In Defense of the Electoral College

by Joshua Tucker on October 26, 2012 · 48 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Over the past few weeks, I have had the enjoyable opportunity to lecture on the subject of the US Electoral College to a variety of different audiences in Poland and Italy. My lectures almost inevitably include some snarky side-comments about how incredible it is that the US continues to use this extremely convoluted system of electing its president—that does not guarantee that all votes count the same—while in the rest of the world almost every country using a presidential systems of government seem to have been able to figure out how to just let their citizens vote directly for their president. For the most part, my audiences are always very sympathetic to my jokes in this regard, especially after I explain in detail how the electoral college actually works. Now I have argued over the years with friends and colleagues like Andy Rudalevige as to whether the cost of not using an “all votes are equal” rule is worth enduring to preserve some of the historic reasons why the Electoral College was implemented, but I was pleasantly surprised when one of the students in the audience at a recent talk I gave in Siena raised a new argument in defense of the electoral college that I had never heard before. I asked him to write it up as a guest post for The Monkey Cage, which I now present below. The student is Josh McCrain, a graduate student in political science at the University of North Carolina, Chappel Hill, and what follows is his argument.  The piece is particularly germane now, due to the fact that there is a non-trivial chance that we could witness in 2012 a repeat of a particularly vexing feature of the 2000 US presidential election, namely the election of president by the Electoral Collage who did not received a plurality of the popular vote.

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With just under two weeks until Election Day, it is looking more and more possible that, for the fifth time in American history, the winner of the popular vote will lose in the Electoral College.  The Real Clear Politics average of national polling has Mitt Romney leading by 0.9 points over President Obama.  However, Obama easily passes 270 electoral votes if he wins all of the states in which polls have him currently ahead, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model predicts he has a 73.1% chance of breaking the 270 barrier.  As in 2000, it is also likely that critics of the Electoral College will renew their calls for reform through the election of the president by national popular vote – and they may not be wrong.

On the vanguard of the call to reform is the non-profit National Popular Vote Inc . Their aim is to circumvent the constitutional challenges related to abolishing the Electoral College and create an interstate compact whereby all states within the compact agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  Once enough states adopt legislation so that the total number of electoral votes they represent reaches 270, the legislation will come into effect.  So far nine states  representing 132 electoral votes have passed such legislation.

Critics of the Electoral College often point out that candidates only have to campaign in swing states and can ignore ‘solid’ states – and empirical research seems to supports this.  In 2004, only 11 states merited more than ten campaign stops by either candidate, while 12 had less than five stops (Goux and Hopkins 2008).  This criticism ignores that, from year to year, swing states can vary widely.  In 2004, Bush won North Carolina by over 12 points, and McCain lost it to Obama in 2008.  Obama won Indiana in 2008, and it seems very likely he’ll lose it by a substantial margin this election.  Demographics, regional issues, the economy, and many other factors determine whether a state is a swing state, and this is often not directly correlated with the number of electoral votes it possesses.  Further, fighting for electoral votes forces candidates to campaign in states they would very likely ignore otherwise (Bill Clinton in West Virginia in 1996, for example).  The Electoral College then does produce a truly national campaign, but the nature of that campaign changes every cycle.

What would a United States presidential election look like without the Electoral College?  A useful case for examination is the first round of French presidential elections.  In 2012, four candidates received over 10% of the vote – including extreme right wing Marie Le Pen of National Front – with current president François Hollande receiving only 28% of the vote.  In France a second round, where the top two finishing candidates compete against each other, ensures that one wins with a majority.  Research also suggests that voters are more likely to pick a candidate in the first round they would not vote for in the second, but it is not implausible to think of a similar, if slightly less fragmented, result in the United States – except in the US there would not be a second round.  One can envision the Tea Party fielding a candidate that polls very well in the South, while Romney could remain a moderate of the center-right wing of the party, leading to the fragmentation of the Republican Party.  None of this is particularly hard to imagine:  in 1992 Ross Perot received 19% of the national vote and won no electoral votes.

