How the Electoral College Perverts Democratic Politics

Thinking about wildfires and electoral politics.

“The Electoral College” by LOC is in the Public Domain, CC0

George Conway makes a straightforward observation:

Part of what representative government is supposed to achieve is that it should motivate politicians, who want to be re-elected, to try and provide what citizens need so that they will vote for said politicians.

Set deeper philosophical appeals to the value of democracy for the moment, and consider that at its root is the notion that it is supposed to create a government that is responsive to the needs of the population. Voters should vote for the politicians who will provide what those voters need. It is a fundamental part of the feedback loop that democratic elections are supposed to create.

In a reasonable electoral system, the almost 40 million citizens of California, and more specifically the roughly 20.4 million registered voters in the state would matter to the 2020 presidential election.

Such a system would incentivize even a narcissist like Trump to be motivated to care about California because caring could help him win more votes in the state.

But, since he knows that he will lose California, what’s the point?

A system that incentivizes an elected official to ignore large numbers of voters is a screwed up system, plain and simple.

Keep in mind roughly 4.5 million Californians voted for Trump in 2016–about half the states have populations of 4.5 million of less.

This is an illustration of the perversity of the Electoral College. It makes things like Iowa corn subsidies more important to national politics than events in the largest state in the union.

Consider: neither candidate has any incentive at all to try and appeal the California voters because the EC outcome is, for all practical purposes, set in stone.

Under what theory of governance is that defensible?

And yes, a normal president would care about California because it is their job to do so (not to mention the human thing to do). Most presidents are not as self-centered as Trump, but part of the reason you have to think about the implications of institutional design is that the goal should be to force as close of a positive outcome as possible.

Instead, we get things like this from Trump via Politico: Trump blames California for wildfires, tells state ‘you gotta clean your floors’

“I see again the forest fires are starting,” he said at a rally in swing-state Pennsylvania. “They’re starting again in California. I said, you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests — there are many, many years of leaves and broken trees and they’re like, like, so flammable, you touch them and it goes up.”

“Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us,” he added.

Well, then.

The combination of assigning blame while fires still burn and offering questionable remedies have become as familiar to Californians as the conflagrations that ignite each year. Those fires have spurred a predictable response from the president: blame the Democrat-dominated state and then threaten to punish it by withholding money. He did so as fires burned in 2018, and again in 2019.

Would he be taking this attitude if he thought he could get something out of helping CA? In a popular vote system just getting more votes out of CA, not necessarily winning it, would be an incentive to care more about the state.

Relying on the goodness of politicians (or human beings) can disappoint so it is necessary to find a way to leverage their self-interest. If it were in Trump’s self-interest to help California, they would be getting more help.

This reminds me of a key passage from Federalist 51:

The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

The passage is about checks and balances, but it has at its core a more profound political observation: institutions need to be designed to take human nature into account, and we, as a society, are better off when institutions channel private interests to correspond to the public interest.

Put simply: good institutional design should harness private interest in the futherance of the public interest.

The Electoral College does not do this, and it is a fundamental reason why it is flawed and should be replaced (caveats as to the difficulty to do so, as always, apply).

One can apply this logic to the whole “Covid is a Blue State problem” that allegedly was applied by the administration months ago.

We would all be better off if the president was concerned about votes in every corner of the US.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Democratic Theory, Donald Trump, Natural Disasters, 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. Sleeping Dog says:

    Yes, but the EC won’t change or go away.

    You have to wonder, what level of crisis will be needed for the political leadership to make the effort to reform the system?

    It is far more likely that the US would become an authoritarian state than the EC would be eliminated or substantially altered to reflect the popular will of the voters.

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  2. @Sleeping Dog:

    Yes, but the EC won’t change or go away.

    I think some day it will. Clearly, however, not any time soon.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    I won’t live to see, hopefully you will.

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  4. Eric Dunnicliff says:

    I live in Fresno County where the massive Creek Fire is burning (luckily, about 20 miles away). I find the forest management weird to make sense the Creek Fire and a lot of other major fires take place on federal land. The Creek Fire is currently burning in the Sierra National Forest and luckily the towns just outside of federal forest land have been spared so far.

