Looking to the Design of the Electoral College

Of the institutions designed by the Framers, the electoral college is the one that deserves the least amount of defense if one's defense is predicated on assumptions of the genius of said framers.

Alexander Hamilton wrote, in Federalist 66 regarding the House of Representatives and the election of the president:

The same house will be the umpire in all elections of the President, which do not unite the suffrages of a majority of the whole number of electors; a case which it cannot be doubted will sometimes, if not frequently, happen. The constant possibility of the thing must be a fruitful source of influence to that body.

In simple terms, the electoral college was designed in such a way that if no candidate for president receives an absolute majority of the electoral votes, then the House of Representatives would select the president.  As per the 12th Amendment (which alters some very similar language from Article II, Section 2):

The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President.

Now, Hamilton’s anticipation for the system was, as quoted and bolded above, that this process would happen “sometimes, if not frequently.”  But, in fact, that is not what happened.  The entire number of times that the US House of Representatives has chosen the president is all of two (1800 and 1824), and one of those (1800) was because the Framers made a mistake that the 12th Amendment had to fix.

To wit:  in 1800 there was a tie between Thomas Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr.  The original version of the electoral college allowed the electors to vote for two persons with the presidency awarded to the first place winner (assuming an absolute majority of electoral votes) and the vice presidency to the second place winner.  The tie in 1800 revealed both a problem with the process as designed, but also threw the election into the House.

So, it only took four elections for the system to be revealed as flawed.  The 12th Amendment fixed the president/vice president problem, but the system still never worked the way Hamilton described in the quotation above, as the only other time that the House had the chance to choose the president was in a four-way race in 1824.

Further, if one reads Hamilton’s description of the process in Federalist 68 one sees that the original plan for the electoral college was that it, not those who selected the electors, would be choosing the president (or, likely, simply nominating candidates for the House to choose from):

It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.

While we use the electors are mere messengers of the preference of a given state’s plurality of voters (save for Maine and Nebraska, which uses congressional districts as well), this was not what they were intended to be.  They were intended to select the president themselves, voting in their states (without likely a lot of communication with other electors in other states) and hence likely voting for a range of regional candidates, which theoretically would have led to the House choosing the president “sometimes, if not frequently.”  Of course, history demonstrates that it never worked in such a fashion.

Further, and this is worth underscoring:  while we treat the electors like messengers, the constitutional bottom line remains that they have the actual power to elect the president, not the citizens of the US.

Of the institutions designed by the Framers, the electoral college is the one that deserves the least amount of defense if one’s defense is predicated on assumptions of the genius of said framers.   In other words, if one is predisposed to defend the electoral college because one thinks that it serves some central purpose in the constitutional order of the Framers one needs to reevaluate one’s position.  The electoral college has never functioned the way the Framers thought it would.

The above is part (and there is more*) of the reason why I have come to the conclusion that it is incorrect to assert that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” in regards to the way we elect the president.

*Two quick additional ones:

1)  A philosophical one:  if one believes in liberty and political equality, then one person, one vote ought to be the basic rule, especially in the process of selecting the one truly national office that we have.

2)  A practical one:  the current system is such that we start each electoral cycle knowing how a vast majority of the states will vote, and therefore the contests become focused on a handful of states  (e.g., Florida).  This transforms (and distorts) what ought to be a national election into a regionalized one.  Why anyone wants this to be the case (apart from the citizens in battleground states) is beyond me (especially the libertarian-minded who extol the notion of individual liberty as the central theme of their political theory).

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. 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. Ron Beasley says:

    I see this has become a real political farce now. Following PA Nebraska is going to go back to a winner take all system because a Democrat might get one of their electoral votes. Tell me that’s not a purely Political move Doug.

  2. @Ron Beasley:

    If you read the link you sent me you’ll see that the bill is going nowhere in the legislature.

  3. if one believes in liberty and political equality, then one person, one vote ought to be the basic rule, especially in the process of selecting the one truly national office that we have.

    These are two different Ideas, and not always compatible as Madison pointed out quite nicely in Federalist No. 10.

    The Electoral College is idiosyncratic, but I believe it serves a purpose in balancing the interests of small states and minorities against majority will. In any case, if the events of the 2000 Election weren’t enough to create the political will necessary to amend the Constitution to get rid of it, then I doubt we’ll be getting rid of it any time soon.