Should the Electoral College be reexamined?  Probably – but it is worth pointing out during that discussion the positives and negatives of the current system.  In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote – a slight majority – but he won 67.8% of the electoral votes (365 to 173).  The Electoral College reduces the perception of small victories and bolsters presidential legitimacy.  A two round election, such as in France, might be the best solution [JT: But this is not what the National Popular Vote initiative will produce, and thus would most likely require a constitutional amendment].  But Americans are used to clear winners and losers, and this is something that the Electoral College typically produces.

{ 48 comments }

Kevin Elliott October 26, 2012 at 10:21 am

The only argument I see here for the Electoral College is that it produces clear winners when the popular vote is close, but I don’t really see that as being responsive to the question of the EC’s legitimacy.

This is because the legitimacy of the EC, as part of a democracy, hinges to a large degree on its tracking the results of the popular vote. The predominant criterion for democratic legitimacy is majority (or plurality) rule, and to the extent the EC decides in accordance with this principle, it’s democratically legitimate. The whole problem is that there aren’t good enough reasons to overcome the offense to this basic democratic principle when the College diverges from the popular vote. That the EC manufactures bigger numbers than the sheer election results is neither here nor there, since it is plain that a strong legitimacy claim remains with the popular vote winner.

What’s more important is that the EC probably depresses turnout in non-battleground states, thus warping the popular vote.

Richard Lerner October 26, 2012 at 10:31 am

Another argument in favor of the electoral college:

In a post-Citizens United environment, popular election of the President would give more influence to those that can raise the most money through Super PACs. Under the current system, only the “swing” states are flooded with advertisements. With a move to a popular vote system, everyone would face the deluge and it would be harder for candidates funded more by grass roots support to keep up with candidates funded by Super PACS funded by corporations and the ultra-wealthy.

Tim October 26, 2012 at 10:56 am

Here is what I look for when arguing the merits of the Electoral College. It was designed with attention to output: what sort of person it would select as president. (A statesman, a moderate, a consensus builder, someone acceptable palatable even to political foes.)

We can argue about whether or not the EC does this. Or whether it ever did. But that’s not the turf EC argument are usually fought on these days. Rather, the arguments, especially those against it, focus on inputs (equal weight to each vote and so forth). I think outputs, though, are the more important and defensible criterion.

Eduardo Corrochio October 26, 2012 at 10:59 am

“But this is not what the National Popular Vote initiative will produce, and thus would most likely require a constitutional amendment.”

Definitely. And without an amendment to create a runoff election the National Popular Vote plan would lead to the House selecting the president in instances where one candidate didn’t receive a majority of electoral votes. It would be interesting to see the public’s reaction to Congress regularly selecting the president.

Phloo October 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm

The formal National Popular Vote movement, if implemented as planned, would never result in the House selecting the president. The NPV compact expressly states that it would not come into effect until there are enough states signed up that agree to give 100% of their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote that a majority of the electoral votes would go to the winner. This is complicated to explain, but actually pretty simple. Check out their website if I am unclear.

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Phloo is correct. The NPV plan only goes into effect if enough states that equal a majority of the EC (270) are signed up. So if it eventually goes into effect, the NPV winner will be guaranteed at least 270 EV.

Eduardo Corrochio October 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm

“This is complicated to explain, but actually pretty simple.”

Yes, this is true. Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I thought the plan was to distribute electoral votes proportionally, based on the popular vote in each state. I think my fantasy plan is more fun.

Mike October 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Why is the fragmentation of the GOP a bad thing?

John October 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Or, more pointedly, why would the fragmentation of the two-party system be a bad thing?

To October 27, 2012 at 7:18 am

Well, the big problem here is that the one-man, one-vote or “first past the post” voting system (irrespective of the electoral college issue) lacks a property that should be considered essential: independence of clones. In essence, a candidate that is supported by a majority of the electorate could lose the election to a much less popular one if there are more than two candidates, and one of them has a similar platform to the popular one, due to vote splitting. This system is probably the single biggest reason for the two-party structure of politics in the US.

