Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Electrical College (Simpsons Reference)

It is worth tracing the history of this institution to understand what its relevance is today. At the convention, the majority position initially favored having the House of Representatives choose the President. The smaller states advocated having the Senate alone vote, or at least having the vote as well (diluting the democratic effect of the H of R). However, others were concerned about having a president too beholden to the legislature. Eventually, it was decided to create an institution for the sole purpose of election, with electors chosen by states as a whole rather like delegates to the constitutional ratifying conventions or the Continental Congress with which they were familiar. The compromise was that if the Electoral college gave nobody an absolute majority, the choice would devolve to the H of R. The Madison made it plain that he thought most elections would go to the H of R.

The other issue that concerned them was presumed parochialism of states. A mechanism was set up where the person who got the majority of votes would be President, and the runner-up would be VP. This double voting system was made on the theory that everyone would vote for a native son from his own state, and then also for a national figure. The national figure, the "second choice vote" would then be President because it would attract more votes. This system fell apart within 8 years. Politics became national, not parochial, and the election of 1796 had a Federalist (Adams) as Pres, and a Republican (Jefferson) as VP. In 1800, the Federalists tried to guess who the Jeffersonian Republicans were going to vote for as their second choice and give HIM their second votes, making President a man nobody wanted. The 12th amendment fixed that in 1801, creating our current system. For some reason, the office of VP was retained. It is the appendix of our system.

At least since the election of 1800, it has been widely presumed that the president would be popularly elected, and the electoral college became little more than a crude filter. Electoral college "misfires" (not reflecting the popular will) have occurred four times: 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000. Not since 1787 has anybody seriously argued that the undemocratic aspects of the electoral college are to be treasured; on the contrary, every analyst has been an apologist for the system with the same argument "it almost always works anyway, so why change it?" For more than a century, the electoral college was perceived as a nonentity.

Other issues haunt the EC process. Most people believe that the EC has a "winner take all" system built in: namely, whoever "wins" a state (plurality) gets ALL of its electoral votes. The constitution does not require this. In the 19th century, many states split their electoral votes on a proportional basis. Maine and New Jersey still do (Maine allocates by congressional district). We faced the prospect in 2000 that Gore could have lost the election if one of 'his' states (Maine) had split its electoral votes, while none of Bush's states did.

The old question returns: Cui bono?
*Popular wisdom says that small states benefit, because mathematically their votes are overweighted. But small states are rarely "in play" - or if they are the stakes are low. So their issues are thoroughly ignored. Neither political candidate will set foot in Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, or the like. Large states get lots of attention, but only if they are "in play." The truth is that the current system favors states that are politically divided (what we saw in Florida, where 500 voters outweighed the 500,000 Gore plurality nationwide).
*Popular wisdom also says that the EC rewards candidates with broad geographic appeal, but this is again false. Nader and Perot had wide national appeal, but were not concentrated enough to win any electoral votes. George Wallace in 1968 won almost no popular votes outside the south, but many electoral votes because he was geographically concentrated. Put another way, a candidate getting 80% of all Southern votes in a direct election is not as happy as a candidate who gets 100% of all the Southern votes through the electoral college system.

There is, in my view, no justification at all for the EC today. Direct popular election (what we advocate for every other country on earth) should be the rule here. The real advantage is that each vote would count. Democrats would campaign in Alaska and Texas; Republicans in NY and Mass. "Swing states" would vanish; "swing voters" would matter.

42 comments:

Bell Curve said...

Wow, great analysis. A whole lot better than any sounding off I would have done.

I'm originally from upstate New York. Do you know how much upstate New York matters in a presidential election? That's right, it doesn't. This is my big beef with the electoral college. But it'll never get changed, will it? It's too hard to amend the constitution, and any president will have been elected with it and will thus be unlikely to change it. We debate it every four years, and then talk about important things like shark attacks and celebrity weddings the rest of the time.

The Law Talking Guy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Law Talking Guy said...

If Kerry wins the popular vote and the EV, and the Dems recapture a house (and thus the leg agenda somewhere), I suspect the Dems may propose direct election next time around. The 2000 election should not have happened that way. Incidentally, Republicans are correct that the popular vote total might have differed if voters knew that it mattered how many of them voted, even though their states were "safe" Bush or Gore states.