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    It looks like PA Republicans are having second thoughts. The entire thing is a political kabuki dance.

  5. @Doug Mataconis:

    These are two different Ideas, and not always compatible as Madison pointed out quite nicely in Federalist No. 10.

    I would like to see your elucidation of Fed 10 on this issue. Yes, Madison was worried about the potentiality, especially in small communities, of a major faction being tyrannical. However, he further argued that by extending the republic over a large space that you reduced the potential evil of a majority faction.

    Further, the only thing worse than tyranny of majority faction is tyranny of a minority faction, so I am not sure how empowering minorities sreves Madison’s purposes.

    Plus, later in life Madison wrote in an essay entitled “”Memorandum on ‘Majority Government;”:

    If majority governments…be the worst of Governments those who think and say so cannot be within the pale of the republican faith.They must either join the avowed disciples of aristocracy, oligarchy or monarchy, or look for a Utopia exhibitinag perfect homogeneousness of interests, opinions and feelings nowhere yet found in civilized communities.

    Further,

    The Electoral College is idiosyncratic, but I believe it serves a purpose in balancing the interests of small states and minorities against majority will

    That’s the story we tell ourselves, but it is not the case., What it does is create a system that marginalizes safe states and emphasizes battleground states.

    BTW: beyond what Madison thought in 10 or elsewhere, you aren’t addressing the fact that EC was designed to be mostly a nominating caucus, and not as a grand mechanism for protecting small states.

    And, beyond that: you need to be able to actually demonstrate that the system protects small states in some way that they actually need. I think this is difficult to demonstrate.

  6. Polaris says:

    Steven,

    We can already see on the statewide level how the EC protects smaller states. In California, you don’t count unless you live in one of the big three metropexes (SF, LA, SD). The rest of the state could literally vote for Bozo the clown, and it wouldn’t matter to any issue of meaning in the state. This explains why California is so messed up. You have huge tracts (and large numbers) of people completely disenfranchised.

    This IS the tyranny of the majority Madison was talking about.

    However, for Potus this does not happen. A potus candidate has to worry about offending Iowa farmers as well as workers in LA. Why? Becuase the EC system insures that the Iowa farmer is an important part of the cross section to the presidency that he wishes to have.

    -Polaris

  7. @Polaris:

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

    Yes, because under the EC the whole state goes to the winner of the plurality of the vote. If you had a popular vote, those millions of voters would have a direct influence over the election of the president in ways they currently do not.

    I don’t think you understand your own argument.

    Indeed, under your preferred system (the EC) your biggest complaint (that cities count more than non cities) is actually amplified.

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    1-) Popular vote would require a federal authority to organize elections, and questions like if fellons can be vote would have to be decided in the federal level. If you want each state to organize elections then you need somekind of electoral college.

    2-) Democracy in states that are the size of continents is very difficult because you have to ballance the interests of very rural areas with the interests of major urban areas. And yes, you have to balance the interests of big states and small states.

    Brazil, a country that is as big as the United States, has the popular vote. The result is that most of the campaigning is done around cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In fact, all the candidates that went to the runoff in Presidential elections since 1989 came from the State of São Paulo, with just two exceptions(One of them, Dilma Roussef, was elected because she was the succesor of a president that came from that state).

    It would happen the same thing in the US if the Electoral College was completely scrapped.

  9. Boyd says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Popular vote would require a federal authority to organize elections

    Only if it were constructed that way. Not that I necessarily support a change to the current system, but I have a problem following your logic here. If the change were written in such a way that states are still responsible for conducting their own elections, but the popular votes are reported instead of the electoral college allocation, then what you say couldn’t happen would, in fact, happen.

  10. Andre Kenji says:

    “Indeed, under your preferred system (the EC) your biggest complaint (that cities count more than non cities) is actually amplified. ”

    No. Take a look at Presidential Elections in Brazil. There is the perception in Brazil that two states, São Paulo and Minas Gerais, elect the president. That´s largely true.Most of the campaigning is done around major urban centers because that´s more effective than to search for voters in rural areas.

  11. Andre Kenji says:

    “If the change were written in such a way that states are still responsible for conducting their own elections, but the popular votes are reported instead of the electoral college allocation, then what you say couldn’t happen would, in fact, happen. ”

    Then ANY fraud in any state could destroy the whole legitimacy of the system. One could find years after the election that there were more people voting than people registered to vote in some state.