If you really start thinking about it, FPTP is a stupid system, and using its shortcomings as an argument in favor of the electoral college is a bit rich. By the way, the French two-round system, as an attempt at circumventing these shortcomings, is far from ideal, as exemplified by the elections of 2002 (where JM Le Pen, far-right candidate, got into the second round and lost to Chirac with 20% of the vote) and 2007 (where F. Bayrou, a centrist with broad popular support, was eliminated in the first round while he could probably have beaten both N. Sarkozy and S. Royal, the two first candidates, if he hadn’t).

Approval or range voting would be much better.

Joel October 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm

“predominant criterion for democratic legitimacy is majority (or plurality) rule”

Kevin, majority rule, which you also refer to as the “basic democratic principle” is neither a principle nor a criterion for legitimacy, expect perhaps in a sociological sense. It is just another decision-making tool in support of the *true* democratic principle, which is something akin to rule by and for the people.

Note that rule for the people need not be limited to decisions the majority would make. Take the constitution (please!), for example.

Another argument for the EC implied by this post is the way in which it renders slightly more possible the formation of coalitions of interests across states that might otherwise never win a majoritarian election. I have a former student to thank for that point (very occasionally, grading does not suck).

Does it violate “one man, one vote?” Yes. But it does so in a way that is at least plausibly aimed at the common good, which is not something we would say about other violations of political equality, such as, say private campaign financing.

Two cents from your friendly neighborhood theorist. Thanks!

Kevin Elliott October 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Joel,

“Predominant” was the operative word there. Though theorists (which I account myself) disagree as to the correct criterion of democratic legitimacy, most people, theorists or no, look askance at calling counter-majoritarian decision-making democratic.

The debate over the EC seems to range precisely over its potential for flouting majority rule, so the fact that it blows up the apparent margin of victory does not answer the claim that opponents of the EC make, which is that it is non-democratic in being potentially counter-majoritarian.

Joel October 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Gotcha, Kevin, though my point was that counter-majoritarian decision making is not necessarily undemocratic. Bickel notwithstanding.

Daniel W October 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Surely one of the biggest issues with the electoral college, is how it depresses the vote in solidly red or blue states. If you’re a democrat in a red state, or a conservative in a blue state, you have very little reason to vote, but by electing according to the popular vote, every vote counts, and as a result the winner has a more effective mandate due to likely higher participation.

David Meyer October 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm

But knowing that CA will go Democrat lets me vote for a more progressive candidate than the Democrat, with the hope that my vote will pull the Democratic Party very very slightly to the left from its right-of-center (by international standards) position.

Brad October 27, 2012 at 7:54 am

Yes, but not nearly as much as you might assume: the logic only really applies to those who wouldn’t turn out to vote in non-presidential elections, but would turn out to vote in presidential elections if their state was a swing state.

I don’t think that group is nearly as large as you think.

Henry Baum October 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm

“One can envision the Tea Party fielding a candidate that polls very well in the South, while Romney could remain a moderate of the center-right wing of the party, leading to the fragmentation of the Republican Party.”

I’m unclear why you think this is a bad thing. It would end the two-party system.

bob smith October 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

“This criticism ignores that, from year to year, swing states can vary widely. ”

Not really. there are a large number of non-swing states that are forever non-swing. If you live in California, New York, or Texas, your vote doesn’t matter. That’s just 3 states with 25% of the country’s people.

andrew long October 26, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Not forever, exactly. It’s true things have become fairly set in stone in the past two decades. But since 1960, several currently solid blue (large) states have were up for grabs in some years. Major campaign resources were focused on all of these states in the years indicated. In addition, some smaller blue states have at times seen small margins of victory for either side, but they were not vigorously contested because they weren’t electoral prizes.

New Jersey:
Kennedy took it by .8%
Nixon (68) by 2.13%
Ford by 2.16%
Clinton (92) by 2.38%

California:
Nixon (60) by .55%! (35,623)
Ford by 1.78%
GHWBush by 3.57% (not too close, but they both ran hard there and spent multi millions in ads)

Texas:
Kennedy by 1.73%
Humphrey by 1.27%
Carter (76) by 2.11%

Illinois:
Kennedy by .19%
Nixon (68) by 2.92%
Ford by 1.97%
GHWBush by 2.08%

Josh October 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Daniel: Actually, the paper I cited in the post, Goux and Hopkins 2008, explores turnout. They found the following:

Battleground states 57.3, 66.7
All other states 52.0, 56.8
United States total 54.2, 59.8

The first number is 2000, the second is 2004. So yes, this is a legitimate concern with the current system.

