Here’s an Idea (Electoral College Edition)

Why even have an electoral college?

I see that Doug Mataconis and James Joyner have already commented on the report about a plan afoot in Pennsylvania to change the way the state allocates its electoral vote.  It has been a busy day and I have not had time to fully digest the proposal and the responses thereto, but I do have an immediate response to the general issue that strikes me as necessary and to the point, and it is as follows.

Here’s an idea:  why don’t we just vote for our preferred candidate, cut out the middle men and women of the electoral college, and directly elect the president?  We might even toss in a majority requirement so that the winner comes to office guaranteed to have support of at least half the voters.  Such a concept:  electing the president based on the direct consent of the governed!

Or, we could continue to use a system that does not work as intended.  As such, I disagree on one level with Doug’s assertion “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” for while I understand why he says it, the truth of the matter is 1) we really do not use the system the way it was designed (or that worked the way the Framers assumed it would), and 2) the system as currently utilized creates any number of serious distortions (such as over emphasizing some states, such as Florida, whilst marginalizing others, like California and Texas among a list of others).  Of course, such a discussion requires a longer post than I am prepared to write at the moment).  Further there really is no solid rationale for the electoral college  (although we do engage in a lot of rationalization because, well, it is in the Constitution, so it has to be good, right?).

I will leave it with this:  why are we so afraid of representative democracy?

And, if one thinks that it is to the advantage of one’s party to create a system that subverts majority will, what does that say about the party in question?

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Polaris says:

    There is a sound political reason to have an electoral college especially now. The fact is most of the population in this country lives in urbanized areas and the needs and requirements of the urban population are quite different from those that live outside of it.

    Without an electoral college, the big metroplexes of NYC, LA-SD, Chicago, and Dall-FtW (and a couple of more I am surely missing) decide who is POTUS.

    That makes the system even less representative than it is now. I reject the automatic notion of “one man==one vote” because life is more complex than that, and thankfully so is our political system. The EC insures that any POTUS has to appeal to a reasonable cross-section of states to make the magic 270 and thus means that no one demographic group has an automatic advantage.

    In the individual states we see what happens without this. For example in both Washington and Oregon, Seattle and Portland respectivelly completely control the state and if you don’t live in those areas, your vote effectively doesn’t count. That’s horrible and there is no need to nationalize it.

    -Polaris

  2. Polaris says:

    To simplify things, I think that if a country has 60% of population type A and say 20% of populations types B and C all with very different needs and outlooks, then in order to become president of that country, you need to at least appeal to some voters in populations B and C even though they are in the minority in order to be elected. [That is not to say you have to win most of these minority votes]

    The electoral system does that by essentially forcing a president to appeal to a minimum cross section of states. The PV system does not.

    -Polaris

  3. Jay Dubbs says:

    For those of you who loved the Tom DeLay redistricting this is a stellar idea. We can have redistricting battles after every election. Plus you think its complicated now, wait until the Presidency hangs in the balance.

    Polaris – What you are essentially saying is that a city vote should count less than a suburban or country vote, right?

  4. David M says:

    The electoral college seems completely useless to me, a left over relic that serves no purpose. We already have the smaller/rural states already have plenty of clout in the Senate, no need try and tip the scales more.

  5. Trumwill says:

    And, if one thinks that it is to the advantage of one’s party to create a system that subverts majority will, what does that say about the party in question?

    That the will of the statistical majority isn’t all that matters?

    I actually don’t have a problem doing away with the Electoral College and in fact would probably favor it. On the whole, I find the arguments in favor of doing so more convincing than the arguments against doing so. That being said, the insinuation that we should support this or we dislike democracy strikes me as problematic. After all, we live in a democracy. Dr. Taylor points this out with regularity :).

    I am also somewhat indifferent due to an overlap of arguments between getting rid of the Electoral College and getting rid of the Senate (though I recognize that Taylor makes a specific point that applies to the EC but not the Senate).

  6. Polaris says:

    @Jay Dubbs:

    Polaris – What you are essentially saying is that a city vote should count less than a suburban or country vote, right?

    To avoid the tyranny of the majority, in this case yes. Otherwise you get a situation where complete (and statistically significant) demographic groups are completely disenfranchised. We already see the bad effects at the state level (which is why a GOP vote is worthless in California while a Dem vote is equally worthless in Texas), it would be folly IMHO to extend it to the national level.