  12. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, because under the EC the whole state goes to the winner of the plurality of the vote. If you had a popular vote, those millions of voters would have a direct influence over the election of the president in ways they currently do not.

    False. There is no such requirement in the EC system at the federal level and you know it. In fact two states (NE and ME) don’t have a winner take all system. The only thing the constitution demands is that the state legistlatures pick the electors. How they do it is completely up to the individual states. Therefore this problem (and I agree it’s a problem) is at the state level and gives us a state snapshot of what this country would look like without an EC. So in fact the distortion you mention is an argument for the EC becaue the EC localizes such distortions to the statewide level.

    I don’t think you understand your own argument.

    I undertstand it perfectly. I don’t believe you do.

    Indeed, under your preferred system (the EC) your biggest complaint (that cities count more than non cities) is actually amplified.

    False. The cities are amplified because the individual states are winner take all with no effort made to insure representation from the non-urban vote (see California or Oregon or Washington State). However, with an EC, a vote in LA will NOT invalidate a vote in Iowa city. Thus to be elected Potus, you have to appeal to a certain minimum number of states rather than rack up big vote numbers in a small number of Urban centers.

    As was mentioned, in Brasil this does happen with a PV and if you don’t live in Brasilia or Rio, you literally don’t count.

    -Polaris

  13. snarky bastard says:

    @Polaris: No, the reason why Califonia is so messed up is horrendous institutional design, combined with homogenous districts combined with increasingly strong party discipline.

    1) 2/3rds majority needed to raise taxes

    2) Voter initiatives where they are frequently presented with a choice of “And a Pony…”

    3) A blocking coalition of 35% to 40% of the seats that has more to fear from a primary challenge than a general election challenge.

    A clear political majority can’t govern due to either #2 or #3, and the voters don’t have the ability to a) discern responsbility for impasses/cluster-fucks and b) effectively punish or reward Assembly Reps or Senators.

  14. @Andre Kenji:

    Well, a couple of quick thoughts:

    1) In any election system, campaigning is going to center around population centers.

    2) Brazil has even more concentration of population in key cities than does the US. Further, those population centers are relatively geographically proximate in ways that are rather different than in the US. Your population centers are all along, more or less, the coast while the US population centers are spread along both coasts and into the interior (such as in Texas and Illinois) and the general demographic patterns would create different dynamics.

  15. @Polaris:

    False. There is no such requirement in the EC system at the federal level and you know it.

    Who said anything about a requirement? The fact of the matter is that this is the way it works.

    And, if we are going to talk requirements, I would refer back to my post and the fact that there is no requirement to even consult the voters.

    As was mentioned, in Brasil this does happen with a PV and if you don’t live in Brasilia or Rio, you literally don’t count.

    You do understand how a popular vote works, right? Every vote counts the same.

    Now, certainly, if one finds oneself in a distinct minority, then one counts less than if one is in a vast majority. This is the way it works. Imperfect, yes, but better than the alternative.

  16. Boyd says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Then ANY fraud in any state could destroy the whole legitimacy of the system.

    So please explain to me how this is any different with fraud when the federal government is running the election. It seems to me that any fraud in any situation threatens the legitimacy of the system. Such is the nature of fraud.

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    Am I the only one who worries about the tyranny of the minority?

  18. @Ron Beasley:

    No, you are not.

  19. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Who said anything about a requirement? The fact of the matter is that this is the way it works.

    And, if we are going to talk requirements, I would refer back to my post and the fact that there is no requirement to even consult the voters.

    You claimed that winner-take-all was a feature of the EC and the state distortions I was complaining about were a reason to get rid of it. That is simply not true. As you note above, there is no requirement for the voters to be consulted and indeed that was the original intent of the framers.

    However, it DOES mean that you have to get a certain minimum number and types of states. That goes a long way to insure the urban vote doesn’t drown out the others.

    You do understand how a popular vote works, right? Every vote counts the same.

    Sure. I also don’t think it’s a universally positive trait. It think there are some very negative consequences about letting this go to it’s logical extreme, and btw so did Madison. We see it in many states not just California but Washington and Oregon as well. We see it in Brasil too. Just because you are in a minority group, if your minority group is an important part of the country, then your voice and vote should matter. The EC is one way to insure that it does. Without it such votes could (and are at the state level) drowned out. This is the tyranny of the majority.

