Electoral college reform

Wednesday 21 April 2004

I’ve long disliked the electoral college system for voting for president. Yes, even before the 2000 election. But we don’t have to go as far as the ridiculous (and misnamed) Common Sense Electoral College Reform. We don’t even have to change the constitution of any of the rules it contains.

The problem with the electoral college as implemented today is that it creates a huge round-off in the voting results. The popular vote is converted into an electoral vote, discounting the votes of the minority in the state. My state (Massachusetts) always goes Democratic, so why should a Republican (or a Democrat for that matter) bother to come out to vote? One more vote for the minority won’t matter. Even in the most closely-contested presidential race, Massachusetts is a landslide for the Democratic candidate.

The way the electoral system is set up in the constitution, it has to represent a round-off of some sort, simply because 100 million votes have to be translated into 538 votes. But it doesn’t have to be translated the way it is today.

We’re all accustomed to the idea that all of a state’s electoral votes go to the candidate that won the state. But the constitution doesn’t specify that allotment. It says the number of votes is equal to the number of Representatives and Senators, but doesn’t say how they determine who to vote for.

In faqt, only 48 states use the winner-take-all rule. Nebraska and Maine allocate votes according to the winners in each Congressional district, plus two for the state-wide winner, paralleling the Constitution’s rule for how many votes each state gets.

If all the states adopted other rules, we could keep the Electoral College’s advantage of tilting power toward the easily overlooked small states, but would reduce the rounding off that inevitably occurs. An even more radical notion that still keeps the Constitution intact is to allocate a state’s electoral votes proportionately to the popular vote in the state.

There are of course other options. The Center for Voting and Democracy has a whole list of Reform Options for the Electoral College

And of course, none of this will happen. The political parties are all heavily invested in electoral math, and moving toward a popular vote rewrites the rules. No one in power, or anyone likely to get there, is interested in that.

On the other hand, there’s William Kimberling, a deputy director of the FEC Office of Election Administration. In an undated essay unimaginatively titled The Electoral College, he writes a length about the history of the electoral vote, including its logic, abuse, outcomes, strengths and weaknesses. He’s optimistic about the electoral system, though his piece was written before the Bush-Gore tussle (“Although there were a few anomalies in its early history, none have occurred in the past century,” he writes).

He concludes,

The fact that the Electoral College was originally designed to solve one set of problems but today serves to solve an entirely different set of problems is a tribute to the genius of the Founding Fathers and to the durability of the American federal system.


David Pitkin 8:47 PM on 21 Apr 2004

I think national candidates being forced to understand and campaign to regional or state issues is a good thing. Isn't that why most states choose to allocate their electoral votes in an all or nothing way? Is voter turnout really lower in historically landslide states like Massachusetts?

Damien Katz 11:11 PM on 22 Apr 2004

"And of course, none of this will happen."

Sheeesh Ned, not with that attitude. You should be more "pundit" like. I mean come on, we're talking about the electoral college.

John 11:15 AM on 23 Apr 2004

Voter turnout is indeed lower in landslide states. More can be found at the The Vanishing Voter Project. Also Billionaires for Bush or Kerry is a great political satire on these problems.

andrew 8:16 AM on 24 Apr 2004

I really thought that I was going to have to give Ned both barrels when I saw the title of this post, but oddly I find his rationale compelling. Usually, a "progressive" carping about the Electoral College gets in a few shots about Florida in 2000 (check) and then goes on to talk about the wonders of the popular vote (no check!).

Ned seems to understand the Framer's (ahh, you know that it is a "conservative" talking when he uses the word "Framer's") contention that the Electoral College was the compromise to the smaller states. Not many people know this, but this compromise was integral for the Constitution to even be ratified.

Without the EC, a candidate need only pander to the inner cities in NYC, WDC, Chicago and LA to win the popular vote. Guess who wins then? That's right, the candidate that can give more of other people's stuff away. The Democrat. Two elections cycles of that and there would be a column of armed men 20 million strong headed to DC (with me at the front).

That being said, I am trying to find a reason that popular vote apportionment rather than "winner-take-all" wouldn't be a good thing. I wonder if there were any debates about this at the original Constitutional Convention? I suppose this thing called the "Internet" could help (did you know that they have the Internet on computers now?)

Sylvain Galineau 11:02 AM on 24 Apr 2004

On a loosely related note, this site tracks 2004 campaign fundraising nationwide. If you are into maps and politics, it's almost addictive...

Caliel 10:38 AM on 28 Apr 2004

The article suggests that Jerry Mandering at a national level would be a good fix. It is not.
Here's an example of Georgia's Congressional Districts
Notice the map around Atlanta, and how the district lines are drawn. Now imagine this at a national level.
We are a Republic of states, and for good reason!

Person 4:33 PM on 8 May 2004

"Without the EC, a candidate need only pander to the inner cities in NYC, WDC, Chicago and LA to win the popular vote. Guess who wins then? That's right, the candidate that can give more of other people's stuff away. The Democrat. Two elections cycles of that and there would be a column of armed men 20 million strong headed to DC (with me at the front)."

Those four cities combined contain about five percent of the population. Get a new straw man. Or, preferably, think about your political beliefs rather than just spouting them forth.

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