Electoral Reform

The excitement of the last few days in the British elections has been great for me because I’ve been able to learn a lot about their electoral system (see Chris Lawrence’s post here and Steven Taylor’s post here). In addition, James Joyner has covered the politics of the British election here and here. Given that, I would like to go into fantasy land and think about how I would reform federal elections in the U.S. if I were king for a day (this is a hobby horse of mine).

The main thing that reformists in this country are latching on to seems to be the national popular vote. They’re pursuing agreements in individual states to get them, through legislation, to promise to apply their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote across the country. It’s hard to imagine this happening, as with any other meaningful reform.

What I would like to see instead is reform of the electoral college. Specifically, I would like to see the electoral votes allocated the way Maine and Nebraska do it: by giving the winner of the state the two votes represented by the Senators, and have each congressional district’s vote allocated based on the winner of the vote in that district. For instance, in a state with four congressional districts in 2008, if McCain won the state he would get two electoral votes for that. If he won in two of the districts, he would win the two electoral votes for those and Obama would win the other two.

I see two big advantages in this: one, the parties would become less regional and less beholden to a narrow section of the electorate; two, it would maintain the electoral college and presidential elections would still be molded to our federal system of government. It should be pretty obvious that I’m currently thinking of the Republican Party, but I favored this six years ago when I was still blogging on my own and recent events hadn’t narrowed the Republican Party to down to a core of southern voters (this was in progress, to be sure, but the process has gone off the rails in recent years).

One other thing I would like to see is the removal of the physical electoral college so that the issue of faithless electors is dead and gone.

My final reform would be to have all federal elections use either the instant runoff voting method or the Condorcet method. With either method, the voter would rank the candidates by preference and there would be no votes that are “thrown away.” With IRV, a majority requirement would be necessary and if no candidate got a majority in the first round, the candidate with the lowest vote total would be removed from the election and the first “runoff” would begin. I like this because it would allow third parties to emerge, which is the obvious reason that the Democrats and Republicans will never go for it.

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Robert Prather
About Robert Prather
Robert Prather contributed over 80 posts to OTB between October 2005 and July 2013. He previously blogged at the now defunct Insults Unpunished. Follow him on Twitter @RobPrather.


  1. just me says:

    I have long liked the idea of allocating electoral votes based on congressional district. I think it would be more fair and a more accurate reflection of the votes, and for somebody who may live in a congresional district that leans one way, while the state leans the other it wouldn’t feel so much like throwing their vote away.

  2. I agree completely, just me.

  3. Brett says:

    I like that idea as well. The IRV model is a good idea as well, although I’d settle just for having run-off voting for all federal Congressional elections (among other things, it would have resolved the whole Al Franken-Norm Coleman Senate seat debacle in Minnesota much faster).

  4. Brett,

    I like runoffs too, but participation is too low and IRV gives you a better result sooner. Having said that, if I had to settle for actual runoffs and a required majority, I would. It would be an improvement over what we have now.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Each MP represents about 20% the number of people that a Congressional representative does here. The two reforms I’d like to see most are provisions that the size of Congress be increased as the population of the country increases with no Congressmen to represent more than 125,000 people and anti-gerrymandering provisions.

  6. I used to like this idea, but the more I have thought about it, the more I just don’t see the point and think we should scrap the electoral college altogether and go for a national popular vote using IRV.

    The electoral college is an artifact of a bygone era that was the product of a combination of the newness of the notion of a nationally elected executive and a series of political compromises at the Philadelphia convention. It doesn’t even work the way the Framers intended (and it never did). It seems to me that the main reason we hang on to it is because it is there, not because it serves a useful function or is an especially good idea.

    So, were I king for the day I would simply scrap it.

    Let’s put it this way: if we were writing a constitution from scratch, we wouldn’t put the EC in it (and indeed, lots of constitutions have been written since our was penned and very few have utilized such a structure).

  7. James Joyner says:

    I used to like this idea, but the more I have thought about it, the more I just don’t see the point and think we should scrap the electoral college altogether and go for a national popular vote using IRV.

