Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cuba and The Electoral College

While not generally an Obama supporter, I was heartened to see his comments about easing restrictions on Cuba. I share Steve Clemons' hope that Hillary Clinton modifies her position. While I've never understood or agreed with the Bush/neocon theory that the United States shouldn't talk to countries and leaders it doesn't like, it seems particularly perverse when dealing with Cuba. Cuba is no threat to the United States militarily, especially since the break up of the Soviet Union. Moreover, it seems to me that, given how close it is to the United States, liberalizing trade and travel would likely undermine the Castro regime by injecting American influence through popular culture, business interests, and personal connections. It should be a no brainer that when a policy that's been in place for 40 years hasn't worked, then perhaps a new policy is in order. FIdel Castro's poor health is not a reason to stay the course. Freedom and a U.S. friendly government will not suddenly bloom in Cuba the day Castro dies. His reported bad health, however, is an opportunity to look for new ways to influence Cuba.

While Obama's position on Cuba makes foreign policy sense, it may or may not make political sense. There's a reason why the policy has lasted long past its sell-by date and that's the influence of the hard line Cuban-Americans in the important swing state of Florida. Now, that influence may be waning as those who originally fled Castro pass away and are replaced by a new generation of Cuban-Americans born in this country, but it's still remarkable how one relatively small group of individuals have managed to set U.S. policy for so long.

The Cuba situation highlights one of the problems with the Electoral College. It's not just that it gives individual states a great deal of influence - why states like Ohio and Florida will be pandered to and visited by every candidate while the only time anyone out here in California will see them is at a fundraiser. It's that it also gives interest groups in those battleground states more influence than their size would give them in the general U.S. population. According to the 2000 census, there are slightly less than 1.3 million Cuban-Americans in the United States. Two-thirds of these folks live in Florida, so while Cuban-Americans make up approximately .6% of eligible voters in the United States (based on an estimate of 202 million eligible U.S. voters), they make up 8% of Florida voters. If the President were elected by popular vote, of course, it wouldn't matter where Cuban-Americans lived. It's the electoral college that creates this distortion in the amount of influence this relatively small percentage of the U.S. population has.

I should add that this isn't intended as a slam at Cuban-Americans. I don't blame them for trying to influence elected officials to see things their way (to the extent there is such a thing). The problem is with the system that gives them - or anyone else - such an inflated amount of influence.

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