Friday, July 27, 2012

Q Day 1: Case for the Electoral College?

Daniel D. asks:
What is the case for the electoral college? I'm familiar with the pragmatic arguments (a national recount would be a nightmare, voting fraud in one municipality could have a massive effect, etc.), but what is the principled reason why an electoral college is superior to a national popular vote?
That's a good question. I'm mildly in favor of the status quo on the electoral college, mainly because I think the case against it turns out to be fairly weak.

The strongest case for it, I think, is that historically the biases it introduces tend to be somewhat different than the biases involved in the rest of the system, and so using the EC method for presidential elections has tended to bring some balance. In particular, the malapportionment of the Senate, and the traditional malapportionment of House (and state legislative) districts until about 1960, meant that urban areas were shortchanged in Congress -- while the big, urban states traditionally did very well in the electoral college. As it happens, however, that's been much less the case recently. Remember, New York used to be a major swing state; California also was very contested once it became large, and even Texas had a run as a competitive state with big cities for a while. For whatever reason, all of that has slipped some over the last twenty or thirty years, which in my view makes the electoral college less worthwhile.

Still, all else equal, a presidential candidate would rather pander to a large state with lots of winner-take-all electoral votes than a small one, which should tend, over time, to balance out the small-state advantage in the Senate. So in terms of a positive case, I'd probably emphasize that.


  1. Why do you consider a lack of competitiveness to weaken an urban State's influence in the EC? The fact that New York isn't a swing State means less candidate attention, but also means that as a mainstay of one party coalition, New York interests are always represented by that coalition.

    1. That's a good point -- but remember, we're thinking about it compared with a regular popular vote system. New Yorkers would be valuable in that, too. The question is whether they're especially valuable given the EC, and for that I think that the state has to be competitive. But it's a good point, and I'm going to have to think a little more about it.

  2. Wouldn't a national election have an even greater bias toward large states, though? That's one argument I always hear in favor of the EC-- "If we didn't have it, they'd just pander to NYC and Los Angeles and all the big cities, and leave out the rural states." (Not saying I agree with this argument, just that I've seen it used.)

    But certainly, in a nationwide popular election, there's not much reason to hang out in Iowa or New Mexico, two states that are at least semi-up for grabs in the EC. So how does the Electoral College make sense because of a slight bias to large states, when a nationwide popular vote could result in even MORE of a swing toward large states?

    Or is that argument just completely off-base, and it would actually favor small states in some way I'm missing?

    1. The EC election produces a bias towards swing states. The popular vote election would do so for swing VOTERS.

      So, you'd really do the most pandering to swing constituencies. Or, at least, perceived swing constituencies. After years of "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads," "security moms" and a bunch of other really, really, really, really stupid nonsense, I'm not sure politicians/pollsters are really very good at identifying swing voters (after all...those stupid narratives aren't just invented whole cloth by a stupid media: these are the terms that campaigns are throwing around in front of reporters)

      My default assumption would be that it would change campaigning somewhat. You'd physically campaign in LA, NYC, and the other largest media markets, because your speeches and what-not would generate free media there, reaching the most potential undecided voters. Particularly for LA, NYC and Chicago, there's just a ton of votes to be reached that way.

      Ads, however, wouldn't be run in LA, NYC, etc. Why? Because, even though you're reaching a ton of viewers, you're really reaching even more in disposable income, so those media markets are way more expensive than are others. So, now you'd bring in your pollsters and target "NASCAR dads" via cable/satellite (one presumes using the SPEED channel, for example).

      You'd still see ads run on cable nets and during local news, for the same reason they do so now: to generate free media coverage.

      I don't think that direct vs. EC would have much of a rural/urban effect these days. None of the swing states are truly rural. Honestly, I think it would mostly just raise costs (running a truly national campaign) and spread the campaign out (probably to the great relief of the people of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, who seem to be getting really tired of all the ads they see, or at least claim to be)

  3. It's undisputable that two hundred years ago, regional differences in the US were far starker than they are now. The EC has symbolic meaning, in that each state has representation and together they choose a President. It means that the candidate that appeals to the broadest segment of the distributed population will more likely win. In a popular poll, a single highly disciplined, local group could sway the election. According to "The History of Utah," this was why Joseph Smith was assassinated.

  4. I thought the electoral college favored small states, weakly reflecting the Senate in this regard since the electoral vote is based on the state's House representation (based, in turn, on population) plus its two senators. The two senators triple the weight of Wyoming's vote while barely moving California's. Isn't that how Bush won in 2000? He had fewer popular votes but many small states.

    And wasn't the origin of the electoral college an attempt to remove the election of the president a couple of steps from the unwashed masses of voters? (They had the House, and that was enough.) It's evolved since then, of course, but the Constitution didn't expressly obligate the electors to vote in line with a popular vote.

    1. The EC was, in its way, a brilliant solution to several perceived problems, arguably none of which still exists. The idea of a directly elected president didn't get very far with the Framers; in fact, they were not inclined even to require that states hold elections for president (even now, that is still up to the states, whose legislatures could simply appoint the electors if they chose to). The obvious alternative was to have Congress choose the president, but they wanted a president who could act independently of Congress. So the EC is basically a virtual or shadow Congress, one that comes into existence for the sole purpose of choosing the president and VP and is then dissolved, releasing the executive from having to do its bidding. The Framers were also worried that whoever chose the president would be subject to outside pressures -- bribes from foreign powers, for instance -- so they mandated that the virtual congress would not meet in any one place but would be scattered around among the various states capitals. Before telephones and bank wire transfers, that was a big impediment to effective bribery.

      Further, the Framers assumed that each state would probably have a "favorite son" presidential candidate, so there would be at least as many candidates as there were states, and most of them would be unknown to most of the country. They didn't foresee modern parties and media coming along to sort all this out, so they assumed the EC would be needed to do it. The EC would in many cases serve the purpose of a nominating convention, with the House then choosing among finalists (somewhat contradicting the point above, but with so many gears moving there was bound to be some misalignment). The #1 finalist would be president and the #2 would be VP, although that arrangement was so obviously wrong that it was changed very early.

      Of course, the irony is that the Framers imagined the electors choosing the president, or at least the top candidates; today what actually happens is that the top candidates choose the electors. The whole thing has little point, and will be promptly abolished (I predict) as soon as a Republican wins the popular vote but loses in the EC, whereupon Fox and Limbaugh will suddenly discover all the EC's defects.

    2. I entirely agree that the Framers' case for the EC is irrelevant today. That doesn't mean, however, that it isn't perhaps preferable to a single national popular election -- or that it isn't close enough that it's not worth bothering to change it.

  5. The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, will not reach out to about 76% of the states and their voters. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the voter concerns in the dozens of states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 9 of the original 13 states are considered “fly-over” now. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree, that, at most, only 12 states and their voters will matter. They will decide the election. None of the 10 most rural states will matter, as usual. About 76% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, and 17 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX. This will be more obscene than the 2008 campaign, when candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their campaign events and ad money in just 6 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 4 states (OH, FL, PA, and VA). In 2004, candidates concentrated over 2/3rds of their money and campaign visits in 5 states; over 80% in 9 states; and over 99% of their money in 16 states.

    More than 2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to presidential elections. They have no influence. That's more than 85 million voters, 200 million Americans, ignored. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    The number and population of battleground states is shrinking as the U.S. population grows.

    Policies important to the citizens of ‘flyover’ states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

  6. Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.
    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE –75%, ID -77%, ME – 77%, MT- 72%, NE – 74%, NH–69%, NE – 72%, NM – 76%, RI – 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT – 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

    In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 3 jurisdictions.

    Of the 25 smallest states (with a total of 155 electoral votes) 18 received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. Of the seven smallest states with any post-convention visits, Only 4 of the smallest states – NH (12 events), NM (8), NV (12), and IA (7) – got the outsized attention of 39 of the 43 total events in the 25 smallest states. In contrast, Ohio (with only 20 electoral votes) was lavishly wooed with 62 of the total 300 post-convention campaign events in the whole country.

  7. The current system does not provide some kind of check on the "mobs." There have been 22,453 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 17 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. 1796 remains the only instance when the elector might have thought, at the time he voted, that his vote might affect the national outcome. Since 1796, the Electoral College has had the form, but not the substance, of the deliberative body envisioned by the Founders. The electors now are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

    If a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Democratic party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. If a Republican presidential candidate receives the most votes, the state's dedicated Republican party activists who have been chosen as its slate of electors become the Electoral College voting bloc. The winner of the presidential election is the candidate who collects 270 votes from Electoral College voters from among the winning party's dedicated activists.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

    1. Awfully tempted to delete it as spam...

      (For those who are new: this gets dumped into comments here and I believe elsewhere whenever the topic of the EC comes up -- and at least here the author hasn't engaged in discussion about it, just dumped it. I won't delete because it's substantive and on-topic, but I'm tempted.)

    2. Yeah and toto is wrong too! Idaho is definitely not going to be contested in this election by either candidate but if you live in Boise and want to get involved you can work for the President:

      or help out Governor Romney:

      So they might not have a "reason" to organize or campaign in a lot of states but they still do!

    3. In 2008, a grand total of $368 (that's not a typo) was spent on peak-season candidate advertising in Idaho. In contrast, $3,713,223 was spent in small swing state Iowa.

      Does that sound like the candidates cared about Idaho's votes?

      Under the current system, votes for Obama in Idaho will counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now votes for Obama don't matter to Obama. National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state.

      And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state are wasted and don't matter to candidates.

      A survey of Idaho voters showed 77% overall support for the idea that the President of the United States should be the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states.

      Voters were asked "How do you think we should elect the President: Should it be the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states, or the current Electoral College system?"

      By political affiliation, support for a national popular vote was 75% among Republicans, 84% among Democrats, and 75% among others.
      By gender, support was 84% among women and 69% among men.
      By age, support was 84% among 18-29 year olds, 70% among 30-45 year olds, 75% among 46-65 year olds, and 82% for those older than 65.


  8. 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. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states -- like Texas, New York, California, and 18 of the 25 smallest states.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting 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. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    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). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  9. The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes maximizes the incentive and opportunity for fraud and voter suppression. A very few people can change the national outcome by adding, changing, or suppressing a small number of votes in one closely divided battleground state. With the current system all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state. The sheer magnitude of the national popular vote number, compared to individual state vote totals, is much more robust against manipulation.

    National Popular Vote would limit the benefits to be gained by fraud or voter suppression. One suppressed vote would be one less vote. One fraudulent vote would only win one vote in the return. In the current electoral system, one fraudulent vote could mean 55 electoral votes, or just enough electoral votes to win the presidency without having the most popular votes in the country.

    The closest popular-vote election in American history (in 1960), had a nationwide margin of more than 100,000 popular votes. The closest electoral-vote election in American history (in 2000) was determined by 537 votes, all in one state, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    For a national popular vote election to be as easy to switch as 2000, it would have to be two hundred times closer than the 1960 election--and, in popular-vote terms, forty times closer than 2000 itself.

    Which system offers voter suppressors or fraudulent voters a better shot at success for a smaller effort?

  10. The idea that recounts will be likely and messy with National Popular Vote is distracting.

    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 statewide 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.

    Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state-by-state winner-take-all methods.

    The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

    The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

    We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

    Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

    The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

    No recount would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 56 previous presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.

    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a "final determination" prior to the meeting of the Electoral College.


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