    Now, certainly, if one finds oneself in a distinct minority, then one counts less than if one is in a vast majority. This is the way it works. Imperfect, yes, but better than the alternative.

    Not just imperfect but wrong. Just because the tryanny comes from 50%+1 doesn’t make it less of a tyranny if you have effectively no representation and no political rights because of it. We see this in Brasil and many US states now. Just because you are in a political minority does not mean you shouldn’t have political rights and political respresentation, but a PV system would in fact lead to the loss of both.

    Again, just because one man to one vote sounds fair doesn’t mean it is.

    -Polaris

  20. @Polaris:

    You claimed that winner-take-all was a feature of the EC and the state distortions I was complaining about were a reason to get rid of it. That is simply not true.

    I am at a loss as you clearly don’t understand the way the process works. I thought you claimed to be a scientist in a previous thread. I am having my doubts at the moment.

  21. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I am at a loss as you clearly don’t understand the way the process works. I thought you claimed to be a scientist in a previous thread. I am having my doubts at the moment.

    So because you’re a mod you got to toss in gratutious insults. I understand how the process works perfectly well. At the federal level, it is up to each state to determine it’s slate of electors, or more accurate it’s up to the state legislatures do to so. Usually this is done via each’s state’s election laws as passed by said legistalture and in almost all cases it’s winner take all.

    But that is not a federal requirement. Criticizing states for having a winner take all system is not a criticism of the electoral college. Those are completely different things.

    How is that not understaning how the process works, or don’t I understand it because I don’t agree with you? That’s what it’s looking like to me.

    -Polaris

  22. Polaris says:

    If you want to talk about how things really work then I would suggest that this entire discussion needs to be tabled. Why? Changing the EC system on the federal level to a naked PV would require an amendment to the constitution, and such an amendment is DOA if not on congress than certainly at the state level.

    States could do it themselves, but that would involve one state taking the first step and losing the political power to elect the president, and that’s not going to happen either.

    So could we please talk about stuff that’s germane and relevant rather an navel-gazing over something that isn’t going to happen?

    -Polaris

  23. Boyd says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: And I’m also at a loss as why you believe Polaris doesn’t understand how things work, since he clearly does. Your (to me, unfounded) objection that he “clearly [doesn’t] understand” is getting in the way of the discussion, and if you keep this up, I’m gonna run out of popcorn.

  24. @Polaris: Your main objections to a popular vote and your support of the EC do not logically intersect. Hence my statement.

  25. @Boyd: If his concern is that size of urban constituencies trump smaller, rural constituencies, then his support for the EC makes no sense.

    More to the point, I think that actually his concern is not urban v. rural, but more Democrat v. Republican, but that he isn’t saying so.

    If he really wanted those rural votes to count, he would favor a popular vote.

  26. rodney dill says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    You do understand how a popular vote works, right? Every vote counts the same.

    I’ve become somewhat ambivalent toward PV versus EC at this point, but I don’t think Polaris meant vote-by-vote when he said ‘you literally don’t count.’

    In a PV scenario a Republican may spend much more time in California, campaigning and making promises, and pick up hundreds of thousands more votes (that still would’ve lost the state under EC). — as opposed to campaigning in Nebraska for 50,000 more votes. (which might lock an EC victory in that state, but no impact in a PV ending).

  27. Rob in CT says:

    If majority governments…be the worst of Governments those who think and say so cannot be within the pale of the republican faith. They must either join the avowed disciples of aristocracy, oligarchy or monarchy, or look for a Utopia exhibiting perfect homogeneousness of interests, opinions and feelings nowhere yet found in civilized communities.

    That is an excellent quote.

    I think the Senate is more than enough to protect the special interests of small/low-pop states (such as, y’know, my own).

  28. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Why? I think I’ve been clear enough. You might disagree, but I do undertstand how the system works. I don’t get why you think I don’t. The objections do in fact intersect.

    To wit: The EC does not magnify the city vote. The winner-take-all system in each state does that and it has nothing to do with the EC (on the federal level). Going to a PV would simply nationalize the same distortions on a national level that we see at the state level, disenfranchising large numbers of states and populations. That’s not an improvement.

    To wit: With the EC as it is run now, Minn-StPaul is very important since that urban vote is a big chunk of Minnesota, and thus those votes can (and often do) determine how Minn’s EVs swing.