Brad October 27, 2012 at 7:59 am

Yes, but how much of this is people voting because their vote “matters” vs. turning out because they’ve been bombarded with ads non-stop for two months and there are significant GOTV operations happening?

Changing the system doesn’t mean the non-battleground states will see such activities (too costly), so a plausible counterfactual is decreased turnout in swing states and minimal increase in non-swing states.

Josh October 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

This is true; the conclusion they draw in their paper is that it is in fact the GOTV that accounts for the most significant differences in voter turnout — not the binary of being a swing state.

It seems likely that, since campaigns have limited resources (and it’s not impossible to think they may become more limited if Citizens United is struck down), they would only contest large population centers, ignoring even larger portions of the country than are currently ignored.

Phloo October 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I am not sure what is so impressive about this argument. In fact, I find it incredibly incomplete. “Research also suggests that voters are more likely to pick a candidate in the first round they would not vote for in the second, but it is not implausible to think of a similar, if slightly less fragmented, result in the United States – except in the US there would not be a second round.” Voters in the first round feel more comfortable voting differently in the first round precisely because there is a second round. With no second round, most – not all – but most voters will vote for the candidate that best meets the voter’s perception that the candidate both conforms with the voter’s preferred ideology while also having a real chance of winning.

Is it theoretically possible that a simple NPV would result in some bizarre outcomes? Sure, but it is hard to argue objectively that it would in practice create outcomes that are any more strange than the EC. With no additional changes to the U.S. system beyond a move to the NPV, I suspect that the two parties would continue to dominate in the short to medium term. You could imagine a third or fourth party eventually picking up some steam, but changes to the House and Senate would also be required before the NPV could really fundamentally change how our system works. So, I would much rather have everyone’s vote count equally than worry about Marie Le Pen winning the U.S. presidency.

John October 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm

totally agree with this post – not sure why the author considered this such a groundbreaking point that he had to post about it…

bob smith October 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm

There will always be pros and cons of different voting system, but the EC system destroys the most important principle, which is that all votes should be equal. With the EC, my California vote is worth nothing, but the guy who lives in Ohio has a vote that may be very important. That’s obviously a huge injustice of the EC that needs to be corrected.

Phloo October 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm

While the 2002 France case is interesing, as Jean-Marie Le Pen did unexpectedly get into the second round, Chirac wound up winning the second round after having the plurality in the first round. I would be interested to see some research on how often the candidate with the plurality in the first round winds up losing in the second round across two-round systems. Anyone have a link? It must happen, but I wonder how often.

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

This argument sounds to me like someone coming with as many reasons as possible to support the status quo, rather than thinking about which system is better. If we were designing US elections from scratch–without any historical context–would we ever consider something like the modern Electoral College? If our only two options were the EC or a National Popular Vote, why would we go with the EC?

Or, even worse, if we had a NPV, and someone suggested ditching that in favor of the EC…how much traction would that argument have?

All voting systems will be imperfect, but someone will be further away from perfection than others. The Electoral College is very far from perfection.

Joel October 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm

The “depressed turnout” argument and the “design from scratch” argument both suggest another interpretation.

Is it merely the case that turnout here in Texas is depressed because our votes “don’t count” (thinking which, of course, overlooks many other elections happening on Nov. 6 where my vote is less meaningless)? Or is it also the case that the same dynamic leads to *increased* turnout in places like Ohio? I am not pointing this out as a good in itself, but because of a further implication.

If you do away with the EC and start over with a “National Popular vote,” I would speculate that this doesn’t lead candidates suddenly to start paying attention to all the non-swing states, from Alaska to Maine. Rather, they might start paying more attention to larger metro areas and media outlets, on the basis of bang for buck. Alternatively, they might focus their message where it would be best received, and in so doing create “competing” campaigns that largely do not encounter each other.

