Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Electoral College

For some reason I have always been fascinated by the electoral college. I'm sure a lot of it has to do with my political science background, or my fascination with historical trivia, or my latent undiagnosed childhood syndrome that makes me want to look at big colorful maps and do simple arithmetic in my head.

It seems an arbitrary and obscure thing to be interested in, but I think there's a lot more than base politics to read from it. In 1960, for instance, Pennsylvania and California had the same number of votes; today, California has twice as many as PA. The trend of population away from big, clumsy industrial states to the south and southwest is important for a variety of reasons--Florida only had ten electoral votes, for crying out loud, which is less than Indiana has today.

Every four years, I like to sit down and just start crunching numbers. Who is likely to win what state? What does one candidate have to pull off to win? What party trends have changed from year to year?

Much has been made of the Red State versus Blue State rivalry, which I don't quite believe. Such things are fairly fluid in the grand scheme of things; it was barely two decades ago that California was solidly Republican and Texas Democrat, notions that are absolutely unthinkable today. The New England states, for centuries, used to be the rockbed Republican stronghold; today, you could throw rocks all day and not hit a single GOP congressman. Likewise, the "Solid South" is still solid, but just for a different party.

You could see a little bit of this in the 2008 election. McCain was going to lose for certain, but I was a bit surprised at which states switched sides. Places like Ohio and Florida were reasonable; they had been swing states and had valid demographic and political reasons for switching sides. But one would expect that it would be the weakest states that would flip. When Indiana--one of the safest Republican strongholds--was announced as one of the first few states to go for Obama, I knew it was over. Likewise, Virginia and North Carolina (and, to a lesser extent, Nevada and Colorado) were both surprises. Is this a new trend--are the Democrats finally going to crack the South and Mountain states? It's hard to tell this early, of course; 2008 was certainly an anomaly, just as you can't ascribe Reagan's winning of Massachusetts in 1984 as flipping that state more than it being the intense drubbing Mondale got.

Of course, every election cycle there are calls for reforming or abolishing the electoral college. This, I think, would be a bad idea. I'm not going to drag out all of the reasons for or against--any poli sci prof will gladly do that for a few hours if you ask him at a cocktail party--except to point out a few highlights:
  • You can't recreate history. Lots of people state that Gore would have won had we had a popular vote instead of the electoral college. Well, maybe. The problem is, had the election been decided by popular vote instead of the electoral college, both candidates would have acted differently--Bush would have gone to upstate New York and northern California, while Gore would have shook hands in Austin and ran ads in the deep South. The vote totals would have been different because the rules would have been different. It's not useful to compare the results of one method when everyone involved was using a different method.
  • The most compelling argument for the electoral college is that it requires a broad base of support. I used to think this was bunk, but not so much anymore. In the electoral college, of course, any votes above 50.1% in each specific state are effectively wasted--they can't spill over to another state. This would prevent someone from scoring huge victories in one region, demographic, or ideology, and freeze out the rest. (Of course, the opposite can happen--and did, in 2000--but I think the effect in this opposing case is much more neutral.*)
  • Everything for the most part balances itself out. Sure, there are a lot of wasted votes in Utah, Texas, and Alaska. But there's roughly the equivalent number of wasted votes in Vermont, New York, and Oregon. The exact same thing would happen if the popular vote counted--more Texans may be inclined to vote since they wouldn't be wasted, but so would more Californians. (The same logic applies to the criticism that smaller states get a bonus because of the allocation rules. Last I checked, New England was Democrat and all are pretty small states, same as the Midwestern states that vote solidly Republican.)
  • And--the most practical and realistic reason--is that of fraud. What would have happened if a popular vote total was within a few thousand votes? Every single state in the nation would be doing what Florida had to do in 2000. Does anyone really want that? Is the trade-off of the (I think phantom) inequities of the voting system worth the absolute nightmare that would ensue?
As a general rule, I believe that as long as everyone knows the rules ahead of time there isn't a problem. (Some day I'll write about the 2000 election concerning this very point, but not today.) The iniquities and civil rights violations in the electoral college liberals and populists see in the system today will suddenly disappear once the Mountain and Midwestern states start voting Democrat. Same for the Republicans.

[For the record I think the biggest change in store is some of the Mountain states--Montana is surprisingly close for some reason, and Nevada and Colorado are both easily "new" swing states. It is possible that the non-deep South is a Democratic pickup as well, such as Virginia or North Carolina. As for GOP pickups, it will be hard to tell, but I think New Jersey is doable--surprisingly, given its demographics, it has been tantalizingly close--and possibly some of the less high protestant New England states. But the GOP will have a much harder time doing that; the easier method is to have more population grow in their base states, as has happened the last two census allocations.]

I'm not necessarily opposed to the different proposed reforms, such as everyone adopting the Maine/Nebraska rules, though I would prefer that not happen--see point #2 above. I'm also not a huge fan of the drastic measures both sides take to resolve the gray areas--and also the complete lackadaisical attitude that most states have towards the process. The inauguration date can certainly be pushed back two or three weeks if that means we'll have a legitimate certification of a president rather than some rushed court ruling based on "We don't have enough time." It may not be ideal, but if the Supreme Court says it's OK then, dammit, it's OK. On the other hand, letting electors handwrite their votes to screw up (like one Minnesota elector did, voting for John Edwards twice for both President and Vice President in 2004) due to some quaint notion of state control (at least in this area that is supposed to be more or less ceremonial but has the potential to be disastrous) is absolutely ludicrous. 