    With a PV, Minn-StPaul doesn’t matter at all because though an Urban centre, it is hopelessly outvoted by nearby Chicago.

    In addition to that, not all states are dominated by Urban centers, and in a PV those states would be completely disenfranchised.

    I don’t see how disenfrachising entire states is a good idea.

    -Polaris

  29. @Polaris:

    To wit: The EC does not magnify the city vote. The winner-take-all system in each state does that and it has nothing to do with the EC

    Except for the niggling detail that that is how the EC is allocated in all states save two (and has been for most of the existence of the country).

    Yes, the EC could be allocated differently, but it isn’t. Heck, it could be allocated via a national popular vote.

  30. PD Shaw says:

    First, Pennsylvania should go back to the old way and just lest the state legislature choose their elector. Ron Beasley’s head might explode.

    I agree with Doug. Its not inconsistent with democracy to form rules that create the need for broader than 50% plus one concensus. This country has, and has always had, a problem with concensus due to its size and disparate cultures and immigration histories. The weighting provided by the electoral college system forces the succesful Presidential candidate to appeal outside of his regional base.

    Why is Florida a battleground state? Because it has fairly representative population. Why is Perry unlikely to become President even if head-to-head polls show him beating Obama? Because his support is concentrated, not diverse.

  31. samwide says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The Electoral College is idiosyncratic, but I believe it serves a purpose in balancing the interests of small states and minorities against majority will.

    And the proposed Pennsylvania plan furthers that goal how? By potentially awarding the majority of the state’s electoral votes to the loser of the state popular vote?

  32. Ron Beasley says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think we already have enough “tyrrany of the minority” in the Senate where 60 votes are required to do about anything.

  33. samwide says:

    @Polaris:

    To wit: With the EC as it is run now, Minn-StPaul is very important since that urban vote is a big chunk of Minnesota, and thus those votes can (and often do) determine how Minn’s EVs swing.

    With a PV, Minn-StPaul doesn’t matter at all because though an Urban centre, it is hopelessly outvoted by nearby Chicago.

    You know for a soi-disant libertarian, you’re making a fundamental error. A national popular vote is not about geographical regions — it is not about Minn-StPaul vs Chicago — it is about individuals. Let me say once again, under a NPV regime, a vote in Missoula, Montana has the same weight as a vote in New York City. It is under the EC regime that votes are rendered nugatory. A conservative Republican voting in an overwhelming liberal Democratic state might as well stay home, and vice versa. If that’s not disenfranchisement, what it is?

  34. Polaris says:

    @samwide: That is the fault of NY and other states having a winner take all system for allocating their ECs. It’s not the fault of the EC system itself.

    With a PV, unless you live on one of the big metroplexes (LA, Chi, SF, Dal-FW,NYC etc) then you are just as disenfranchised as a GOP voter is right now in upstate NY.

    At least with the EC, we try to insure that there must be some cross population and demographic consensus by demanding a certain minimum in state support.

    -Polaris

  35. @samwide:

    You know for a soi-disant libertarian, you’re making a fundamental error. A national popular vote is not about geographical regions — it is not about Minn-StPaul vs Chicago — it is about individuals. Let me say once again, under a NPV regime, a vote in Missoula, Montana has the same weight as a vote in New York City. It is under the EC regime that votes are rendered nugatory.

    Indeed. This is part of what I am saying.

  36. PJ says:

    The minority that those, who are loving what the republicans in PA are doing, wants to protect are rural voters.

    Why not protect Hispanic, Black, and Asian voters too? They are all minorities. Why should rural voters be the only minority that is protected?

    A party could just focus on white voters (at least for a couple more election cycles), and still win.

    Shouldn’t something be done to protect non-white voters from the oppression of the majority?

  37. rodney dill says:

    @Polaris: One of the arguments I’ve favored for EC is when the states apply it as winner take all. Then each state is making its decision one way or the other and putting its full force behind the decision. To me a split EC vote form a state is just a watered PV.

  38. SKI says:

    @Polaris:

    With a PV, unless you live on one of the big metroplexes (LA, Chi, SF, Dal-FW,NYC etc) then you are just as disenfranchised as a GOP voter is right now in upstate NY.

    Not remotely accurate.

    You may get less personal attention from candidates as the “bang for their buck” in terms of voter per time changes but the actual weight of your vote is identical. Today, if you live in a non-swing state, your vote literally carries less weight than someone in a swing state.

