The self-sorting of the electorate into coastal and interior enclaves means that the states that “matter” have condensed

Today, the two major-party candidates for President are flying around the same battleground states they have since the beginning of the general election.

All rallies in the past several months have taken place in just 10 states – and Pennsylvania, the 10th, was a late addition this weekend as part of a Hail Mary strategy by Mitt Romney to find another state to put in play to give him a chance at an Electoral College victory.

The tyranny of the Electoral College – a process that elevates an unrepresentative, often random set of states to stand in for the voting preferences of the entire country – distorts our democracy in fundamental ways.

Adam Liptak points out that John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon visited almost every state in the Union a little over 50 years ago. Now, polling is sophisticated enough and segmenting of the electorate durable enough that 80% of the voters get disenfranchised in the Presidential race before they ever reach the polls. Governance suffers from this insistent focus on a shrinking handful of swing states:

The shrinking electoral battleground has altered the nature of American self-governance. There is evidence that the current system is depressing turnout, distorting policy, weakening accountability and effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of Americans [...]

This state of affairs is not rooted in the Constitution, but rather in the fact that almost every state chooses to allocate its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. A candidate confident of winning or sure of losing a bare majority of a state’s popular vote has no reason to expend resources there.

Some of the people who live in the nation’s spectator states return the favor by staying home from the polls. In 2008, voter turnout in the 15 states that received the bulk of the candidates’ attention was 67 percent. In the remaining 35 states, it was six points lower.

Large states like California, New York and Texas were swing states as recently as 30 years ago. Now, the self-sorting of the electorate into coastal and interior enclaves means that the states that “matter” have condensed.

There’s only one decent answer to this state of affairs, one that allows Ohio and Iowa issues to stand in for national issues, one that turns policymaking completely on its head. We need a National Popular Vote to determine the President of the United States, just like a district-wide popular vote determines the winner of a Congressional seat, just like a statewide popular vote determines the winner of a race for Senate or Governor. No country in the world uses a system as byzantine as the Electoral College, and indeed no constituency inside the United States uses something so daft. If the Electoral College were proposed today, constitutional scholars would rightly point out that it violated the 14th amendment right to equal protection under the law. It’s not just that, by virtue of the way in which electoral votes get apportioned, small states have much more weight in the election than large states. It’s that pretty much no states save for a handful in our self-sorting 21 century play a role at all. There’s no reason for this to continue.

The National Popular Vote interstate compact has 49% of the participation it needs to simply end-around the Electoral College without amending the Constitution. States simply agree to deliver their electoral votes, as is their prerogative, to the winner of the popular vote. This would change elections in profound ways that aren’t fully known; anyone who tells you that it would mean “candidates would only campaign in big cities” (as opposed to only campaigning in big cities in certain states?) isn’t telling the truth. There’s no way to know how it would affect the political landscape, and that’s a point in its favor.

Until the Electoral College is phased out, the elections like the one we will hold tomorrow are fake. They don’t express the preferences of the electorate. They express the preferences of a small clatch of states battered by hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign ads. We will have no idea who “the voters” really want to see in the White House over the next four years. Not until we go with the radical notion that the person who gets the most votes should serve as President.