In another post, we discussed the problems with dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district (in a word: gerrymandering). Another proposed solution to the winner-take-all problem is allocating electors proportionally based on the votes of the state at large. Simply put, if a candidate won 70%-30% in a state with 10 electoral votes, 7 votes would go to the winner and 3 to the runner-up.
The upsides of this proposal are that more votes would matter, turnout would increase, and candidates would have incentives to go to more places. But proportional representation is unlikely to create a national campaign, nor would it make every vote truly equal. Indeed, a proportional system may lead to an even more undemocratic result than is likely under our current system.
While there would be fewer wasted votes under a proportional system, it would not make every vote count. Absent a constitutional amendment, the votes would have to be rounded to the nearest whole elector. So there would still be wasted surplus votes and votes for the runner up that do not count in the final tally. In close elections, this could lead to the winner of the national popular vote still losing the presidency.
There is also a feasibility problem. Unless all or almost all states signed on, the campaigns would still not be truly national—and many states will be unwilling to split their votes for fear of losing political influence.
Splitting up a state’s electoral votes makes sense for a few small states—like Maine and Nebraska—that are perpetually ignored. But most states adopted a winner-take-all system in order to increase their political heft. They wanted candidates to campaign in their states in hopes of winning a large number of electoral votes at once. Therefore, states will be unlikely to unilaterally split their votes for fear of losing that clout.
Safe states would hesitate to give up any of their votes to the other party, and swing states would hesitate to lose their special status. And as long as just a few big swing states kept the winner-take-all system, candidates would have a strong incentive to focus their campaigns on those states alone rather than battling it out for the one or two swing electoral votes in most other states.
So in order for proportional representation to work, there would have to be an interstate agreement similar to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. But unlike the Compact, which only needs states with 270 total electoral votes to go into effect and guarantee a truly national campaign (and has 196 votes committed from 16 jurisdictions now), a proportional system would require nearly all the states to participate to be effective.