    Fresno County has a population of 999k which is about 220k+ more than Wyoming and is much more culturally and geographically diverse. Fresno County is a major agricultural area. Politically conservative leaning but tend to vote blue in presidential elections. But thanks to the Electoral College and the Senate Fresno County gets little love from federal politicians. In California even with nearly a million people we make less than 2.5% of the state. Stuck in the edge of Devin Nunes district I feel my vote nationally is worthless.

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  5. Michael Cain says:

    On the near order of 40% of the land area in California is owned by the federal government, including much of the areas that burn. Watch how quick BLM and USFS have California in court if the state starts clearing fuel sources on federal land. Same applies in all of the western states.

    In November, the 11 states that are burning now will deliver ~100 EC votes for Joe Biden and 14-16 Democrats to the US Senate. Should the Dems win the federal trifecta (House, Senate, White House), I expect those Democratic Senators to take legislative hostages.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    And our weird unrepresentative small state first primary system put ethanol in our gasoline.

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  7. Scott F. says:

    @Eric Dunnicliff: As a fellow Californian, I also feel disenfranchised, though CA 49 did manage to flip the seat to Democrat in the blue wave of 2018.

    Frankly, if any state official were to propose succession, I would completely back them. I’m sick and tired of the state giving more than it gets from Wyoming et al.

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  8. Michael Cain says:

    @Scott F.:

    I’m sick and tired of the state giving more than it gets from Wyoming et al.

    My retirement hobby is studying the questions, “Under what conditions could a peaceful partition of the US that splits off the western states happen, and are those conditions ever likely to occur?” I’m working, slowly, on a pair of books: one pseudo-academic and one fiction. Some comments seem in order.

    From a tax perspective and the donor/recipient arguments, Wyoming is at least as big a tax donor as California (per capita). This is a surprise to people who think of Wyoming as “Alabama-poor, but with mountains.” It’s not. Solidly blue New Mexico, OTOH, is.

    California already imports large amounts of energy from Wyoming. Over the next few years, the amount will increase a lot. If California wants to achieve 100% renewable energy in the not-too-distant future, California really needs access to Wyoming’s magnificent wind resources.

    Southern California gets a lot of water from Wyoming. Imagine the Imperial Valley reverting to its state before the Colorado River diversions. ‘Nuff said.

    If California were to secede on its own, and the US closed the natural gas pipelines, cut off the electricity transfers, and refilled Powell and Mead over a few years so the water didn’t get to California, California isn’t the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world, California is a basket case. A country made up of the 13-state West with California as the leading player is the fourth biggest economy in the world with the vast majority of its population living in progressive metro areas and the cooperation of the “ungovernable tribal areas” as some wits call them simply purchased.

  9. Mr. Iron Knee says:

    The Electoral College is a fine system.

    I lived and worked in Japan (where the entire country is run by Tokyo) and everywhere not Tokyo (or Osaka, the second largest city) are neglected and slowly falling apart, because the most influential and populated city only cares itself. It’s only because of Japanese culture that the decline isn’t a rapid, accelerated one.

    Iron Nick Lee, I now live in the Bay (the biggest shithole in the Northern Hemisphere) and seeing how screwed up this place is even more so affirms that I’m right. If the president was chosen by popular vote, ONLY the Coasts would be paid any attention to (which I’m sure none of you mind) and the entire country would be littered with homeless tents, drug needles and human crap in front of our doorsteps.

    The federal government, thousands of miles away, has nothing to do with California being a hellhole. California is a hell- and shithole because of Californian politicians and Californian citizens. It’s one hundred percent California’s fault.

  10. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know, everyone gets to like what they like, and you, Mr. Iron Knee, get to dislike the Bay Area and California.

    And, there are plenty of people who like it here. What, exactly, did California do to make the average temperature rise over the last two decades, which is producing extreme weather, exactly as was predicted by models at least 20 years ago? This is something California did? Or is it California that is leading the country away from fossil fuels that makes it a shithole? Is it that you like clouds of diesel smoke and coal dust? That smells good to you? And if it doesn’t smell that way, it’s a shithole?

