States Try to Alter How Presidents Are Elected, by Jennifer Steinhauer, today's New York Times.
Apparently factions in California and North Carolina are both considering apportioning their electoral votes by Congressional district instead of by state; this CNN article explains it a bit better. This is the same plan that's currently used in Nebraska and Maine, except that people just accept that as a strange quirk of the system because Nebraska and Maine are small, fairly homogeneous states, while California and North Carolina are not. The people in favor of these plans are pitching them as a matter of giving the states in question more representation. (More specifically, it's the minority party in both states that's pitching the plan that way, and so partisan politics clouds the issue; but I'll ignore that.)
But what is "representation", really? It seems to me like it comes down to this question: what is the probability that California can change the outcome of the election? In the current system, essentially zero; I suspect this election might be close, and a Democratic margin of victory will be slim enough that if California were to go Republican that would hand the presidency to the Republicans -- but California as a whole is not going to vote Republican. But in this new system, if it goes through? Now there's a little more of a chance for California to have some influence, because a few congressional districts might actually be in play. But the potential number of electoral votes that might actually be in play still is small; most districts are safe for one party or the other, thanks to gerrymandering. I will not attempt to compute the probability that I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph -- any calculation I can do assumes that districts vote independently of each other, which clearly isn't the case.
I live in Pennsylvania. The presidential candidates in 2008 will pay attention to me, since Pennsylvania is seen as a "swing state". But I live in a district (the 2nd) in which the current Congressional representative, Chaka Fattah, routinely receives 85% or more of the vote. The last time this district elected a Republican was sixty years ago. If a plan like this were to go through in Pennsylvania, you can bet presidential candidates won't care about my vote any more. On the other hand, there are some districts in the Philadelphia suburbs which will probably be quite close; the people in those districts become even more influential.
(A superficially similar plan was attempted in Colorado in 2004, which would have alloted the state's electoral vote in proportion to the popular vote. This would clearly have been a loss for Colorado, since it meant that basically, instead of the people's votes deciding whether Colorado's electoral votes would be split 0-9 or 9-0, they were deciding whether they'd be split 4-5 or 5-4.)
It's not immediately obvious that this plan, should it pass in California, disenfranchises the state of California as a whole. Let's say (and I'm making this number up) that ten of California's 53 districts are actually in play. The people in those ten districts suddenly get some attention from presidential candidates. And perhaps a plan like this could actually work if all states had it. I can actually imagine that it might bring some measure of relevancy back to the politically heterogeneous parts of the state. Perhaps it even makes sense, on a state-by-state basis, for "safe" states to pass this sort of plan (since it gives some part of them influence) while "battleground" states don't (since it just shifts the influence around).
But I don't think it makes sense for the various states to be choosing how they'll allot their electors based on some probabilistic calculation. That would create the perception that the elections were unfair in one way or another, and the perception of fairness is as important as actual fairness. People need to believe that the political system has the interests of the people at heart. A complex pastiche in which some states apportion their votes by congressional district, some winner-take-all, some in proportion with the popular vote in that state, etc. -- even if each state chooses its system in such a way as to maximize the probability that its choices can flip the election -- isn't the way to go.
I don't support the idea, though. If it were to happen, I would want to see redistricting to eliminate gerrymandering, but even so you'd still end up with homogeneous districts in some places. And I suspect that a lot less people would live in "swing districts" than currently live in "swing states". The obvious way to make sure that everybody lives in a "swing district" is to have the "district" in question be the entire country; that is, to just count the national popular vote. And indeed, there's an ingenious hack of the Electoral College which would do just this without a Constitutional amendment. The goal of the National Popular Vote Project is to get bills passed in states representing 270 electoral votes that say that those states will give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote -- but only if states representing 270 electoral votes have passed such a law. This seems like the fairest way to do things, to me; I understand that the purpose of the current system is to make sure that the concerns of all states are paid attention to and that a candidate can't just pile up votes in the big states and ignore the small ones, but that's not how it works right now.
A nationwide recount sounds scary, though...