Raised By Republicans said...

I used to sympathize with Bell Curve's upstate New York friends because I was born in "downstate" Illinois. But I have more family and friends now in and around Columbus, OH - the swing region of a swing state. So I figure the system works...just kidding.

The EC and the Senate both do the same thing: overrepresent rural interests. Abolishing the EC would be very popular in states with big, urban populations (Ohio as a whole wouldn't lose out). However, abolishing the EC would mean that rural voters wouldn't matter as much so upstate NY and downstate ILL would probably still get neglected. They would just be joined by the entire Great Plains and many of the former slave states.

But of course it will never happen. Abolishing the EC would require a constitutional amendment which requires a 2/3 vote in the Senate and since the same interests that benefit from the EC are overrepresented in the Senate, guess what would happen.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Because there are 538 EC votes, and 435 are allocated on the basis of population, the overrepresentation of rural votes is attenuated. I think the case can be made that (1) a national election reduces the Florida-like local corruption issues (since who then cares about 500 votes when Gore wins by half a million anyway) and (2) a national election empowers the minority party in each state vis-a-vis the national party (i.e., for once, Texas Democrats and Mass. Republicans will matter to the national parties).

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, rural overrepresentation isn't usually decisive. I believe it was in 2000. Anyway, the point isn't how much overrepresentation there is but why rural interest (who can easily must the 1/3 to block an amendment) would want give up any edge they may have, however small.

Re: local electoral fraud. Yes, a truely national election would make it much more difficult to rig an election as happened in Florida when the disenfranchisement of 20,000 or so African Americans decided the entire result.

Re: Minority party turnout in "safe" states. Sure, the Democrats in Texas and the Republicans in Massachusets might turn out in greater numbers, but so might the majority party in each state. I think your on safer ground arguing that abolishing the Electoral College would increase voter turnout overall.

RE: Third parties. I think getting rid of the Electoral College would mean the end of some kinds of Third Party candidates. Candidates that are clearly to the left or to the right of the two major parties might lose voters. Consider the Nader voters' logic in California and other "safe" states. They argued that it was "safe" for them to vote for Nader because Gore would win CA anyway. But they might not have thought along those lines if they were considering the national popular vote.

Dr. Strangelove said...

If you believe in "one citizen, one vote" you cannot accept the Electoral College--I really think it's just that simple. The gold standard for determining the "will of the people" in a democracy is a majority vote.

But when there is a split vote with no majority, it is not necessarily true that the plurality should win. There's no 100% perfect way to handle that situation and it will always be possible to "game" the system in some way.

Personally, I really like the idea of being able to rank the candidates in order of preference. Imagine: if we had such a system, Democrats would be cheering Nader on. Preference voting has the virtue that people could support their friends and allies instead of having to fight them. While preference voting would ultimately favor the least objectionable, most mainstream of the candidates (it wouldn't lead to more third parties being elected) it would give a stronger voice to third parties instead of just cutting them out of the process like we do now.

I was disappointed that the Democrats didn't move to abolish the Electoral College after the 2000 debacle. Maybe if Kerry wins it will happen.

Raised By Republicans said...

Hi Master of Time and Space, how's the universe shakin'?

RE: Democracy and "one person one vote" and "majority votes" etc. If I really think about it, I can't think of a single electoral system among all the democracies on earth that would be the perfect approach. Sure, everyone gets a vote, but how do we count them? In proportional representation systems, results are often driven by such vote distorting things as: how many seats get divided up at a time, how many votes do you need to get any representation at all (say there are 100 seats and your party only gets .9% or even 2%, should that party get a seat?). In systems that force a majority of votes for the winner (like the French system) most parties exist only to cut deals with the two big parties that have a chance. Every electoral system is a compromise between ideals and practicality.

I agree with you that the best systems involve ranking candidates. Australia has such a system, so does Ireland and Japan. Oh, and Malta does too but who cares about Malta - just kidding. My favorite electoral system is the Irish one (Single Transferable Vote). People rank candidates and their votes get transfered to their next choice if their first choice is the bottom vote getter. It produces a single winner but accounts for the preferences of people who voted for "losers." Imagine such a system in 2000. Gore would have won Florida by 70,000 votes or more.