    I mean, I get it if you complain about how it’s too crowded or too expensive. I’m not sure how Californians did that. But we were talking about the wildfires. Seriously, like your master, Trump, you make these claims that are facially ridiculous, and don’t back them up.

    Trump speaks of “sweeping the forest floor”. Who does that? Ever? Does anyone do that? It’s nonsense. But it sounds good and it gets applause because hatred of California and schadenfreude is what he’s selling. Feel good about yourself and where you live because “California is a hellhole”.

    I mean, it might be that only the large population centers got attention without the EC. Of course, there would still be the Senate, but never mind that.

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  11. Kylopod says:

    @Mr. Iron Knee:

    The Electoral College is a fine system.

    That was the premise of your post. I waited for you to make a case for this position–but it never came. In the three paragraphs that followed, you didn’t make a single good argument, and you didn’t make a single bad argument. You made no arguments at all. There is nothing, literally nothing in your post, supporting the statement that “The Electoral College is a fine system.” It’s all one big non sequitur: California sucks, therefore the EC is good. Just because the EC happens to suppress the vote of those you don’t like, it doesn’t follow that it’s a good system. Your logic would imply that the EC might be okay if Cali was okay in your eyes. Which just goes to show you don’t have an argument against the EC as a system, just that you like its outcome with regards to the way the vote is distributed at present.

    I can make dozens of arguments against the EC without ever getting into whether I would like the outcomes or not. Brazil uses NPV, yet it still gave us Bolsonaro. I think that sucks, but it won’t get me to change my mind about NPV; in fact it’s wholly irrelevant to my position. No system is perfect, and all have the potential to lead to some pretty crappy outcomes. That doesn’t change the fact that some systems are clearly superior to others.

    You write: “If the president was chosen by popular vote, ONLY the Coasts would be paid any attention to.” I decided to check whether this was accurate. I added up the populations of states on the coasts, and it came up to just 44% of the total US population–meaning the majority of the populace does not live in a coastal state. Furthermore, if you count only the coastal states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, it’s just 30% of the country at most.

    Of course under NPV the coasts would gain a lot more power than they currently hold–but all that really means is that it would better represent the country’s populace since nearly half the country lives on the coasts. This whole “If the EC were eliminated California would hold tyranny over the populace” is nothing more than sophistry designed to avoid dealing with the fact that the EC distorts the popular will by making some voters count more than others. You like the fact that it does this because you don’t like the voters whose will is being suppressed–but that doesn’t actually prove that it’s a better system.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Kylopod:

    You write: “If the president was chosen by popular vote, ONLY the Coasts would be paid any attention to.” I decided to check whether this was accurate.

    I think that, in conjunction with his(?) earlier assertion that

    I lived and worked in Japan (where the entire country is run by Tokyo) and everywhere not Tokyo (or Osaka, the second largest city) are neglected and slowly falling apart, because the most influential and populated city only cares itself.

    we have the basis of an argument. That is, in an election where people, not states, are the only thing that matters Presidential candidates would pay attention only to the metroplitan areas.

    But even that likely doesn’t hold water. Do we see that happening in Senate elections? It’s not my area of expertise but I don’t think so.

    For that matter, while I’ve never lived in Japan and don’t pay much attention to Japanese politics, I’m skeptical that a country of 126 million is governed according to the interests of the 38 million in Greater Tokyo.

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  13. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    That is, in an election where people, not states, are the only thing that matters Presidential candidates would pay attention only to the metroplitan areas.

    But even that likely doesn’t hold water. Do we see that happening in Senate elections? It’s not my area of expertise but I don’t think so.

    You don’t even have to look at Senate elections. It clearly doesn’t hold in presidential elections. For instance, Trump didn’t win WI and MI through Milwaukee or Detroit. Lackluster turnout from Dems in those areas was a contributing factor, of course, but it certainly isn’t accurate to say the metro areas were all that was relevant.

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  14. Mr. Iron Knee says:

    James, your entire article is one big masturbatory assumption that the entire country would benefit if the largest states and the largest states ONLY decided the presidential election.

    Talk about not holding water.