    ___
    Oh, and switching to the NPV system would not require an constitutional Amendment (not that that would be a bad thing) but only enough additional states to pass the NPV legislation. Currently 9 states with 132 electoral votes have committed to it and it goes into effect as soon as states totalling 270 EV pass it. See http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/ for more details.

  39. Polaris says:

    @SKI: That still doesn’t change the system on the national level. The “nationalpopularvote” movement is an attempted work around at the state level because as I said, states have the right to legislate their EVs as they wish.

    However to eliminate the EC DOES require a constitutional amendment, so I was not wrong.

    As for a rural vote not counting, it is completely accurate. A voter in Chehalis Washington (for example) may as well stay home in any statewide election. (Same for a voter in Bend Ore)

    Why? Because in those two states only Seattle and Portland effectively count because their votes overwhelm all other voices, and that is precisely what Madison was afraid of: Tryanny of the Majority.

    -Polaris

    Edit PS: 130 out of 270. Yeah good luck with that. There is no way you’ll get enough states to sign up to what amounts to a electoral suicide pact.

  40. Michael says:

    The minority that those, who are loving what the republicans in PA are doing, wants to protect are rural voters.

    Why not protect Hispanic, Black, and Asian voters too? They are all minorities. Why should rural voters be the only minority that is protected?

    In a winner-take-all system, every minority loses their vote, doesn’t matter if they are rural, black, asian or hispanic. The candidate with a minority of support within a state will get no support from that state’s electors.

    Consider a 49/51 vote split within the state, the real support from the state’s citizens is effectively evenly split. However, once it gets to the EC, if the state has a winner-take-all allotment, 49% of the population will be effectively ignored, and 51% of the population will effectively be counted twice.

  41. Michael says:

    As for a rural vote not counting, it is completely accurate. A voter in Chehalis Washington (for example) may as well stay home in any statewide election. (Same for a voter in Bend Ore)

    And yet in a national election decided by popular vote, the rural minorities in those states will be represented in proportion to their urban counterparts, rather than not counted at all as they are under the EC.

  42. samwide says:

    @rodney dill:

    To me a split EC vote form a state is just a watered PV.

    And a potentially quite unfair one, at that. As I said elsewhere, under a state-split EC vote, someone could win the majority of the states popular vote and get a minority of the states electoral votes. (I, like Jefferson, though, would favor a by-district vote is every state adopted it — but that’s just the NPV abbreviated, no?)

    @Polaris:

    With a PV, unless you live on one of the big metroplexes (LA, Chi, SF, Dal-FW,NYC etc) then you are just as disenfranchised as a GOP voter is right now in upstate NY.

    We at loggerheads because I was arguing the exact opposite of that. (Michael @
    Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 12:07 says much the same as I did.) I think you and I inhabit different linquistic universes.

  43. SKI says:

    @Polaris:

    Edit PS: 130 out of 270. Yeah good luck with that. There is no way you’ll get enough states to sign up to what amounts to a electoral suicide pact.

    How so?

  44. SKI says:

    @samwide:

    As I said elsewhere, under a state-split EC vote, someone could win the majority of the states popular vote and get a minority of the states electoral votes. (I, like Jefferson, though, would favor a by-district vote is every state adopted it — but that’s just the NPV abbreviated, no?)

    No, it isn’t. Because individual districts are routinely gerrymandered to maximize the number of voters of the disfavored party (of whomever is doing the gerrymandering) into districts to leave the other districts with small margins of preferred voters – going district by district could actually make the problem of unequal vote weighting worse, not better.

  45. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Isn’t the burden on the people who want to get rid of the Electoral College to make the case for why it should be done? We’re talking about an institution that’s been around for 223 years and there have only been three occasions on which the alleged “problem” of the minority vote-getter being elected President. Unless there’s some reason that it has to be changed now, I don’t see why the drastic step of amending the Constitution is necessary.

    As I think we’ve both noted a various times here, there’s a good reason why its difficult to amend the Constitution.

  46. @Doug Mataconis: I suffer under no illusions about the process changing.

    However, I really think that the basic argument (and goodness knows a far more complex and complete one can be made) starts with the simple fact that we start every election knowing how X number of states are going to vote and then end up focusing on a handful of so-called “battleground states.”

