Electoral College: keep it or lose it?

In today's Oregonian, BlueOregon co-founder Jeff Alworth published an editorial, "Counting on fairness in elections." In it, he argues that the math underlying the Electoral College proves that it's an "18th century solution to an 18th century problem." Discuss.

Comments

  • LC (unverified)
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    Before anyone comments on this, consider the very real possibility that Bush will win the popular vote (nearly every major poll has him a couple points up) but may lose the electoral college (a number of scenarios could work out this way).

    I think a precursor to the question of EC or no, is a discussion of whether perfecting democracy is your "means to an end" or simply an "end" in itself.

    Personally, I agree with Churchill's take on democracy (the worst method of selecting leaders in the history of mankind, except for all the others ever tried). We have a working mechanism for selecting the president, so I'm not interested in changing it unless the benefits of changing are significant and tangible.

    But so far, I haven't read any persuasive arguments that we'll get better candidates or campaigns by removing the electoral college. My guess is that presidental candidates would be concerned only with pandering to the major urban cities, small states would be virtually ignored in the process. So they won't support the amendment. You are more likely to see the smaller states support an amendment creating term limits for Congress than to see them giving up their influence in the EC.

    BTW, the electoral college is much more democratic than the US Senate, where Alaskan voters wield about 50 times the strength as Californians (and where DC residents wield nothing). (but that can't be removed without starting the whole country over from scratch, seeing this, demophile reformers are always forced to move onto the EC debate).

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    There's absolutely no reason not to use a popular vote to elect the president. It's an issue of fairness, not whether we get better candidates. That's a seperate issue altogether.

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    My concern is the discouraging effect the electoral college could have on actual or potential voters. The US has a low percentage of voters compared to other industrialized countries. I think that we all can agree that in a democracy, more voter participation is better. But if a presidential candidate wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college (and thus the Presidency), doesn't that contribute to the overall perception that 'my vote doesn't count?'

  • LC (unverified)
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    Just as I figured. Pure democracy is the "end" in itself for you guys.

    How about we amend the US Constitution to enable more pure democracy while we're at it?

    We could have a national initiative and referendum process. Voters would really feel empowered then. I'll bet that turnout for every election would go up if we had a national referendum on taxes every couple years.

    Hey, maybe we could also amend the US Constitution by initiative while we're at it.

    OK. You convinced me. Pure democracy for the sake of pure democracy. I'll support getting rid of the EC as long as it is packaged with a federal I&R process.

    Any takers?

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    While I agree with Jeff that the Electoral College isn't necessarily the most democratic institution (it doesn't value all votes equally).

    That said, I do think that a national recount would be a very scary proposition. If the election were within 120,0000 votes (1/10 of 1 percent) you'd probably have an auto-trigger recount. Given that the states control voting mechanisms - and every state has its own criteria, that's a nightmare.

    A compromise proposal; actually two: 1) Keep the electoral college, but make every state like Maine - two votes for the statewide winner, and one vote for winning the congressional district. 2) Keep the electoral college, but make every state like the Colorado initiative - allocate the votes proportionally.

    Both of these ideas would limit recounts to a small set of states in a close election.

    I'm a stats geek, so I'll do the math on some previous elections under both scenarios and post later.

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    I'm with Kari on going the reform-the-EC route rather than the dump-the-EC route.

  • Markmein (unverified)
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    "BTW, the electoral college is much more democratic than the US Senate, where Alaskan voters wield about 50 times the strength as Californians (and where DC residents wield nothing)."

    Although it's more democratic than the Senate, the electoral college is far less democratic than the House. Electoral college representation mirrors total congressional representation, including the House and the Senate. So states that are population super-lightweights are over-represented relative to more populous states. Here's a link that illustrates the issue:

    http://www.instantrunoff.org/analysis/analysis_eicalc.html

    I'm not sure whether the population lightweights are skewed towards Red or Blue, but individuals in those states can have 3 times more "electoral say" than big-state citizens.

    All elections are currently run by state and local agencies. The Federal governmemt runs no elections, except maybe in DC. For direct voting in Presidential elections, it seems that we'd need a Federal standard or agency to run just that election, since all other elections are fundamentally state/local. That seems unlikely and wasteful, but might have the benefit of higher nationwide standard than the current hodge-podge that allows Florida to play it's Third World electoral games.

    A benefit of the electoral college is that discrepancies in one state, like Florida, are localized there. Irregularities in Florida do not affect vote totals anywhere else, so a Florida recount over 1000-2000 ballots does not necessitate a nationwide recount.