    You don’t know anything about Japan outside Tokyo, yet you wave away the fact I stated, simply because it destroys your juvenile view. Here’s a quick example you’ll be able to comprehend. Tokyo held the Olympics in 1964. Instead of pushing for a location like Osaka-outer Kyoto-Nagoya or Fukuoka, Tokyo pushed Tokyo because Tokyo only cares about Tokyo. This is how Tokyo runs the rest of country – what will benefit Tokyo first, second and third, because “Everyone’s moving here anyway, so we don’t have to care about anywhere else.” Just like your CA/NY-run dream America would only care about CA/NY (and adjacent.)

    The only non-teaching or non-automobile industry high-skill positions available to non-Japanese people are… all in Tokyo. I even joked with peers and colleagues there about writing a book titled, “Tokyo is Destroying Japan.” (I would never do so, as I leave it to white folks to force their views of other cultures onto those cultures.)

    Anyway, your and the rest of your minions’ responses reveal exactly the kind of anti-flyover state government you would intend to “run.” And I use the word “run” very loosely. I’ve heard the Bay has always been a dump, but it was at least an affordable dump. Yet, despite all its current California “geniuses” who claim to be superior in every intellectual and moral avenue to the ‘necks and dummies living in the heartland, they… not only made things worse by turning dump into steaming shit, but also managed to make it the most expensive pile of steaming shit by magnitudes.

    I will hard pass on you “geniuses” and your goofy desire to turn the rest of the country into San Francisco.

  15. Paine says:

    Jesse Wegman broke out his calculator for his recent book on the electoral college:

    * The big states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida, only have about a third of the country’s population. So if a candidate under a popular vote system were to camp out in those states he or she would be writing off the remaining 2/3rds of possible voters. Seems like a losing strategy.

    * Even the reddest and bluest states tend to have a roughly 60/40 split in party votes, so the ability for big states to control the national agenda is further diluted by the partisan split. Not every Texan votes Republican nor does every Californian vote democratic. Bonus fun fact: state-by-state, California was Trump’s third biggest haul of Republican votes, behind only Texas and Florida.

    * The five biggest cities: LA, NYC, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix make up just 6% the country’s population. The 50 biggest cities make up about 15% of the overall population. So even if these urban centers gave 100% of their votes to the “pro-urban candidate” they simply don’t have the votes to override the rest of the country.

    EC proponent’s math simply doesn’t add up. They exaggerate the population of states like California and completely ignore the partisan split to argue that California and few other states would dominate national politics.

    4
  16. @Kylopod:

    Of course under NPV the coasts would gain a lot more power than they currently hold–but all that really means is that it would better represent the country’s populace since nearly half the country lives on the coasts.

    Quite the concept!

  17. @Mr. Iron Knee:

    James, your entire article is one big masturbatory assumption that the entire country would benefit if the largest states and the largest states ONLY decided the presidential election.

    Well, first the post was mine, not James’. Second, if wanting all voters to be counted the same is masturbatory, well, cool. Third, the entire premise of the article is that we should want the president to have to be accountable to the whole nation and not to incentivize him to ignore tens of millions of citizens.

    You realize that Trump is currently ignoring all the Republican voters in CA, yes? And that if we had a national popular vote those votes would start to count, yes?

    The main problem with positions such as yours is that you are so locked in Electoral College, Red State v. Blue State thinking that you are ignoring that a national popular vote unlocks all the cooped up GOP votes in all those Blue states. As I noted in my post, there were 4.5 million Trump votes in 2016 in CA that did not matter.

    In regards to Japan, let’s stipulate that you are correct in your assessment of Tokyo-centrism for the sake of argument. Does it help your case? Well, no. It is rather difficult to use Japan as evidence of the perils of a NPV to elect the president, since Japan doesn’t have a presidential system. It has a parliamentary form of government and its head of government is a prime minister, not a president. I am sure you knew that, but it is worth noting that makes it not a very good piece of evidence for your position.

    Further, and far more importantly, Japan is a unitary state (i.e., most governing power is in the central government and the autonomy of local governments is limited). This is to be contrasted with the US, which is federal and with states having a substantial amount of autonomy. Tokyo is the largest city by a substantial magnitude than other cities in Japan, in the middle of the largest metro area in the country, in the largest prefecture in the country. That is has a lot of political influence is not a surprise.