    I tend to agree. The only real value of a workaround that keeps the EC is that it could conceivably be done without the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. But the collective nature of the process — and the artificial overvaluing of votes from tiny states — really makes no sense in present day America.

  8. steve says:

    I could go with your proposed modification or popular vote. Either would be an improvement. I would like to see representation in congress evened out. Each Congressperson should represent about the same number of people, maybe +/- 10%. Should be very doable and if incorporated into electoral votes by congressional district, approximate the popular vote idea.

    I have never read a proposed fix for gerrymandering that offered much hope for improvement.


  9. Dave,

    I agree with you, we have too few representatives. Oddly, this is the easiest one to fix: the House can do it by themselves. They could potentially do away with minority-majority (?) districts if there were enough representatives, say 1500 or so. That won’t happen either, but it’s nice to think about. We would certainly end up with a House that “looks like America”, though.

  10. Steven and James,

    I guess I’ll have to go all Burkean on you, but the EC is an institution that is understandable and has been around for a while. It also serves a purpose, even today.

    Unlike Europe, we have a very large, geographically dispersed, nation. Having it weighted mildly towards the small states is beneficial. Using the Nebraska method for allocating votes would reduce that weighting somewhat, but it STILL wouldn’t result in presidential candidates making many stops in small states. It would bust up the current situation where we have 17 competitive states that see 90% of the attention in an election. I still see value in it.

    Also, it’s true that we probably wouldn’t have the EC if we created a new constitution today. It’s also likely true that we would have a 1000 page constitution if we wrote it today. Not all things done in the past lack value, even if they have not worked as intended. By making my changes, the EC would work for today while undoing some of the current problems.

    Also, a popular vote would result in too much concentration on the cities and coasts, which is just the inverse of what I said earlier. I’m repeating myself, time to stop.

  11. One other thing: recounts would be easier since we wouldn’t have to recount the whole country.

  12. Steve,

    I’m pretty sure they are already even at around 650,000 constituents per representive. At the low end, some states might be “over-represented” because the constitution requires that they have at least one representative. I would frankly like to see more representatives, as Dave suggested.

  13. I guess I’ll have to go all Burkean on you, but the EC is an institution that is understandable and has been around for a while. It also serves a purpose, even today.

    Part of the point would be: what specific/special purpose does it serve? It doesn’t even serve, as noted, the purpose that it was originally intended to serve (which was basically as a nomination body, after a fashion, so that the House could chose the President).

    And I would submit that a straight-up popular vote is more understandable than the EC. Most people really don’t understand what it is or how it works (although they got a crash course in 2000, but that was almost a decade ago and memories fade).

    And while I have no doubt a new constitution would be longer than the one we currently have, the comparative evidence would suggest that it would not be a 1000+ pages.

    In re: the recount argument, it would depend on the recount. There is no reason why a recount couldn’t be limited to a precinct, county, district or even a state under a national popular vote, depending on the location of the dispute.

    Also in re: the concentration argument, candidates would go were the votes were, even if they were in Kansas. As it stands now, they ONLY campaign in swing states, ignoring large populations (e.g., California, Texas and New York) and, really, ignoring the small states as well. Even if candidates focuses on populated areas that would be a good, democratic outcome as they would be focusing on a large swath of voters, not just the ones in, say, Florida.

    How much campaigning do Republicans do in LA and NYC? How much do Democrats do in Houston?

  14. Steven,

    That it never really served its intended purpose doesn’t mean it can’t be made useful today and it would solve the problem of big states being ignored.

    As for constitions, ok, fine a new one would only be 400 to 600 pages like the European one they tried to pass. Not much of an improvement. This is why I would never favor this country having a constitutional convention.

  15. yetanotherjohn says:

    If I could be “King for a day” on electoral reform, I would have the senate elected (2 per state as now) based on taxes paid with a guaranteed minimum of 1 vote per 18+ citizen. This would have the single largest change in American politics as the incentive to tax and spend would be balanced by those who have to pay the tax.
    I would also go to house of representatives getting votes in proportion to the votes cast for them. So a representative who was elected by 300K total votes would cast 300K votes in the house and the representative who was elected by 275K votes would cast 275K votes. Voters could withdraw their votes from the representative and cast the votes themselves or designate it to another representative. So if your candidate doesn’t win, you send your vote to another representative who you prefer or you cast the vote yourself.

    Both of these would need lots of work on how you maintain secret ballots, taxes paid records and the ability to switch votes, but I suspect that an encryption technique could be worked out.

  16. Greg says:

    I’m a bit late to this discussion (PoliBlog refugee, still not in the habit of checking OTB daily yet) but I’ll throw my two cents in anyway since this is a hobby horse of mine as well.

    I understand the appeal of the one electoral vote per congressional district system because it looks good on paper, but gerrymandering ruins it. There’s some debate about how much eliminating gerrymandering would affect the House’s partisanship, but it has been implemented with explicitly partisan goals in mind, such as the mid-cycle redistricting of Texas a few years back. Apportioning electoral votes by district raises the stakes on that considerably because now not only the makeup of the House is affected but also the path to the presidency. I think it would only amplify it as an anti-democratic evil.

    I’m also not sold on the benefit of winner take all districts as compared to a direct popular vote. It’s obviously preferable to a statewide winner take all system, but just as Republicans in New York don’t really have much of a voice neither will Democrats in red districts. It’s the same problem on a smaller scale. You’re dispersing the effects somewhat by making it more granular, but if that’s desirable then the popular vote is even better because it’s at its most granular, with every vote counting and none wasted.

    As for small states getting ignored, they’re already ignored if they’re not one of the chosen swing states.

    As for cities dominating, we already have examples of that not necessarily being the case in statewide elections. In a state like New York the city does in fact dominate, but in Georgia statewide politicians explicitly run against Atlanta and it’s currently represented by two Republicans. In Pennsylvania it’s more balanced and they’re represented by two moderates, although it was recently able to elect Rick Santorum as well.

    What was really demonstrative was watching the delegate fights between Obama and Clinton during the primary. They both knew where attainable pockets of delegates were and were grabbing them wherever they could, even going into each other’s home states to do so. It was a great thing to behold because you would never see that in a state by state winner take all system. So like the one district per EC vote system it was a big improvement, but it also had some of the same problems. How many delegates each district had determined whether they were worth visiting, with districts with an odd number having an advantage because they could be tipped, but districts with an even number being disadvantaged because the win there would have to be very lopsided in order to be fruitful. I would hope that in a popular vote system we would similarly see candidates attempting to vacuum up votes wherever they can, only without the artificial advantages and disadvantages you saw here.

    Anyway, I’m a fan of the national popular vote approach because it seems like it has a prayer of working, even if the odds aren’t that great. I’m also a fan of instant runoff voting as well, but that’s another very long post.

  17. Nice comment, Greg. Better late than never. I myself am a little tired and will forgo a rebuttal.

  18. Rob Richie says:

    I’m very much with you on instant runoff voting, but strongly support a natinanl popular vote for president. The congressional distict system is a non-starter in part because it has a severe partisan distortion. Both of our leading parties have an equal shot at winning a national popular vote, but relatively close races would always go to Republicans withthe congressional district. See:

    The National Popular Vote plan has every prospect of becoming law by 2016. See: http://www.nationalpopularvote.com

  19. mvymvy says:

    The congressional district method of awarding electoral votes (currently used in Maine and Nebraska) would not help make every vote matter. In NC, for example, there are only 4 of the 13 congressional districts that would be close enough to get any attention from presidential candidates. A smaller fraction of the country’s population lives in competitive congressional districts (about 12%) than in the current battleground states (about 30%) that now get overwhelming attention , while two-thirds of the states are ignored Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

  20. mvymvy says:

    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.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

    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.

  21. mvymvy says:

    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.

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by over 1,775 state legislators (in 48 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 29 state legislative chambers, in 19 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, 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