    Overall, I think the electoral college is a fine procedural insitution, but I think the over representation of low-population states should be addressed. Of course, one way to do that is to increase the size of the House, but if either party has an advantage in low-population states, we can be certain that any improvements for voting fairness would be blocked.

    This all poses an interesting political history thought. We all learned that the Senate was established to provide political balance between "large" and "small" states in legislative matters. It seems now that this balancing effect could affect the balance of power in the executive branch, too.

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    That said, I do think that a national recount would be a very scary proposition.

    The problem isn't the mechanism, it's the closeness of elections. I'm not worried about a national recount because I find the prospect remarkably small. Even in 2000, we wouldn't have met that benchmark. If you're within 120k votes on a national election, it doesn't matter which system you use, there's going to be a nightmare scenario.

    Speaking of which, the nightmare you identified yesterday (269-269) is far worse. Leaving aside Richie Robb, it could be turned to the House to decide. Now, what would you rather have, a national recount, or a DeLay-Hastert controlled vote?

    Leave the decision to the people.

    (Two final things. One, my Oregonian piece was on the issue of fairness, nevermind LC's provocations. It's a slightly different issue. If we were to try to address the EC, I agree for a different reason with Kari's second suggestion--divide the votes. I like this plan because it's politically viable; changing the US Constitution is always a monumental task.)

  • Kent (unverified)
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    Actually there are even more problematic issues with the electoral college than have been discussed here and in Jeff's article.

    First, Jeff explains how it would be mathematically possible for someone to win the electoral vote and lose the popular vote by 10 million votes. Actually, mathematically speaking someone could theoretically lose the popular vote by 100 million or more votes and still win the electoral vote if the turnout varied dramatically from state to state. Such a result could happen if voter turnout was very low in small states with an electoral majority and strongly favored one candidate while voter turnout was very high in large states with an electoral majority and strongly favored another candidate.

    The whole issues of voter turnout is something I haven't seen discussed but it's another way that the electoral college is unequal. The electoral college votes are sort of based on population. So two states that have equal populations would have the same number of electoral votes. For example, Oregon and Oklahoma both have 7 electoral votes. However turnout in Oregon is traditionally much higher than Oklahoma. That means that the less engaged voters in Oklahoma are rewarded by having their individual votes count more than the more engaged voters in Oregon. Is that fair? If turnout in Oregon is 80% and turnout in Oklahoma is 40% then each Oklahoma voter's vote counts for double of each Oregon voter's vote.

    I would be happy to reform the electoral college if these issues were addressed as well. Instead of distributing electoral votes by population they could be distributed based on the number of voters in the previous presidential election. And then distribute electoral votes proportionately based on the results in each state. That would reward states with high levels of participation and be the most equitable way to count each vote equally without going towards a pure popular vote.

  • raging red (unverified)
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    I agree with Kari & b!X about reforming the EC to deal with votes not being valued equally.

    Jeff - what about the issue (that I raised in the Richie Robb thread) about candidates not paying attention to less populous states if we just used a popular vote?

    In your article, you say that the EC is an 18th century idea, since we now have the technology to disseminate information about the candidates to everyone in the country. BUT, it's about more than just spreading information. It's about candidates being forced to address specific issues that are of particular concern in each state.

    To use my current state (WV) as an example, because of the EC, we've had Kerry & Bush here talking about, for example, specific policies regarding the coal industry. If we just had a popular vote, would state-specific issues (in the smaller states) be ignored by the Presidential candidates?

    Maybe I'm overthinking this. Perhaps, even if we had a popular vote, the candidates would still travel around to different states and address those states' specific policy concerns, but somehow I just think all of the smaller states would get lost in the shuffle.

  • Mike D (unverified)
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    I agree with Kari's proposal

    1) Keep the electoral college, but make every state like Maine - two votes for the statewide winner, and one vote for winning the congressional district. 2) Keep the electoral college, but make every state like the Colorado initiative - allocate the votes proportionally.

    It allows the votes of the minority in a majority state to actually become empowered...i.e. in Texas--a red state, democrats would still have some impact on the election (and vice versa in a blue state).

    It would also make the candidates pay attention to places where they don't campaign now because that state's already "in the bag". It never made much sense to me that neither candidate spent time in California when it's arguably one of the most important economic powerhouses in the US...and why? Because it's consistently a Blue state. Is Iowa more important? I mean nothing against Iowa but does it make sense that this state chooses our president? By allocating electoral votes in the above method, we "share the wealth" throughout the country unlike a strict PV election which just gives the major urban areas the power.