    What we can say with certainty, however, is that Tokyo’s dominance of Japanese politics is not because they use a national vote to elect their president, since, again, they don’t have a president.

    I will hard pass on you “geniuses” and your goofy desire to turn the rest of the country into San Francisco.

    That’s cool, because I have zero idea of how having the national popular vote to elect the president would turn the country into anything save a system wherein the candidate who can win the most votes wins the office.

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  18. @Paine:

    Bonus fun fact: state-by-state, California was Trump’s third biggest haul of Republican votes, behind only Texas and Florida.

    Isn’t it funny how that works, when you start looking at actual voters instead of the arbitrary shapes wherein they reside?

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  19. @Mr. Iron Knee:

    San Francisco.

    It also occurs to me that the obsession over SF makes no sense (save the fact the FNC and others in conservative infotainment complex like to dunk on it).

    As a metro area, it is the 12th in the nation. In terms of city pop alone, it is 16th. Fort Worth, TX has a bigger pop than SF alone. So if we have a NPV will the country become just one big Stock Yard?

    DFW as a metro area is almost twice the population of the Bay area metro area, so will am NPV lead to to brisket becoming the dominant mode of BBQ from sea to shining sea?

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  20. Christopher Osborne says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Ouch. Done and dusted…

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  21. ImProPer says:

    @Mr. Iron Knee:

    “Iron Nick Lee, I now live in the Bay (the biggest shithole in the Northern Hemisphere) and seeing how screwed up this place is even more so affirms that I’m right.”

    I suspect the above was written more out of personal frustration, rather than objective political reasoning. Not saying it is the worst motivator when casting one’s ballot, but the latter would probably serve as a better tool if one were seeking meaningful mitigation for the future. I was born and raised in the Bay area myself, and left over 20 years ago. It had to do with being priced out, rather than being being the “biggest shithole” in the northern hemisphere”.

      “If the president was chosen by popular vote, ONLY the Coasts would be paid any attention to (which I’m sure none of you mind) and the entire country would be littered with homeless tents, drug needles and human crap in front of our doorsteps
    The federal government, thousands of miles away, has nothing to do with California being a hellhole. California is a hell- and shithole because of Californian politicians and Californian citizens. It’s one hundred percent California’s fault.”

       Your logic is a little confusing. If California is a “hellhole” because of it’s politicians, and citizens, wouldn’t  an astute popular president be more inclined to promote an agenda to help densely populated state out of the conditions you are complaining about? If you are arguing a conservative hands off policy, that is fine, and doing away with the electoral college wouldn’t preclude this type of leadership. As far as the popular right wing talking point of, “homeless tents, drug needles and human crap in front of our doorsteps”, are you you asserting that this would become a successful campaign strategy of a Presidential candidate in a popular vote election? I would suspect the opposite to be true. The current far right v far left, pop culture politics that are a gold mine to the distributors of moral outrage, would give way to the less enticing, but better problem solving of conservative v liberal philosophies. Creating and maintaining hobgoblins, are necessities of far right/left politics, which I  believe
       thrives under our current system. I would
    be interested to hear your rebuttal, if you have one.

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  22. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Yeah, none of this makes sense. I’m at least mildly sympathetic to the notion that a pure national election would prioritize the interests of urban and suburban voters—although that makes more sense that a system that radically overweights rural voters. But I think too many Americans have come to think that politics is about geography (“ the entire country would benefit if the largest states and the largest states ONLY decided the presidential election”) rather than people, which makes no sense at all.

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  23. Mr. Iron Knee says:

    Sunday Night Football just went off and while I normally turn from god awful television news, I let it stay on enough to catch the announcement that the president will be visiting NorCal this week.

    …but, James Joyner (and Steven Taylor) told me he would just completely ignore the state, because its vote total outcome doesn’t affect him, and we need to get rid of the Electoral College and let California and New York only run the country for that reason.

  24. @Mr. Iron Knee:

    let California and New York only run the country

    If you wish to continue to let an inaccurate talking point guide your thinking, more power to you.