    The fact that we start election season dismissing huge swaths of the population as largely incidental strikes me as a prima facie reason for giving reform a serious look.

  47. @Steven L. Taylor:

    You do have a point, but it’s also worth noting that the Electoral Map is subject to change. Up until 1968, the Democrats had a lock on the states of the Confederacy. In the late 1980’s political analysts were writing about a Republican “electoral lock” due to the fact that they were continually winning in California, Texas, and Florida. That lock lasted until 1992. Right now, we’re undergoing a demographic shift that is going to put states like Texas in play at some point in the future.

    The Electoral College isn’t perfect, but I really don’t consider to be as flawed as some people obviously do. It’s served a purpose. We can talk about eliminating it, although I doubt that’s going to happen in my lifetime, but we can also talk about reforming it so that some of the problems you mention are minimized. The District Method is one possible method of doing that.

  48. @Doug Mataconis: Yes, trends shift over time. However, the bottom line remains that the system as it exists locks certain geographical units, often with very large populations into a known outcome that, therefore, changes the nature of the competition for president. Why in the world would we want a system that requires that candidate focus only on narrow slices of the country?

    And I will double-down on the libertarian point I made above: it strikes me as philosophically inconsistent to claim a position predicated on the sanctity of the individual and individual liberty at the same time state that one of the most fundamental political decisions US citizens can make is to allocated in a way that some individuals count more than others.

    And yes, the EC serves a purpose: fundamentally is it a method to elect the president (so would a popular vote).

    The District method is flawed because of the simple fact that so many of our districts are noncompetitive (and again, back to philosophy: we often argue for the importance of competition in the marketplace, why do we not demand it in elections?).

  49. @Doug Mataconis:

    Right now, we’re undergoing a demographic shift that is going to put states like Texas in play at some point in the future.

    Let me amplify one of my points here: so instead of allowing actual competition in the hear and now by having a popular vote, the counter argument is that demographics may, in fact, one day lead to more competition?

  50. Andre Kenji says:

    “In any election system, campaigning is going to center around population centers.”

    No one would campaign in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and Western PA under the Popular vote. The popular vote places more power to bigger states.

    “Brazil has even more concentration of population in key cities than does the US. Further, those population centers are relatively geographically proximate in ways that are rather different than in the US. ”

    Not so. The metropolitan areas in the United States are bigger. There are just 20 metropolitan areas in Brazil with a population larger than one million people. There are over than 50 metropolitan areas with population larger than one million people in the US. There is nothing like the Northeastern Corridor in Brazil: you can spot rainforests a few miles from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, in fact.

    The biggest difference is that in Brazil suburbs are much less promenient. But that does not change the fact that the popular vote gives a lot of power to the two biggest states and for the two biggest metropolitan areas.

  51. @Andre Kenji:

    There are just 20 metropolitan areas in Brazil with a population larger than one million people. There are over than 50 metropolitan areas with population larger than one million people in the US.

    That was actually kind of my point. The suburb factor matters as well.

  52. samwide says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    No one would campaign in places like Iowa, New Hampshire

    Some might say the only reason anyone campaigns in those places now is because of the timing of the primaries and such. Certainly not because anyone really wants to.

  53. @Andre Kenji: Yes, it is worth noting that Iowa and New Hampshire’s significance is not an artifact of the EC, but rather is an artifact of the nomination process.

  54. Andre Kenji says:

    “I think the Senate is more than enough to protect the special interests of small/low-pop states (such as, y’know, my own). ”

    That creates a problem to middle sized states.

  55. Michael says:

    No one would campaign in places like Iowa, New Hampshire and Western PA under the Popular vote.

    They wouldn’t make campaign stops there, no, but they would still have to try and appeal to those voters. In fact, they would have to appeal to them more under a popular vote, since they couldn’t write them off as being a sure win or loss.

    The popular vote places more power to bigger states.

    To be more specific, it places more power in the more populous states. In fact, it allocates power in direct proportion to the number of residents eligible to vote. The point being made is that his is the ideal, not a negative.

  56. Andre Kenji says:

    “That was actually kind of my point. The suburb factor matters as well. ”

    Yes, but you have a lot of people living in medium and small sized cities.

  57. Andre Kenji says:

    Iowa and New Hampshire maybe. But not Colorado, New Mexico, North Carolina, most of PA, etc.

  58. @Steven L. