Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Overrated Electoral College

Specifically, the majority/minority aspect of the Electoral College. I see that the periodic flap about the possibility of a president winning with a small percentage of the vote got a little play yesterday.

Sorry, but I think this is a lot of fuss over nothing. I mean, first of all, there's no point designing a system to prevent absolutely implausible outcomes; I mean, all the dice in Vegas could come up 7 for a 24 hour period and the casinos would all be broken, but no one is going to tell Caesar's to change the rules of craps in order to prevent that possibility.

Moreover...I'm just not all that worried about the very real possibility that the "wrong" winner could result, as it did in 2000 when Al Gore received more votes than George W. Bush but lost the electoral vote. I don't long as there's no partisan bias in the EC (there isn't; after all, John Kerry came close to being a far more "wrong" winner in 2004), you're going to have rules, and the rules will determine the winner, and as long as the rules are stable and not massively perverse than I'll find more serious process and policy things to be upset about.

I'm more sympathetic to complaints about the "normal" effects of the EC system, which drives the candidates to focus on states that are closer and bigger to the expense of states with large partisan majorities, but in my view the effects are modest and not altogether bad (for one thing, excess attention to large states presumably balances off the Senate advantage for small states). I'm far more concerned about the possibility that elected officials ignore the preferences of poor people than that they may be a bit too much attention to Florida and Ohio at the expense of Wyoming, Utah, and Rhode Island.

At any rate: if I had one EC reform that I could pass, it would be to get rid of the real scary portion of the scheme: the electors. I do worry about the possibility that an unfaithful elector could mess with presidential elections; I also worry about partisan legislatures attempting to intervene as Florida's Republicans considered doing in 2000...there's in principle little to prevent a rogue legislature from attempting that with even less pretext, and that really would be a stolen election and an illegitimate presidency.

But a president who wins despite finishing a handful of votes behind the other candidate? Really not a big deal. A minority president? The Tories get way more influence over policy for winning 36% of the vote than any US president would ever have (Thatcher's peak vote? 44%).

Perhaps reform is a good idea, perhaps a bad one, but either way it just doesn't matter very much at all.


  1. But what about Ohio and Florida getting more attention than California, Texas, and New York? I would guess that distorts policy agenda-setting away from things like public transportation, etc.

  2. Yeah thousands of dead Americans and trillions of dollars wasted in Iraq because George Bush won the electoral college while losing the popular vote... not important at all!

  3. Ron,

    Obviously, the Bush/Gore result was very important, but EC reform will fix that about as well as the two-term amendment successfully punished FDR.

  4. But is there a positive case for the electoral college? Or at least a reason why the current system is less bad than simply electing the president by popular vote?

    I'm a big fan of the blog as a defender of the madisonian system, so I'm interested in your take on this. Is it fair to say you're indifferent as long as there are stable rules?

  5. The EC is also good for robustness in tolerating bad procedures. E.g., the Florida debacle of 2000 was at least confined to Florida. With voting procedures so unreliable (and unverifiable) across the country, I have no desire for a national popular vote.

  6. I'm with acrossthestreet's POV on this, if more ambivalent than he is on how much weight to put on it. I like confining disputes to much smaller areas to contest and recount, especially given our fachadick systems of registering and counting votes.
    However, I'm less sure than either of you (ATS and JB) on whether these concerns can override the fundamentally non-democratic nature of the EC. We've had, what, 56 elections? And the EC had messed up at least 2 of those I can be sure of without getting on google: 1888 and 2000.
    Once the states decided to make the presidency a popularly determined position, there really isn't a good justification for not doing it via counting up votes for that position.
    I'm generally very sympathetic to where JB is coming from: unintended consequences, madisonian democracy, etc. And, I can see a whole host of problems with a national election: counting problems, campaign costs, etc. But, fundamentally, if you're going to have a democracy, one of the major principles of that is majority rule. And, our experiences in teaching the EC to college students should be instructive: when you explain this system to relatively bright people, their first reaction is WTF?

  7. The EC was an ingenious solution to a bunch of problems that we mostly no longer recognize as problems: the possibility that, with no national parties or nominees, each state would have its own favorite candidate; the difficulty in the late 18th century of getting candidates national exposure; the urge to keep selection of the president out of the people's grubby hands without turning it over to Congress (essentially, the EC creates a "virtual" Congress that exists for just one day and one task, but that doesn't meet in any one place so it can't easily be lobbied), etc. If you change individual features of the system, for instance getting rid of electors or telling state legislatures they can't appoint electors as they wish (as Florida threatened to do in 2000), you're basically removing the conceptual reasons for the EC. So then the question becomes, why keep it at all? I suppose the answer is that as a matter of practical politics, it's easier to tinker with the system than to amend the Constitution to abolish it completely. But by the same logic, something like the "National Popular Vote" (, which would effectively eliminate the EC as a political factor, is also easier than outright abolition and is already some ways toward being adopted. So probably that's where reformers should put their energies.

    And reform would be a good idea. I think the EC is more dangerous than Prof. Bernstein allows -- yes, a "wrong" result can go either way, and yes, the EC's previous misadventures haven't brought down the Republic, but we don't know what might happen if it produced a result widely viewed as illegitimate in the middle of a big political crisis. (Remember, 2000 was still boom times, when it seemed to most Americans, if not core partisans, like either outcome was acceptable.) Better to reform the system before that happens so we don't have to find out.

  8. Hendrik Hertzberg did a recent piece on the EC in Bloggingheads, and he explained that the main problem with it wasn't that it led to elections like 2000--though that is a problem--but that it effectively disenfranchises the majority of registered voters in the country and compels candidates to focus on a small group of states, representing a small band of interests.

    What has long struck me about the four times in history in which the popular-vote loser was awarded the presidency--1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000--is that three of the elections were viewed as illegitimate by many people for reasons other than the fact that the "winner" had lost the popular vote. In 1824, the man who got not only the most popular votes but also the most electoral votes was denied the presidency by Congress in what he and his supporters viewed as a dirty deal. In 1876 and 2000, a controversy over the votes in Florida led many people to think that the accepted results were tainted, and that the controversy was ended unfairly (by a commission in 1876, and by the Supreme Court in 2000). Only the 1888 election seemed to show a clear split between the electoral and popular tally with no controversy over the results.

    So even though the EC makes presidential campaigns very different from how they would be in a NPV system, a true split between the electoral and popular votes is a lot rarer than many people imagine.

  9. This kind of skewed result did occur once in American history. In fact, it precipitated a civil war.

    Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 occurred without him receiving a single vote in 10 Southern states (and 1% in VA), all of which subsequently seceded. In retrospect, I don't think most people would regret the fact that he was elected, but in general this isn't the sort of outcome you want from an electoral system.

    Of course, Lincoln did win a plurality of the popular vote, but I doubt he could have received a majority--maybe he wouldn't have faced such a divided opposition without the electoral college.

  10. I don't know how much of a factor the 3/5 compromise was in the drafters deciding on the electoral college, but it seems to me that the system is at least party a vestige of said compromise, and is as a result completely useless for us today. No benefits come from it as far as I can see, and I've lived through one disaster that resulted from it (2000). Why not just get rid of it? Madison died over 150 years ago, I don't think we should keep something around just for the sake of his vision of democracy. We've evolved a bit since then.

  11. There are several reasons why there should be no concern about the hypothetical scenario in which a governor and legislature attempt, for partisan political advantage, to change a state’s method of awarding electoral votes after the people vote in November, but before the Electoral College meets in December.

    Some reasons are:
    Any attempt to appoint presidential electors after the people vote in November would violate existing federal law requiring that presidential electors be appointed on a single designated day in every four-year period, namely the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (i.e., Election Day). Any attempt to appoint presidential electors after the people vote in November would invalidate the “conclusiveness” of that state’s results under existing federal law specifying that presidential electors must be appointed under “laws enacted prior” to the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (Election Day). Any attempt to appoint presidential electors after the people vote in November could only be contemplated, as a practical matter, in about three states because of the partisan division of most state governments, the significant time delay before new state laws take effect in most states, quorum requirements; and delays built into the legislative process by state constitutional provisions and legislative rules.

    ● Any attempt to appoint presidential electors after the people vote in November would be politically implausible in the real world.

  12. The current state-by-state winner-take-all system has been a constant source of “chaos, litigation and confusion.” Under the current system, there are 51 separate opportunities for recounts in every presidential election. Recounts would be far less likely under a National Popular Vote system than under the current system. In the United States' 56 total presidential elections , there have been 5 litigated state counts which were totally unnecessary and an artificial crisis created by the current state-by-state winner-take-all system. Based on U.S. election history, a national popular vote would reduce the probability of a recount to once in 640 years.

  13. ." There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. The electors are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges. Faithless electors are not a practical problem, and most states have complete authority to remedy any problem there could be, by means of state law.

  14. The current system of electing the president ensures that the candidates, after the primaries, do not reach out to all 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. The reason for this is the state-by-state winner-take-all method (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since 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.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided "battleground" states and their voters. In the 2012 election, pundits and campaign operatives agree already, that, at most, only 14 states and their voters will matter. Almost 75% of the country will be ignored --including 19 of the 22 lowest population and medium-small states, 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.

    2/3rds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections.

    Voter turnout in the "battleground" states has been 67%, while turnout in the "spectator" states was 61%.

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

    Because of the state-by-state winner-take-all electoral votes laws in 48 states, a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in 4 of the nation's 56 (1 in 14) presidential elections. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 votes in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.


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