Changing our electoral systems isn't something either party can do if about half of the other party doesn't agree with it. Changing our Constitution is really really hard (that's a good thing by the way, otherwise Lord only knows what would have happened after 9/11).

Bell Curve said...

Mathematicians have done studies on the issue of voting systems and we have determined that there is no optimal voting system. However, we mostly agree on which is the worst system: ours. "One citizen, one vote" sounds so good, and is so entrenched in our brains, that when someone like Lani Guinier suggests changing it, she is ridiculed. Too bad.

Raised By Republicans said...

One of the most famous mathematicians to study this was Lewis Carol of Alice in Wonderland fame. Lots of people know that Carol was in "love" with the under age daughter a senior figure at Oxford and based the story of Alice in Wonderland on her. Apparently, the father of the girl was aware of the situation and he and Carol frequently butted heads in faculty meetings. One of these conflicts was about the renovation of a bell tower or something. Carol thought that "Alice's" father was manipulating the voting rule in the committee to prevent renovation of the tower. He got so mad he wrote a paper about voting systems.

US West said...

Thank you RBR or that lovely segway into near irrelevance.

I am late to this conversation. But I think you are all barking up the wrong tree. The EC isn’t your problem. Consider a few things:

I recently read a book that sparked an interesting notion. The problem in the US political, economic, and social system is not a lack of democracy, but too much. I am not sure I agree, but the argument was compelling. No one has mentioned that the major concern of the Founding Fathers was the possibility of a demagogue or “popular” dictator rising up. The Founding Fathers were never in favor of mass participation in at the voting booth. That is why they set up a representative system. Mass participation leads to anarchy- witness very democratic California-

Remember, as it was pointed out earlier, that the “nation” was non-existent when the EC was set up and the idea of political parties was discouraged. Communications were bad, the colonies were separated by natural barriers, and news was carried by word of mouth. Add to that the level of illiteracy, and you have a bunch of uneducated, isolated masses. Thus, we had mass disenfranchisement that was inherent to the system and purposely so. White, male landowners got the vote. That was that. The EC was seen as yet another filter to insure that some mini tyrant wasn’t elected; it was also meant to make corruption more difficult. Has it failed us? Perhaps. But the problem in the 2000 elections wasn’t the EC. It was the disenfranchisement of mostly black voters in one state- Florida (the same state that caused problems in 1876 by sending 2 slates of voters to the EC because it couldn’t resolve the issue of slavery vs. abolitionist) coupled with a Supreme Court that shouldn’t have heard Gore v. Bush (note that Justice Ginsberg concurs with me.) The EC functioned just as it was supposed to. It was the rest of the system that failed, right down to the districting manipulations. We are getting too sophisticated in our technology that is able to slice and dice the populous into discreet, precise bits, for our own good and that of our democratic system. Marketing is the bane of our existence.

You all favor one person, one vote. Most would agree in principle. But apparently the wider population doesn’t care enough to act on that considering that Clinton, arguably a very popular president, was elected with something like 36% of eligible voters participating.

I don’t think when people go to the polls to vote that they are thinking about the EC. Half my students didn’t even understand what the EC was and hardly any of them could tell me who the VP was at the time. Nor could they tell me how many senators represented California. These were people who had to pass some form of civics class before leaving high school. So there is something way more insidious and broken in our political system than the EC.

Some would argue that the real election takes place in the primaries. With the number of open primaries, I’d say the people have ample opportunities to make a selection. I’d also toss up the notion that rather than getting rid of the EC, you get rid of the state of Florida. Gift it to Cuba as a peace offering.

The Law Talking Guy said...

A minor correction to USWest. The 1876 election was a reconstruction election, so the issue was not about slavery but about voting of white insurrectionists (formally barred by the 14th amendment in 1868) and black freedmen (formally permitted by the 15th amendment in 1871.

Raised By Republicans said...

I bet there would have been a very high correlation between the reconstruction issues and the pre-1860 abolitionist vs pro-slavery issues.

US West said...

Thank you for clarifying that, LTG. I was short-handing it, something I should know better to do with this fine group of minds. ;-)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Nits will be picked.

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