    The EC insures that the president has to appeal to a certain minimum cross-section of this country and that IMHO overrides the advantage of the strict popular will. It’s not like the EC gives results that are that different from the popular will anyway (it’s generally a tie breaker) and if history is any guide, the EC system actually makes the margin of victory more than the PV would otherwise indicate.

    In short, this is a solution looking for a problem (and a bad solution at that IMHO).

    -Polaris

  7. Console says:

    @Polaris:

    Your argument is a common one, but really it’s a red herring. The electoral college doesn’t ensure anything that you’ve mentioned. Tomorrow, the biggest states in America could decide to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national vote and we’d have de facto popular election for the president… WITH an electoral college still existing. Everything you like about the current system exists by accident, not design. And nothing about it is permanent.

    And you still leave open questions like why North Dakota and South Dakota have the same amount of electors even though South Dakota has 30 percent more people. Am I really supposed to pretend this is some grand design to make sure North Dakota doesn’t get screwed over… instead of it merely being because the electoral college is based congressional representation and it’s physically impossible to have seven tenths of a house representative.
    And that’s not even getting into the nature of an elector itself. What the hell is the point in voting through an independent intermediary?

    If we’re going to vote for president in every state, then there is no real rationale for the electoral college in and of itself.

  8. Polaris says:

    @Console: It’s called federalism. The idea is that the president has to appeal to a certain cross section of states, and that it’s the people of the states that elect the president. Hypothetically the large states could allocate by national PV, but that would cede power to the smaller states, so they won’t. In fact this guarding of power jealously is WHY states almost universally (save NE and ME) have a winner-take-all system.

    PV would make the system even less representative than it is now. Only those people that vote in the big cities would matter and that would make polarization more of a problem not less as entire swaths of this country would be disenfranchised.

    As it is, small states with as few as 3-4 EVs can make a huge difference in who gets to be POTUS if that state in in question. [See the amount that was spend trying to get even one EV in ME-2 for example] so saying that small states don’t count is also a red herring.

    The real problem is that many of the large states with winner-take-all systems give Electors that do not fairly represent the nature of the state. For example, California will almost always send 54 Dem Electors, but the makeup of the state would indicate more of a 60-40 split of those electors. The same is true in the opposite way for Texas (as an example).

    This is not the fault of the electoral college. This is the fault of a state system where the tyranny of the majority gets to effectively disenfranchise entire segments of that state’s population. Nationalizing this error is not the answer and that is what a PV system would do.

    -Polaris

  9. David M says:

    @Polaris: You are simultaneously claiming the current winner take all electoral system and a national popular vote both “disenfranchise” people? I buy notion that the winner take all electoral college system distorts things, but I can’t see one negative for electing the president with a national popular vote.

    There is no basis for claiming rural votes would count for less, as one vote per person is as fair as it gets. This line of thinking only makes sense if you think urban votes should not count as much as rural votes, which is just wrong.

  10. Polaris says:

    @David M: Would you agree that unless you live in Seattle (ok Seattle Metroplex to include King, Sno, and Pierce Cos), your vote doesn’t count in Washington State?

    I assure you that is the case as any recent statewide Washington state election map will show you.

    That means that in order to win a Washington statewide race, you worry about Seattle and only Seattle, and that goes a long way to explaining why the state is as badly messed up as it is. The same is true but even more so in California.

    The problem is you have entire segments of the population that have no political power and there is no incentive to deal with their problems or represent them, and thus they are completely disenfranchised.

    If you go with a national PV, you do the same thing except on a national scale. As things are now, a president has to appeal to not only those that live in the big cities on the two coasts but also at least to some degree in “fly over” territory. With a PV, people in the midwest may as well not exist as far as representation at least for president. That’s the problem.

    It’s the tyranny of the majority, or to put it another way, just because your group will always be outvoted doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any say in who is president. Not a controlling say, no, but your say SHOULD be important…and with a PV system it would not be.

    -Polaris

  11. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Polaris:

    The solution, of course, is to disenfranchise those who live in cities and instead vote by skewed and corrupted land districts, with each district having an equal “voice” even if one is in Death Valley and the other is in the LA basin.

    A direct PV system could help smash the two party rule we currently suffer under. I guess that’s bad too.

    Giving greater weight to rural parts of the country has led to stagnation and entrenchment of backwards political attitudes and ideas because they are allowed to flourish with no competition, leading to one party rule in nearly every rural district in the country. If the rural way of life is so grand, then let them compete directly with those who live in large cities. That’s the free market way, right?

  12. Polaris says:

    As an aside, I note that as late as early Nov 2000 (at least according to Time Magazine), the Democrats had no problem with the electoral college system, and even expected to benefit from it. At the time the article was written (early October of 2000), Gov Bush had a solid lead in the polls, but most of that lead was “wasted” in (then) solid red states of the Mountain West and South, and the projected EV vote looked narrow or perhaps even in then VP Gore’s favor. When Gore’s staff was asked “What would happen if you lost the PV but got 270 EVs?” Their answer was simple. “Well, we win.”

    The Gore campaign had no trouble with that…until the tables turned on them a month later. As such I tend to find Dem/Progressive complaints about the Electoral College to be a mite hypocritical.

    -Polaris

  13. Polaris says:

    @Lit3Bolt: A direct PV system would do nothing of the sort. It would simply force both parties to pander to Urban voters and only Urban voters and actually make the polarization worse.

    -Polaris

  14. Console says:

    Parties pander to urban voters anyways because either way that’s where the votes are in the individual states.

    The winner take all EC system really just makes the median voter some asshole in Ohio. That’s it.

  15. Polaris says:

    @Console:

    Parties pander to urban voters anyways because either way that’s where the votes are in the individual states.

    The winner take all EC system really just makes the median voter some asshole in Ohio. That’s it.

    That’s true because of the winner take-all nature of the EVs in each state, but without the EC, places like Iowa, WI, and even Minn wouldn’t matter (not even with Minn-StP…not big enough) and they’d be completely disenfranchised while now, they reflect important “pieces” to the 270 puzzle.

    That’s also true for places like NM and NV as well.

    The point is that it forces any wold-be Potus to at least aknowledge the importance of voting groups outside the largest cities…and we see from statewide elections the extreme distortions in politics when you don’t have to consider such votes.

    -Polaris

  16. samwide says:

    @Polaris:

    [W]ithout the EC, places like Iowa, WI, and even Minn wouldn’t matter (not even with Minn-StP…not big enough) and they’d be completely disenfranchised while now, they reflect important “pieces” to the 270 puzzle.

    That’s also true for places like NM and NV as well.

    That’s just backwards. A Republican’s vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic state is now, because of the EC and the winner-take-all rules, essentially a nullity, as is a Democrat’s vote in an overwhelmingly Republican state. Those folks are essentially disenfranchised by the EC. At least under a direct vote regime, a Republican’s vote in Montana would have the same weight as a Democrat’s vote in New York City. As for the argument that the rural areas would get stiffed, well, I dunno. They pretty much get stiffed now.

    [W]e see from statewide elections the extreme distortions in politics when you don’t have to consider such votes.

    Can you flesh that out? It is true that in the wake of Baker vs Carr and Reynolds vs Sims, the power of the rural areas was curtailed, but prior to that, those areas enjoyed political power way out of proportion to their populations. That was some extreme distortion.

  17. samwide says:

    @Polaris:

    The Gore campaign had no trouble with that…until the tables turned on them a month later. As such I tend to find Dem/Progressive complaints about the Electoral College to be a mite hypocritical.

    Holy shit! Hypocritical politicians! Who’d a thunk it? Being a political asshat is not party-specific.

    Anyway, when you write things like

    When Gore’s staff was asked “What would happen if you lost the PV but got 270 EVs?” Their answer was simple. “Well, we win.”

    It might help if you supply a link, lest we think you’re just making things up.

  18. @Polaris: Ok, let me get this straight: in the discussion about health insurance, your argument was that someone should be allowed to die if they don’t have health insurance because, after all, “fecal matter happens” (in response to my question of what if a person had insurance, but didn’t have their insurance card on their person when found unconscious after an accident) and that a person who couldn’t afford insurance was an “idiot” who basically deserved to die.

    Now you are arguing that in your world of grand individualism that some voters should count more than others because they live in rural areas?

    I don’t see a lot of consistency in those positions.

  19. @Trumwill:

    That the will of the statistical majority isn’t all that matters?

    This is, of course, true. However, I am not arguing that the whole government be run in that fashion (for example, I am not calling for repeal of the 1st amendment). I am saying, however, that of the ways to choose a chief executive, a popular vote of the majority is a far superior method to the process we currently use.

  20. Bob says:

    Since converting to a popular vote requires a Constitutional amendment it has zero chance of happening in the foreseeable future. In addition it is a bad idea.

  21. Jay Dubbs says:

    Give Polaris props, he’s straightforward – only voters that I agree with should count. I happen to agree with him, of course, I think that only voters that agree with me should count, but Polaris would probably not be too happy with that outcome.

    We probably shouldn’t ask his opinions on the the 19th Amendment or allowing non-landowners to vote.

  22. Rob in CT says:

    I reject the automatic notion of “one man==one vote”

    Once again, I appreciate the honesty.

  23. snarky bastard says:

    @Polaris: So the wrong people are voting….

  24. just me says:

    A direct PV system could help smash the two party rule we currently suffer under. I guess that’s bad too.

    I am not at all convinced of this. Individual states elect congress members by direct popular vote at the state/district level and it is still a two party system.

    With a nationwide popular vote it will essentially lock up the presidency for the democrats. One benefit is that running for president will become cheaper because they will only have to bother with visiting urban areas and buying commercial time in urban markets.

    I don’t see how small states or their concerns would matter at all.

    I do think a move to national popular vote where urban areas will essentially control the elections may make congress more important. Congress would essentially become the place where the concerns and needs of the non urban voter would be considered or met. It also may lead to a situation where as long as democrats controlled the presidency there would be more clashes between urban and rural democrats.

    Although moving to a PV election for the presidency is mostly a pipe dream because there is no way that smaller and less urban states will vote against their own interests to ratify an amendment.

    Although one huge down side I see is what happens if there is a really close election? The recount in Florida was a nightmare and a crisis, imagine that on a national level.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Polaris:

    The real problem is that many of the large states with winner-take-all systems give Electors that do not fairly represent the nature of the state. For example, California will almost always send 54 Dem Electors, but the makeup of the state would indicate more of a 60-40 split of those electors. The same is true in the opposite way for Texas (as an example).

    That, in an argument for the EC… Made my head spin.

  26. @Polaris: This is a well intended fallacy. They don’t break up local municipalities to give the “rural” community a bigger vote. The guy on his own farm doesn’t get equal vote to five different people out in a more developed area. Even in my home state of Connecticut, our governor was basically picked by three municipalities who voted 80/20 for the Democrat. We didn’t decide that a better way of doing things would be to disenfranchise Hartford and Bridgeport by disproportionately giving more power to Thomaston and Naugatuk.

    I believe we shouldn’t be doing the same thing for the Presidential election. Under no circumstances should someone be elected with a minority vote, because of two or three battleground states. There is literally no reason for a moderate to vote for Barack Obama in Connecticut, because this state is very, very blue. Same with voting for a Republican in Texas; it’s locked down. We’re not disenfranchising anyone because they still have elected Senators and Representatives.

  27. @just me: “With a nationwide popular vote it will essentially lock up the presidency for the democrats.” Will it? It didn’t in ’80 or ’84, or ’88, or ’04. The only discrepancy was ’00.

  28. samwide says:

    @just me:

    With a nationwide popular vote it will essentially lock up the presidency for the democrats

    And that would be a bad thing because?

    Or

    With a nationwide popular vote it will essentially lock up the presidency for the republicans

    And that would be a bad thing because?

    Look, if a nationwide popular vote results in one party winning, that means that a majority of the voting citizenry prefers that party’s policies over the other party’s. What in hell is wrong with that?

  29. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    don’t see a lot of consistency in those positions.

    Of course you don’t but they are perfectly consistant. In one case I am talking about personal responsibility. If you don’t accept that people will die because they can’t afford medicine, then you are shoving the cost of treatment onto others. That’s acceptable if you think medicine is an absolute human right but in that case no one should be required to pay for it…which means healthcare should be nationalized or you don’t accept the notion that healthcare is a right in which case, life has winners and losers and we have to accept that.

    That’s completely different from the notion that people deserve to be represented by their government. That is a right at least in our society, and as such the ability of minority groups to be represented in government (not control but be heard) needs to be protected.

    It only seems contradictory to you because you clearly feel that healthcare is an absolute human right, and I don’t.

    -Polaris

  30. Polaris says:

    @samwide:

    And that would be a bad thing because?

    So you are in favor of a one-party authoritarian state as long as you are the authority?

    Good to know.

    -Polaris

  31. @Polaris:

    That’s completely different from the notion that people deserve to be represented by their government.

    But you are arguing that some citizens should have more say in selecting that representation than others. This is rather problematic and violates your alleged value of the sanctity of the individual.

    And no, this has nothing to do, per se, with whether health care is a right or not (something I did not assert in the previous thread, btw).

  32. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But you are arguing that some citizens should have more say in selecting that representation than others. This is rather problematic and violates your alleged value of the sanctity of the individual.

