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Against the Electoral College I: Disparity Amongst Citizens

Contra my OTB colleague, Doug Mataconis, I favor scraping the electoral college.  My preferred system would be either a basic majority requirement, i.e., a run-off if no one received a majority, or IRV (and instantaneous run-off where voters rank their preferences on election day).   The technical aspects of all of that requires its own discussion, which I will leave aside for the moment.

Let me note, I was once an EC defender and had numerous rationalizations for the process founded primarily in respect for the US Constitution and its framers.  However, as I have studied the mechanism (and its history) over time, I have come to the conclusion (for numerous reasons) that such respect in regards to this specific institutional feature of our system is not warranted.

I started writing one post on this subject, but have decided it will be better to break it down into multiple posts.  This one starts with my most fundamental objection to the EC:  the vote disparity amongst citizens, which I think is ultimately indefensible.  To wit:  the current system treats voters different in at least two key ways.

First way:

Because the Electoral College distributes votes to states based on the number of House and Senate seats allocated to each state, there is an inequality that exists amongst states which skews to lower population states.

Consider the most extreme example:  California versus Wyoming.

California had, at the 2000 census, 33,871,648 residents.  It had 55 electoral votes.  That created a ratio of residents to electoral votes of 615,848.1:1 .

In the same census, Wyoming had 493,783 residents and 3 EVs.  That’s a ratio of 164,594.3:1.

To pick a moderate sized state (and my state of residence), Alabama, we have the following numbers:  4,447,382, 9 and 494,153.6:1.

To summarize, the ratio of residents to EVs for these states are:

Alabama,  494,153.6:1

California, 615,848.1:1

Wyoming: 164,594.3:1

That means, btw, that a voter in Wyoming has a vote worth ~3.7 times that of a voter in California.  Or, that now that I vote in  Alabama that my vote is now worth ~1.25 times what my brother’s vote is worth (who votes in CA). (Note:  exact ratios will vary based on residents, which the Constitution uses as the unit for the census, versus eligible votes as well as turnout in a given election).

Any defense of the EC has to find a justification for these types of disparities.  And simple saying that the states have role is a logical dead-end:  a role in what way?  Is there really a profoundly important reason that Wyoming should be so disproportionately over-represented in the EC?  Should an Alabamian’s vote really count more than a Californians?  The president is the only office that has a truly national character.  Apart from the original political compromise in 1787, what is the justification for treating the voters in different states differently?

Yes, the founders needed to craft a political compromise in 1787 so as to get the smaller states to sign on to the Constitution.  However, that is not, in and of itself, a good argument for keeping the current system.  Further, as I have noted before, the system does not even come close to functioning in the way the founders intended, which makes arguments based in their wisdom on the subject all the more problematic.

Second way:

There is no doubt that the EC creates a situation in which voters in swing states are more important than voters in non-swing states, regardless of population.  This creates a disparity in which candidates and campaigns are oriented not towards a national election, but to a series of localized contests (such as in Florida).  How this can be construed as healthy for our democracy is beyond me.

I could further elucidate, but this “simple” post has already gotten too long, and I think people have a pretty solid understanding of the issue.

And before someone tries:  none of this can be countered by a “democracy v. a republic” argument (I need to address that issues as well, but one can consult the following if one likes:  here, here, and here).  The simple version is as follows:  there is absolutely nothing about a direct popular election of the president that violates the republican principle noted in the Constitution and discussed in the Federalist Papers.  Nothing.  Federalism, per se, has nothing to do with ensuring a republican government in the US (one can have a unitary state that is also a republic).  Further if the popular election of House and Senate members, and well as for a host of local offices does not violate the republican principle, why would the popular election of the president?

A few caveats:

1.  The above have nothing to do with NPV, per se.

2.  I recognize that doing away with the EC is highly unlikely.

Related Posts:

About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. He is the author of Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia and is currently working on a comparative study of the US to 29 other democracies. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging at PoliBlog since 2003. Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Pete says:

    I am by no means well versed in this, but this appears to favor more centralization which I am against. If the citizens of this country were less dependent on Washington and Washington decentralized many of its functions; if poor states had sources of revenue not so dependent on rich states; if the federal tax system were a consumption tax versus income tax; and many other decentralizing actions taken, I’d be more inclined to listen.

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  2. James Weatherford says:

    So would this abolish the Senate?