So, instead of having our president chosen by Ohio, it would be chosen by New York City, or by a turnout contest between elites in Montana versus those in Vermont. Is that an improvement?

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I imagine they’d campaign a lot in the most densely-populated areas and in areas where there are the most number of “swingable” votes. So places in NH and Iowa may continue to get some attention since they are more volatile states. But then there might be pockets in other random states that swingable too. There are probably counties all over the country that might be targeted, that are instead being ignored.

The standard argument against a NPV is that they’d spend all their time in NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, etc. While there is truth to this to some degree, I don’t find it a convincing argument. If campaigns have to concentrate their time, energy, and money in certain areas of the country, doesn’t it make perfect sense that they should do it where the most people are? What’s the argument of campaigns focusing on Ohio, Iowa, NH, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, FLorida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, etc. over more populated regions? Shouldn’t campaign attention and any sort of policy bias that goes along with that be weighted TOWARDS where most people are instead of away?

In addition, there is an advantage that even if campaigns are spending most of their time in metro areas, at least everyone’s vote counts the same regardless of how many campaign stops are nearby. As a California resident living with the Electoral College, not only am I not getting Presidential campaign stops like in Ohio, the practical power of my vote is dramatically less than an Ohioan. With the NPV, I may get more campaign stops (and why shouldn’t I?) than the person in Ohio, but at least our votes count exactly the same.

Tabbitha October 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

But New York City would not be the deciding factor in a popular vote, anymore than would Virginia, with about the same size population as NYC. A popular vote would encourage Republicans to get out the vote in NYC, since those votes would count toward the total rather than being basically discarded as they are today. Democrats would be motivated to get out the vote in Georgia for the same reason.

Candidates would be no more likely to visit Hawaii or Idaho than they are now, because of the small populations, but as it is now, the majority of the populace is ignored by the candidates while they focus on swing states. But they would benefit from ground operations in all 50 states, and each vote would count for one vote, instead of some votes counting more than others.

Josh October 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I think a popular vote system could be far better – however you measure what better means. But I don’t think it’s inherently better than what we have. Abolishing the Electoral College is a much easier and far more convincing argument to make. I think a two round system makes a lot more sense. The above are points I found to be interesting that I don’t often hear.

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Also…

“In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote – a slight majority – but he won 67.8% of the electoral votes (365 to 173). The Electoral College reduces the perception of small victories and bolsters presidential legitimacy. ”

Is this actually true? And if so, does it matter in any tangible way? Does it matter MORE than the amount of illegitimacy created by Presidents who didn’t even win a plurality of the popular vote?

Sad Paul Ryan October 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm

This is a shockingly bad defense of the electoral college. There are vast differences between the electoral systems in the United States and France. It’s not a great example because it has a two-pass system in national elections, allowing people to support minor parties throughout the country without fearing that they are throwing away their votes. As long as enough people continue to support third parties there, many candidates won’t hit a simple majority after the first election, allowing for stronger third parties overall and coalition formation in the legislature.

The Electoral College System is not defensible. Period. There are norms and legal kludges to fix the votes of electors ahead of time, but it’s not abundantly clear to me that slates of electors can legitimately be held to follow the popular votes of states in a winner-take-all fashion. Sure, this is the regime we are used to, but it’s simply a practical adjustment for the fact that voters in the presidential election aren’t voting for specific persons. They are voting to support anonymous persons who may or may not support their candidate of choice. Remember, the underlying point of the Electoral College is that, in the reasonably imaginable situations in which one candidate loses an election by a couple of million votes in a close election, a victory for the same candidate effected by narrowly targeting a set of potentially unrepresentative swing states is more legitimate. But it’s helpful to remind yourself that in the end, the elected president represents the entire country, whether or not they voted for the candidate, and whether or not they voted at all.

