The revolutionary has a disarming name: Skip Roberts. Do not be deceived. He means to topple civilization or, what is much the same thing, the Electoral College as it currently functions.
He is head of the Electoral Fairness Project. He wants states to legislate an end to the custom of winner-take-all allocations of states' electoral votes.Instead, they would award one vote to a presidential candidate for each congressional district she or he carried. The two additional votes each state has would go to the candidate who has the most votes statewide.
Many Americans will be startled to learn that the current system, under which a candidate receiving a majority or even just a plurality of a state's votes gets all that state's electoral votes, is not a constitutional requirement. This practice, so central to the success of our constitutional arrangements, is only a custom.
In 1968, Maine abandoned this system in favor of the idea Roberts favors (others have favored it, perhaps even James Madison). So far the results in Maine have been just what the old system would have produced. In 1988, for example, Bush beat Dukakis in Maine 55.3 percent to 43.9 percent but won all four votes because he carried both congressional districts.
This is the rule of life: Most improvements make matters worse. But hear Roberts out, even if he is a Democrat and open to the charge that losers try to change rules. (From time to time Republicans have flirted with Roberts' idea.)
If Roberts' rules had been in force in 1988, Dukakis would still have been trounced but probably would have won at least 155 rather than 112 electoral votes. One cannot say for sure, because both candidates would have campaigned quite differently - which is Roberts' point.
He says his reform would increase voter interest and activism by multiplying the number of contested constituencies in which both candidates could consider themselves competitive.
He notes that the Dukakis campaign shut down in Florida on Sept. 10. But there are eight Florida districts that generally vote Democratic in national elections. Dukakis only (and barely) carried one. But, then, under the winner-take-all system, with Florida's statewide result a foregone conclusion, he had no reason to "cherry pick" for electoral votes in promising districts.
Roberts thinks his reform would diminish candidates' dependence on television and increase reliance on grass-roots organization. For example, he says Democrats are usually competitive in four of the eight districts in Houston's expensive media market. Democrats would have an incentive to use on-the-ground activism to target those districts, rather than saturate the area with expensive over-the-air campaigning.
But perhaps his idea would injure the Democratic Party today. Suddenly Jesse Jackson, who is never going to be the Democratic nominee, would hope to pluck electoral votes with an independent candidacy. Such a candidacy would siphon votes from the Democratic ticket.
True, only 14 of the 435 congressional districts have black majorities. But 25 districts are more than 40 percent black, 86 more than 20 percent black. Jackson could have jolly fun in a three-person race.
By discouraging ideological and charismatic fragmentation, the statewide winner-take-all practice makes for moderate majorities. And it usefully magnifies the decisiveness of elections when popular vote totals are close (as in 1960, 1968, 1976).
The lower houses of the legislatures in Connecticut and North Carolina have passed Roberts' plan. They did so over the objection of politicians who argued that by making their electoral votes divisible, the less populous states will become less interesting to presidential campaigns.
If these and a few more states (Roberts is targeting New Jersey and Louisiana) take the plunge, they will be laboratories testing whether Roberts' idea produces the political churning he desires. And Democrats will have to figure out how to lose under a new system.