    I am saying that in order to protect the rights of minority groups. This is supposed to matter to us, right?

    I am in no way saying that minority groups should be controlling, but if we believe in our form of a representative republic (which is not a democracy), then we need to protect the right (and it is a right) of large section of peoples to in fact be represented. If that means breaking from pure 1:1 vote parity, then so be it. The framers themselves didn’t think that all voters were created equal either.

    -Polaris

  33. @Polaris:

    You have huge tracts (and large numbers) of people completely disenfranchised.

    Indeed, they didn’t think that blacks and whites, men and women and property owners and non-property owners were equal.

    They clearly were not right about everything.

  34. James in LA says:

    @Polaris, “I reject the automatic notion of “one man==one vote””

    Polaris, you are free to reject in one hand, and crap in the other, and see which fills up first.

    What you “reject” is irrelevant. One person, one vote is what this country has worked for so long to achieve. It is part of the American identity, which you also seem to reject.

    Or do you wish to return America to no direct vote? 3/5ths of a person? No women, either? Just how far back in time do we need to go for you to be happy? How many people need to lose the right to vote so you will what? Sleep better at night?

    Your arguments are full of red herrings based solely on what you dislike. One of the things you seem to dislike the most is helping other people (e.g. “fecal matter happens”). You reject any suggestion that part of your purpose on earth, and as a citizen, just might be to find ways to uplift those in need, if you have the means to do so, even those with whom you have political disagreements.

    But you’d just rather let rural folks decide to let them die.

    This is the picture you have painted of yourself. I find it unamerican in the extreme, and really want no part of your world. Keep talking, so we know where not to visit.

  35. samwide says:

    @Polaris:

    @samwide:
    And that would be a bad thing because?

    So you are in favor of a one-party authoritarian state as long as you are the authority?

    Good to know.

    Don’t be a dope. Go back and read what I wrote.

  36. @James in LA:

    Your arguments are full of red herrings based solely on what you dislike

    Indeed, this is my impression as well.

  37. Tlaloc says:

    Here’s an idea: why don’t we just vote for our preferred candidate, cut out the middle men and women of the electoral college, and directly elect the president?

    But that’s not what those barrel chested demigods of time and space, the founding fathers, wanted for us. Geez! I’s almost as if you’re suggesting they weren’t utterly perfect and incapable of error.

  38. @Tlaloc: I know. The Horror, right? (indeed, see my more recent post on this topic).

  39. Trumwill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    This is, of course, true. However, I am not arguing that the whole government be run in that fashion (for example, I am not calling for repeal of the 1st amendment).

    Gasp. Why do you hate the will of the majority so?

    On the broader point, I largely agree. What mainly does it for me is the swing state issue. Despite the argument by some that “OMG The electoral college gives Wyoming .55% representation when it only deserves .15!!”, at the end of the day Wyoming is even more ignored than Texas and California (at least Texas and Cali can bankroll fundraisers).

  40. Dave Schutz says:

    I decided I liked the Electoral College better than direct national vote after the Mexican election about ten years ago when there was huge vote fraud in some areas and the defeated (?) candidate refused to accept the result for years, social unrest, etc. The dominant strategy if US had PV would be for Chicago and Milwaukee to suddenly show 85% turnout, and maybe on the other side Indiana and Nassau County and DFW. There would be a staggeringly high incentive for vote fraud in areas already highly loyal to one party or the other.

    I like the Nebraska system, of awarding an EV for each congressional district and the two Senate EVs to the state winner. I think candidates would be forced to pay attention to, and campaign in, states which now get no attention (because the are a lock for the other side, or for their own). There would still be a slight skew to the Reeps, because more of the low population states are North Dakota-like than Rhode Island-like. It would diminish the pinata aspects of winning Calif, Texas. I think it would probably create centrist incentives for the candidates, and since I have centrist views, I like that.

  41. @Dave Schutz: Perhaps you are thinking of 1988 in Mexico when there was, in fact, fraud (the government simply announced that the computers all crashed so they could manipulate the results). Of course, elections in Mexico were a sham until 1994 (if not 2000). There was also controversy in 2006 over a close election. However. Had they had a run-off provision then there would have been a clearer winner.

    There are plenty of examples of successful popular votes for president in multiple cases. Mexico makes a poor comparison for multiple reasons.

    There is no empirical reason to suggest that popular vote systems are prone to fraudthat the EC is a special protrction against fraud