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    Kent, I don't know about a 100 million, but you're right--my calculation assumed a constant turnout across states. (The voting age population is only 218 million, so 100 million is probably a wee high. But point taken.)

    Red, I think Kari's solution is a politically viable one, but it doesn't eliminate the downside of a popular vote. Maine, for example, has become a swing state, but because of the divided vote, the candidates don't visit there. If all states did that, you'd see candidates only visiting areas with large electoral blocs of votes.

    Colorado is actually confronting this now, and the main argument against splitting the vote there is that it would weaken the state's standing. (Also, the GOP regards it as a way to steal votes for Kerry. In 2000, Gore might have won if Colorado had the law then.)

    Oregon could probably push through a law like that if progressives favored it, because we've become a pretty blue state for statewide elections. The GOP would support it because 1 or 2 electors would go for their candidate. That raises interesting questions for liberals, yes? (I'd support it.)

    Finally, as to Kari's downside of not being able to do a recount. How about this: if we had a national poll, it would force the states to professionalize and standarize their voting systems to handle that issue. It's not like the technology doesn't exist--India, of all places, just had a national election on electronic machines without issue (they overthrew the ruling party). Many actions have unintended consequences; fixing our elections would be a nice one.

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    Before anyone comments on this, consider the very real possibility that Bush will win the popular vote (nearly every major poll has him a couple points up) but may lose the electoral college (a number of scenarios could work out this way).

    And that's what we call karma. ;-)

    Believe it or not, that's all I've got to say (for now, lol).

  • the prof (unverified)
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    I suppose this is why I'm here ...

    I think if you follow the logic of campaigning, you'll realize that the the argument that abolishing the EC will lead candidates to pay less attention to less populous states is specious.

    1) If the president were elected by a national vote, then every vote would count. As it stands now, just the 50% + 1st vote in a state "counts" -- every vote after that is just gravy.

    2) So, under the current (EC) system, the candidates ignore massive swaths of the country because their lead is beyond the statistical margin. This year is a perfect example.

    3) Under a popular vote system, however, candidates would have an incentive to fight for votes whereever they may find them (assuming, of course, that it is cost efficient).
    So, for example, a Democrat could not ignore urban areas such as Atlanta, Houston, Austin, and the many, many smaller urban areas in the South which are currently ignored (and I might add, populated with disempowered minority voters).
    Similarly, a Republican would appeal to suburban voters in Westchester County, NY, suburban Boston, Orange County CA, etc.

    In the academic community, there is virtually no support for continuing the electoral college as an institution. The original rationale for the EC, laid out well by Jeff, is an historical relic. The EC overrepresents small states, to the detriment of politics and policy making, and makes it quite possible that a non-plurality president could win the EC.

    From a purely strategic perspective, as a liberal or progressive or whatever label you'd like, you should support EC reform because it would enhance the power of urban populations relative to the rural west.

    All that being said, the most likely reform is the one Kari suggests. That alone (allocating by CD) would be a significant improvement over the current system.

  • LC (unverified)
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    Prof points out:

    "the argument that abolishing the EC will lead candidates to pay less attention to less populous states is specious."

    then later advises us:

    "you should support EC reform because it would enhance the power of urban populations relative to the rural west."

    I thought that argument was specious?

    Oh nevermind. You've already polled the entire academic community on the subject.

    BTW, this is being debated on CNN as I write this and all three guest commentators (one an "academic", one the Dem. governor of small state New Mexico) are arguing in support of keeping the EC.

  • Kent (unverified)
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    Kent, I don't know about a 100 million, but you're right--my calculation assumed a constant turnout across states. (The voting age population is only 218 million, so 100 million is probably a wee high. But point taken.)

    Jeff, I was talking about what is mathematically possible, not what is likely to ever happen. The simple math works like this:

    Assume that small states with a voting age population of 109 million and 270 electoral votes experience exceedingly low turnout of say 1% and 55% of the votes go for Bush in each state. Small state results:

    Bush: 550,000 popular votes and 270 electoral votes

    Kerry: 450,000 popular votes and 0 electoral votes.

    Then assume that large states with a voting age population of 109 million and 268 electoral votes experience 100% turnout with 99% of the vote in each state going to Kerry. Large state results would be as follows:

    Bush: 1 million popular votes, 0 electoral votes. Kerry: 108 million popular votes, 268 electoral votes.