This is one of those times where I think the Founding Fathers may not have known exactly how things were going to work out, but still got this one mostly right.


*For those keeping score at home, it would work like this:


With the popular vote, it is conceivable that someone could rack up huge vote totals in the South--not exactly unheard of given that region's history--and win with only 10 to 20% of the vote in the other states. This wouldn't be possible with the electoral college.


With the electoral college, you could win with 50.1% of the vote in a select number of states and come out the winner while only garnering (realistically) about 45% of the overall popular vote.


From a practical standpoint, neither is particularly likely--the states you would have to win are a mix of Red, Blue, and swing states. It's theoretically possible but not a valid scenario given the current political climate. However--since we're all about theory here--I still think the latter is preferable, since it requires the candidate to be broadly popular over several states, rather than catering to a specific region or demographic. At this point, it comes down to political philosophy--should a candidate who truly only represents one region of our nation still win because they legitimately won the most votes, or should an electoral mechanism be in place to prevent such a thing from happening, even if it means someone with the fewest total votes wins?

5 comments:

  1. The current system of electing the president ensures that the candidates do not reach out to all of the states. Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided "battleground" states. In 2008, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their campaign events and ad money in just six states, and 98% in just 15 states (CO, FL, IN, IA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, PA, VA, and WI). Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). In 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states; over 80% in nine states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states, and candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states.
    Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

    Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

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  2. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. The National Popular Vote bill does not try to abolish the Electoral College. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President (for example, ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote) have come about without federal constitutional amendments, by state legislative action.

    On June 14, 2010, after a detailed study of the issue in 2009 involving over 6,500 League members from over 200 local Leagues, the League of Women Voters endorsed the National Popular Vote bill at their annual convention in Atlanta.. "We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished"

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Maine -- 77%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 74% , Massachusetts -- 73%, Minnesota -- 75%, New York -- 79%, Washington -- 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 30 state legislative chambers, in 20 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. The National Popular Vote bill does not try to abolish the Electoral College. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President (for example, ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote) have come about without federal constitutional amendments, by state legislative action.

    On June 14, 2010, after a detailed study of the issue in 2009 involving over 6,500 League members from over 200 local Leagues, the League of Women Voters endorsed the National Popular Vote bill at their annual convention in Atlanta.. "We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished"

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Maine -- 77%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 74% , Massachusetts -- 73%, Minnesota -- 75%, New York -- 79%, Washington -- 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 30 state legislative chambers, in 20 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

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  4. A nationwide recount would not happen. We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election. The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

    Under the current winner-take-all system, there are 51 separate opportunities for recounts in every presidential election. Thus, our nation's 56 presidential elections have really been 2,084 separate state-level elections. There have been five seriously disputed counts in the nation's 56 presidential elections. The current system has repeatedly created artificial crises in which the vote has been extremely close in particular states, while not close on a nationwide basis. Note that five seriously disputed counts out of 2,084 is closely in line with the historically observed probability of 1 in 332.

    A national popular vote would reduce the probability of a recount from five instances in 56 presidential elections to one instance in 332 elections (that is, once in 1,328 years). In fact, the reduction would be even greater because a close result is less likely to occur as the size of the jurisdiction increases. Indeed, only two of the 23 recounts among the 7,645 statewide elections in the 26-year period from 1980 through 2006 were in big states.

    The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush's lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore's nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical recount (averaging only 274 votes), no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

    A single national pool of votes is the way to drastically reduce the likelihood of recounts and eliminate the artificial crises produced by the current system.

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  5. For comment 1: The reason candidates only concentrate on the battleground states is because they don't have to campaign anywhere else--they're not going to waste time and effort in states that are a forgone conclusion. This would occur under popular vote the same as it would under the electoral college. Even if there are Republican votes in the Maryland panhandle or Democrat votes in Austin, TX, I don't think a fundamental change would occur--candidates are going to go where the most questionable votes are, which is more or less in the battleground states anyway. At most, campaign managers may mine specific areas in otherwise solid states (such as the suburbs of Philadelphia or coastal Michigan) but this isn't too terribly different than now--witness Bush's visit to CA in 2000.

    For point 2: the National Popular Vote bill is effectively switching to popular vote. Maintaining the electoral college for constitutionality purposes is a feint; I'd rather (if they pass it) they dispense with the window dressing and just go with the popular vote.

    Point 4: Your information is a little misleading. It may be true that the average recount only has a swing of 274 votes, but that's because most--well, all except 2000 Florida--are in local and state recounts, where the vote totals by definition are significantly lower. If extrapolated to the nation at large, that margin increases significantly. And if there were a close election where widespread fraud was detected--say, for example, the 2008 election was much closer and ACORN or a similar outfit was proven to commit fraud across the nation--there would be a nationwide recount. (There is no doubt in my mind that had a recount been required in 1960--as probably should have happened--the electoral college saved us from a long nightmare of a legal battle with a nationwide recount.)

    ReplyDelete