment Problem
The other big electoral reform in vogue is the idea of splitting electors within a state, as is done in Maine. Instead of a winner-take-all system, in which all of a state's electors go to the candidate with the most votes (majority or plurality), a split system would divide up the electors.
There are a few ways to do this. In Maine, they do it geographically, effectively creating two "mini-states" within Maine, each with a winner-take-all system. Insofar as these two regions might have different political interests, this gives the two parties a greater chance to win at least some of Maine's electoral votes, even if they could not win the whole state.
The other obvious way is a proportional system. In a state with 10 electoral votes, a candidate wins one electoral vote for every 10% of the state's popular vote. In a 50-50 tie, each candidate gets 5 electoral votes. I don't know how this would work in terms of rounding (is 54-46 a 5-5 tie, or a 6-4 majority? What about 55-45? 56-46?), but I'm sure someone else has figured that out.
These systems seem really attractive because they avoid one of the major obstacles to national reform of the electoral college: there is no need to amend the Constitution. In fact, since the state legislatures are specifically given control over choosing their electors in the Constitution, each state legislature is capable of making this reform on its own. This is an appealing approach for those who, like me, see national reform via constitutional amendment as a non-starter on this issue.
But I must say, with an ever heavy heart, I'm not convinced that reform via the state legislatures is likely to be much more successful. Once again, we have an entrenchment problem, though this time it IS a partisan one. The problem here is that whichever party is in control of a state's legislature is likely also the party which benefits from that state's winner-takes-all system.
Take an easy example like Utah. Now Utah has 5 electoral votes, and the race is currently polling roughly 65%-25% for Bush. Under the current winer-takes-all system, Bush wins all 5 electoral votes. In a proportional system, Kerry would likely pick up one of those electoral votes, giving Bush the other 4. Sounds great, right? Finally, everyone's vote means something!
But who needs to approve that change? The Utah state legislature, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 56-19 in the House and 22-7 in the Senate. Is there any reason to think that those Republicans are going to vote to change the system in a way that guarantees a loss of electoral votes for their party? Particularly when there is no guarantee of reciprocity from Democrat-controlled state houses? No, of course not. And the same would obviously be true in Rhode Island or Massachussetts or Idaho, etc.
As such, the only state legislatures that would consider such a reform would be those controlled by a party that is NOT expecting to win in the winner-takes-all system. And there are such states. Democrats control the legislatures in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia, all states which went to Bush in 2000. Republicans control the legislatures in Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all states which went to Gore in 2000. So why don't these legislatures change systems to better favor their party?
Well there are multiple possibilities, none of which are mutually exclusive. The first and most obvious would be that sometimes the interests of state parties and national parties do not coincide. The very fact that voters in a state elects a Democratic legislature and a Republican President might indicate that the state representatives of the Democratic party are closer to the middle or to the right. As such, they themselves might not in fact favor a system which would increase chances of a Democratic president.
Or perhaps they only retain power in that state through long-standing tradition or entrenchment, and do not want to do anything that sufficiently upsets the state electorate. If a majority votes for a Republican candidate, that same majority probably wants that candidate to get ALL of the electoral votes, not just some proportion. So they might be upset if the legislature tries to change the system to harm their candidate.
In addition, it is possible some of these "inconsistent" states will not be inconsistent for long, as the state will shift its electoral vote. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are very much up in the air this year, so perhaps the Republican majorities in those legislatures will soon be reflected in their electoral results. The legislature would be shooting itself in the foot if it switched to a proportional system only to see their candidate take a plurality or majority of the vote.
The point is, entrenchment is hard at work in this area. Somebody benefits from the current electoral vote system in each state, and in this area it happens to be almost always the same party that also controls the decisionmaker, the state legislature. With very little incentive to change the status quo, the status quo will remain.