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  3. sam says:

    You know, Steve, SCOTUS has addressed an issue not unlike the one you raise in your post:

    Because the Electoral College distributes votes to states based on the number of House and Senate seats allocated to each state, there is an inequality that exists amongst states which skews to lower population states.
     

    See Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964). This was the “one man, one vote” ruling that held that state legislative districts must be roughly equal in size. Prior to Reynolds, in many states, urban areas were woefully underrepresented vis-a-vis rural areas. (See the link for examples.)  So, the principle has been established, at least on the state level, that these kinds of imbalances are detrimental to republican government.
     

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  4. Rick DeMent says:

    Well if they granted electors based om population then you could simply forget about Alaska, Wyoming, Rode Island, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Montana, Vermont and the rest of the 4 elector states as well.
    If you went to straight up popular vote, say hello to an increasingly liberal and urban skewed government. Of course farm policy would change dramatically, which is good.

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  5. sam says:

    OT, can anyone put a link in their comments via the link icon?

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  6. Dwight says:

    My thing is that it is the United States of America, not the United People of America. The states, and not the people are what make up the Federal government. I can see the pros and cons to keeping and getting rid of the electoral college. Personally I think the solution is to go with a proportional system in every state, the popular vote of the state divides up the electoral votes, i.e. a 5 EV state each electoral vote would be worth 20% of the popular vote of that state, the odd vote if there were one going to whomever has more of the left over. It won’t solve all of the problems, but it puts more states in play as there are EV to be picked up everywhere. Under this model Obama would’ve gotten two EV from Utah, the reddest state, in 2008. On the other hand McCain would’ve gotten around 20 from California.
    On the other hand a direct popular vote agrees with the view that seems prevalent, that the states are losing their sovereignty to the federal government. Personally I think a confederacy of states is better than trying to run everything from Washington DC, though that seems to be the gradual evolution.

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  7. @Pete:  I am not sure how the method of electing the president is relevant to any of those things.

    @James W.:  not, that is a wholly different discussion.

    @Rick:  no, not at all.  Every vote actually becomes more valuable under a true national vote.  Where is the incentive at the moment for any candidate to care about Alaska, for example?  And no, not increased lliberal urban skew–insofar as all those Republicans in urban and suburban SoCal would actually start to matter.

    @Dwight:  what are the states ultimately, save places where people live?

     

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  8. André Kenji says:

    In ANY country that has very desproportional populations, the areas with lower population are likely to be ignored by the presidential candidates. Do not expect to see more presidential candidates in Alaska with the US abolishes the Electoral College than presidential candidates in the Western Area of the Brazilian Amazon or in Baja California Sur in Mexico.

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  9. @André:

    In a general sense, true:  politicians go where the votes are.  However, where those votes are will depend on a variety of factors and the nature of a given competition.

    You are correct that Alaska is unlikely to be a target of too much campaigning, regardless, although at the moment is almost pointless for a Democrat to bother with the state at all.

    I would note that Brazil’s political geography is a bit different than that of US, insofar as all the populated states are clustered together and there is also a much longer tradition of politics being linked to São Paulo and especially Minas Gerais (if memory serves) than is the case in any US state.

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  10. Don O says:

    An important part of America is not only majority role, but also to prevent the minority from the tyranny of a majority. Originally the Electoral College was designed to prevent the more populous north from dictating to the more rural south. There is now a schism between inner city/urban areas and the more rural areas across the entire nation. Cites are highly blue in nature (and more populous) but the rural areas (red) support through tax structure by subsidizing the cities in america. The elimination of the Electoral College would create a civil crisis in America and destabilize our entire society. Look what happened in 1865 when that balance was destroyed.

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  11. sam says:

    @Don O
    “Cites are highly blue in nature (and more populous) but the rural areas (red) support through tax structure by subsidizing the cities in america. ”
    That’s just flat backwards. The blue states pretty much are federal tax dollar exporters, and the red, federal tax dollar importers.
    @Dwight
    “My thing is that it is the United States of America, not the United People of America. The states, and not the people are what make up the Federal government.”

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    It doesn’t begin, “We the States of the United States”.

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  12. sam says:

    Let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose the Electoral College scheme was enacted by the congress and signed into law by the president — rather than being a constitutional provision. Given Reynolds v Sims, would it survive a challenge in the federal courts?

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  13. Alex Knapp says:

    Don,

    here is now a schism between inner city/urban areas and the more rural areas across the entire nation. Cites are highly blue in nature (and more populous) but the rural areas (red) support through tax structure by subsidizing the cities in america.

    You’ve got that backwards.  Most states with denser, urban populations produce more tax revenue than they receive, and most red states with less dense, rural populations receive more in spending than they pay in taxes.

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  14. Let me pose a hypothetical. Suppose the Electoral College scheme wasenacted by the congress and signed into law by the president

    It would be struck down as unconstitutional.

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  15. sam says:

    Exactly right, Steve.

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  16. [...] my previous post on this topic I noted a fundamental argument against the Electoral College, i.e., the fact that it treats [...]

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  17. [...] Against the Electoral College, Part the First [...]

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  18. Max Lybbert says:

    I don’t consider the disparity between votes sufficient enough to worry about.  There are simply bigger fish to fry, such as the amazing power ethanol subsidies have on national politics.
    But I can answer this one:

    There is no doubt that the EC creates a situation in which voters in swing states are more important than voters in non-swing states, regardless of population.  This creates a disparity in which candidates and campaigns are oriented not towards a national election, but to a series of localized contests (such as in Florida).  How this can be construed as healthy for our democracy is beyond me.

    Generally speaking, each election there are obvious battleground states and obvious “who cares?” states.  Reporters and lawyers are sent to the battleground states, and they pay close attention to prevent fraud.  And, of course, each election there are reports of some fraud or suspicious activity.
    Under a pure majority rules system, it would be easier to commit fraud undetected.  Today it makes no sense to stuff Democratic votes in California, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii or Michigan ballot boxes.  Likewise, it makes no sense to stuff Republican votes in Alaska, Texas, Utah, Idaho or Georgia ballot boxes.  But under a pure majority rules system, fraudulent votes in those states would count just as much as fraudulent votes in more “purple” states.  And, I suspect, it would be easier to convince partisans in those states to actually commit fraud because it would be harder to detect (you would need reporters and lawyers paying attention to basically every precinct throughout the nation).

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  19. @Max:

    -The policy implication issue is the topic of part three.

    -You say

    Under a pure majority rules system, it would be easier to commit fraud undetected

    You aren’t the first in this conversation to assert such.  However, this strikes me as an assertion without foundation.

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  20. Max Lybbert says:

    Thinking about it, I may have misunderstood the paragraph:

    There is no doubt that the EC creates a situation in which voters in swing states are more important than voters in non-swing states, regardless of population.  This creates a disparity in which candidates and campaigns are oriented not towards a national election, but to a series of localized contests (such as in Florida).  How this can be construed as healthy for our democracy is beyond me.

    I do believe that selecting the President through a series of statewide elections is healthy for the nation for reasons other that fraud prevention.  The easiest way I can explain that belief is to turn it around:  would the nation be healthier if the President only had to pay attention to the needs of, say, the Eastern Seaboard.  Is there any evidence the nation would be stronger if somebody could become President by getting 80% of the vote in New England, the Northeast, the South and nearby states at the expense of the West (maybe by imposing hefty taxes on the production of computer programs and movies)?
    Of course, the President can’t really represent all Americans (Congress has a hard enough time doing that).  But we do like to believe he’ll try, or at least consider our needs in our regions when deciding new policies.  It was hard enough to swallow the administration’s car czar shutting down GM car dealerships; imagine a world where some regions of the country received obviously preferential treatment compared to others.

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  21. Max Lybbert says:

    You aren’t the first in this conversation to assert [that fraud is easier to commit in a majority rules situation].  However, this strikes me as an assertion without foundation.

    I tried to set the foundation.  Apparently I didn’t succeed.  My argument boils down to this:  the best defense against fraud is intense scrutiny.  Under the electoral college, there are usually only a few places in the nation where fraud would be profitable, and it’s generally easy to scrutinize those states.  If I spend election day 2012 in California stuffing ballot boxes with votes, I simply won’t be able to sway the election.  If I stuff the ballot boxes with Democratic votes, all of California’s electoral college votes go to Obama — but they would have anyway.  Obama won’t get any more electoral college votes simply for being extra popular in California.  On the other hand, if I try to stuff California ballot boxes with Republican votes, then I’m going to have to create millions of extra votes, and that fraud would be very easy to detect.
    Simply put, if I want to steal an election under the electoral college system, it only makes sense to commit fraud in a state where the election will be close; but those states are the ones that are under the most scrutiny, and where fraud is most likely to be detected.
    Under a majority rules system, however, stuffing California ballot boxes can sway the election (either way, in fact).  Being “extra popular” in California (or Massachusetts, or New York) due to fraud could be enough to put Obama over the top.  Likewise, being “extra popular” in Texas, Alaska, or Georgia due to fraud could be enough to put his challenger over the top.  In fact, winning California by a smaller margin than expected could be enough to sink Obama, while losing Texas by a smaller margin could be enough to save him.
    So how do we prevent that from happening in a majority rules system?  By scrutinizing the election results in every state and every precinct. But good luck trying to scrutinize everything.

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  22. @Max:

    I suppose part of my problem with your premise is that I don’t buy either the notion that fraud is as easy or widespread as you suggest or that there wouldn’t remain a great deal of vigilance under a national vote.

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  23. Max Lybbert says:

    I’m not saying that fraud is easy or widespread.  I am saying that a national vote would make it easier than it is today because there would be more targets but no more people to protect those targets.
    Likewise, sure people would still be vigilant under a national vote.  But those people would have a lot larger mountain of data to comb through when looking for fraud.
    I’m not claiming fraud will become rampant.  Simply that the change does make fraud marginally easier.

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  24. kohler says:

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    The potential for political fraud and mischief is not uniquely associated with either the current system or a national popular vote. In fact, the current system magnifies the incentive for fraud and mischief in closely divided battleground states because all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state.

    Under the current system, the national outcome can be affected by mischief in one of the closely divided battleground states (e.g., by overzealously or selectively purging voter rolls or by placing insufficient or defective voting equipment into the other party’s precincts). The accidental use of the butterfly ballot by a Democratic election official in one county in Florida cost Gore an estimated 6,000 votes ― far more than the 537 popular votes that Gore needed to carry Florida and win the White House. However, even an accident involving 6,000 votes would have been a mere footnote if a nationwide count were used (where Gore’s margin was 537,179). In the 7,645 statewide elections during the 26-year period from 1980 to 2006, the average change in the 23 statewide recounts was a mere 274 votes.

    Senator Birch Bayh (D–Indiana) summed up the concerns about possible fraud in a nationwide popular election for President in a Senate speech by saying in 1979, “one of the things we can do to limit fraud is to limit the benefits to be gained by fraud. Under a direct popular vote system, one fraudulent vote wins one vote in the return. In the electoral college system, one fraudulent vote could mean 45 electoral votes, 28 electoral votes.”

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  25. kohler says:

    sorry about the clutter

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  26. Max Lybbert says:

    the current system magnifies the incentive for fraud and mischief in closely divided battleground states

    At the same time, the current system diminishes the incentive for mischief and fraud in non-battleground states.  The overall effect is that it is easier to know where to focus.
    Under a national system, you have to look closely at everything, and frankly that’s a much harder job.
    If I want to fraudulently add 1,000,000 votes under a national system, I need to find a way to hide 20,000 additional votes to each state’s total.  That’s not easy, but it’s possible to hide 20,000 votes without raising eyebrows.  But try hiding 1,000,000 votes in one state’s returns.

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  27. @Max:

    Your argument ultimately seems to boil down to this:  fraud is more likely in places that matter.  By saying that, however, you make my case:  you are arguing that the whole country would matter under a true popular vote rather than just mattering in battleground states.

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  28. Max Lybbert says:

    Your argument ultimately seems to boil down to this:  fraud is more likely in places that matter.  By saying that, however, you make my case:  you are arguing that the whole country would matter under a true popular vote rather than just mattering in battleground states.

    You could say that.  But I’ve also said there are other reasons I like the Electoral College (eg., I don’t see why significant popularity in, say, California should be enough to become President, under the Electoral College significant popularity in a single densely populated region is not enough to become President, while it could be under a national vote).

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  29. I don’t see why significant popularity in, say, California should be enough to become President

    There are a lot of people in CA, to be sure.  Enough to elect a president by itself?  No.

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  30. [...] Against the Electoral College I: Disparity Amongst Citizens [...]

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