And the last set of voters are the most important here. Most voters don’t live in swing states. It’s clear that people are more invested in presidential elections than normal Congressional elections, as measured by the pronounced 50% turnout uptick in presidential years. But our most contested presidential elections have been clocking in at around 60% turnout, notwithstanding the hundreds of millions of dollars and vast attention devoted to the enterprise. It is no coincidence that turnout levels are much higher in swing states–hitting levels around 80%. These are voters who both feel that their vote was solicited and that it actually counts. The converse here are the voters in non-swing states, who are voting at lower rates than they would if the presidential race was contested in their state and they felt their vote might impact the ultimate national result. The problem with settling elections by electoral votes is that this de-emphasizes the importance of appealing to the national electorate and securing national popular majorities, which promotes political disengagement and apathy. The real controversy, then, isn’t who the ultimate winner of an electoral vote-popular vote schism is, but who the ultimate winner of an electoral vote election is as compared to a nationally waged popular vote election. We don’t experience those, and it stands to reason that if Massachusetts Republicans matter just as much as San Francisco liberals and undecided voters in Florida, the eventually disputed election would have turned out rather differently.

Dean October 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Isn’t it plain that the reason the French vote for candidates that more closely reflect their own views in the first round is that there is more than one round, and so there is less pressure to avoid “throwing your vote away”? I’m not sure how you get from “France has no electoral college and two rounds,” to “Ignore the two rounds, it’s the lack of electoral college that causes this voting behavior.”

This isn’t to say that I don’t support the electoral college – the Gallup Poll that had Romney up by 7 had Obama with a slight lead in most areas of the country, but gave Romney a 22 point lead in the South. I’m not going to openly guess at the cause of that, but I think that it amply demonstrates that the original concern driving the electoral college – prevention of the domination of national concerns by a single region’s preferences – isn’t as antiquated as we might have thought six years ago.

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Except that the gap between the NPV and projected EC outcome is a lot smaller than that (maybe 1 point or so), and that absent the EC, both campaigns would be behaving a lot differently. There is some evidence that the reason Obama’s national vote seems to be behind where it is in swing states is that Democrats in safe Democratic states aren’t that enthusiastic and are being screened out of the Likely Voter models. If Obama was targeting maximizing his national vote share, the results in national poles would surely be different.

Dan Miller October 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

We don’t need to go to an overseas two-round election to figure out what would most likely happen under NPV–we have a system right here, in the form of gubernatorial elections. There are occasional outliers, but the two-party system remains intact in these races and tends to produce candidates that are broadly politically acceptable. I fail to see why a presidential race, with its intense vetting and competition, would produce worse outcomes than the governor’s races that go on every cycle under a popular-vote scheme.

Isaac October 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about the United States, but about one state–Pennsylvania, let’s say. Has anyone ever argued that the method for choosing the Governor of Pennsylvania–by popular vote alone–is lacking in some way? That it leads to a dynamic where the Democrats run up their vote in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and the Republicans run up their vote in the suburbs and countryside? That it discourages candidates from campaigning in Reading or Scranton or some other place that may lack adequate attention from state policymakers? That a third-party gubernatorial candidate may fragment one of the mainstream parties or drain the winning candidate of legitimacy? In short, if the electoral college method is so great, how come none of the states use it to select their executives? How come no other country in the world uses it to select their executive? (Ceremonial positions like the President of Germany don’t count.)

Joel October 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I don’t know from Pennsylvania, but I think I could get a solid group behind the notion that the way we choose a governor in Texas is definitely lacking … something.

Monty October 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm

In Minnesota this method for choosing the Governor produced Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

Peter H October 26, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Left out of your criticism is one of the dumber aspects of the electoral college: the possibility of ties and split decisions. The 12th amendment procedure for when no candidate gets a majority of the EVs is totally insane. It can result in no president being chosen, as it did for 24 ballots of the house in 1800. It is a huge impediment to a third party run, since even if they do get the most EVs, a 3 way split means it’s almost surely going to be decided by the house, which is in the hands of the two parties.

Also, the house voting procedure itself is insane, with 1 state getting 1 vote. It massively favors small, low-population states, and would likely result in (in the current climate) the republican candidate winning, even if the democrats had more seats in the house, due to the many small states whose representatives are overwhelmingly republican.

beejeez October 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Like the Senate, the Electoral College has become a dispiriting wrench thrown in the gears of progress. This is the 21st century; it hardly derogates the wisdom of the founders to allow that the nondemocratic peculiarites of their original electoral mechanism became anachronistic long ago. There’s no reason on earth an Ohio voter should be worth two or three voters from Alabama or New York. If a more equal system would endow the most populous states with more relative power than they have today, then so be it. That’s where our people are.