    Add those two results together and you get the following:

    Popular vote: Kerry 108.5 million, Bush 1.5 million.

    Electoral vote: Kerry 268, Bush 270.

    Kerry loses the electoral vote while winning the popular vote by 107 million votes. Is that result realistic? Of course not. But it is mathematically possible.

  • raging red (unverified)
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    LC, there's absolutely no reason for you to be such an ass in this discussion.

    No attacks are warranted. Is that so hard?

  • LC (unverified)
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    Red,

    What attacks?

    Are you referring to my response to the Prof?

    His post was rather condescending, so I responded in kind. But it falls way short of an "attack".

    Or were you referring to my questioning Jeff's purpose in this discussion?

    I made it clear that I support democracy because it has instrumental value (i.e., we tend to get better leaders this way rather than by having a royal family). Jeff apparently believes democracy has some inherent value (thus his "fairness" argument).

    I don't believe my observations were attacks. They were meant to make folks pause and consider the purpose (before jumping into a silly debate over an amendment that we all acknowledge will never occur).

    But if you need an example of when a post starts to cross the line, look in the mirror first.

    I never referred to anyone as an "ass".

  • Phos (unverified)
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    Low turnout of 1 person and high turnout of 100% with 50-50 split differing by one vote does not affect difference in number of popular or electoral votes. (except Maine and Nebraska)

    I used stats from 2000 from www.census.gov. Assume 100% turnout in all states (for eligible voters) with one side (A) winning the 33 states with the greatest "electoral vote per eligible voter ratio" and assume they're all won by 1 vote. Assume all votes for the other side (B) for the other 17 states.

    (A) would have only just over 20% of popular votes, losing by 121.5 million. Yet maintain a draw of 269-269 on electoral votes and can still win the presidency.

    The same can be done with a 270-268 win, but would need another 0.2% of popular votes. (still under 21%) And only need to swicth one of the 33 states with one of the 17.

    The ratio is not inversely proportional to state population size. California is roughly 360k ppl to an electoral vote; 391k for Ohio. And there are more examples. Hence choosing the smallest states is not necessarily optimal. (Maybe it accounts for the difference between 107m and 120m of popular votes, or maybe it's just different stats.)

    My dislike of EC is just that it seems to amplify the "reward" for support for some candidates. 20% of popular votes (strategically placed) = 66% of states won = 100% of presidential power. Also, the fact that "freak accidents" like that could still happen even if we are all good citizens voting for who we want, is a bit worrying.

    I understand that different states have different interests and hence the need for possibility that a candidate winning by popular votes may not win overall (looking after state interests and all), but the current system, with that large a difference being possible seems unacceptable.

    And after Florida 2000, we can't say that we'll ignore these tiny (possible) problems just because it's unlikely to happen.

    P.S. the 17 states (with the 269 scenario) should be TX, NY, FL, IL, PA, OH, MI, VA, GA, WA, MO, TN, IN, WI, MD, KY and SC. They have the highest in ratio.

  • Joe Baldinux (unverified)
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    Markmein: "I'm not sure whether the population lightweights are skewed towards Red or Blue, but individuals in those states can have 3 times more 'electoral say' than big-state citizens."

    This is a valid point. The Constitution was drafted by powerful men with lots of wealth and vested interests. The bicameral legislature was a compromise to satisfy the big and powerful interests in "big" states against those who would be under-represented when held against them.

    Markmein: "A benefit of the electoral college is that discrepancies in one state, like Florida, are localized there. Irregularities in Florida do not affect vote totals anywhere else, so a Florida recount over 1000-2000 ballots does not necessitate a nationwide recount."

    A safety net system could be implemented in IRV or a straight popular vote. When you have millions of voters -- or billions, as in India -- it would be illogical not to have 'checkpoints', if you would, for no other reason than to keep your sanity. Another downside to the electoral college is that the present nets (along state and/or county lines) are not uniform, from the ballots to the counting procedures. In IRV or straight popular votes, voting would be standardized across the country, so that irregularities or inaccuracies could be troubleshot across the whole country rather than a redundant and slow process of fixing every unique problem in each state system.

    The electoral college is simply outdated. A person from Wyoming shouldn't have any more power than a Californian, or vice-versa. And I don't think for one minute that the current scheme balances out the electorate. To me, holding voters accountable only to themselves (and not through the present winner-take-all method) through IRV (ideally) or a straight popular vote (I'll assent to this) are more suited to the present age.

    My two cents. Tune in to the elections with your red or blue or green or whatever potato chips! :-)

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