I’m unpersuaded by the argument that a campaign that targets the whole country will waste more money than what is now deployed in swing states. No. The campaigns spend all they can round up right now. Take away the E.C. and the difference would not be how much they spend, but where they spend it: namely, all 50 states. If anything, making campaigns spend their money nationwide will reduce the influence of high rollers and special interests who at present can get major bang for their buck by targeting just a half-dozen states. Still prefer the E.C.? If you don’t live in a swing stake, think about how much you like swing states cutting in front of you at the pork cafeteria line.

I’m open to a two-round vote, and I think several options should be examined. But if we just say no more E.C., president is now direct-elected, period, I think self-interest would be an effective enough restraint on how the two major parties respond to a more open presidential election. If a charismatic socialist or libertarian somehow captures the public imagination and nobody beats his or her 30% total, let’s see what happens when his or her agenda encounters the Democratic and Republican parties we know in the House and Senate.

Just don’t get me started about the Senate. The folly of giving North Dakota and California the same legislative power in that body is bad enough; throw in the supermajority-approval practice and solo holds on appointments and it’s like a slap to your face.

Nicholas Warino October 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm

Isn’t the power of a vote in Ohio A LOT more than 2-3x the power of a vote in Alabama or New York? The power of a vote is a function of voter turnout and how close the election is, right? In California, our presidential vote is effectively zero since we have a huge population and an obvious Democratic victory. Sam Wang is getting at this with his “Power of Your Vote” metric, which he currently has:

State Margin Power
NV Obama +2% 100.0
OH Obama +1.5% 70.5
NH Obama +1% 60.7
IA Obama +1% 56.7
CO Obama +2% 45.1
WI Obama +3.5% 27.9
VA Romney +1% 24.1
PA Obama +5% 9.4
FL Romney +2% 7.8
MI Obama +6% 7.8
NJ Obama +14% 1.7747E-7

beejeez October 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm

“Swing stake”? Jeez, I need a nap.

??? October 26, 2012 at 4:39 pm

“except in the US there would not be a second round.”

Why wouldn’t there be? Odds are, this process would be declared unconstitutional, and then it would force a constitutional amendment.

As per the “clear-cut winner” argument, you cannot argue that when there is a portion of the population believing what a certain segment of the media tells them, and they’re saying that even though Obama won by a landslide, he is still an illegitimate president. I mean, how else do you explain all the theater and obstructionism?

peter October 27, 2012 at 7:26 am

This seems like a gross misinterpretation of the electoral systems literature. As highlighted above, a national popular vote (M=1) would reinforce the two party system (Cox 1997), not lead to the proliferation of candidates. Furthermore, the inclusion of a runoff would make it possible for third party candidates to garner more votes, but the persistence of the two party system for other elections would give those candidates a huge advantage in terms of infrastructure, especially since elections would become more costly (voter turnout and campaigns would have to cover a broader geographic area).

A stronger argument for the electoral college might include points like:
1- It makes campaigns cheaper and allows for critical voters (those in swing states) to spend more time getting to know candidates
2- Geographic representation is legitimate and corrects for the natural urban-bias of presidents/politicians
3- As mentioned above, it can give presidents a mandate in close elections

Adam Schaeffer October 27, 2012 at 10:09 am

Does anyone here take the potential value of a federalist system, and more state-centered politics, seriously?

Alvin Golub October 29, 2012 at 4:20 pm

The ec was made to balance the unfair Senate for a large state voter. Our founders thought that a ny voter would be more powerful than a small state voter in presidential elections as his vote controls more ec votes. It just did not work out that way with Texas and California today

Duebs October 31, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I’m wondering what the effect might be if more (or all) states followed the Congressional District Method for distributing their electoral votes like Maine and Nebraska. Does anybody have any thoughts on this? I haven’t seen it discussed much.

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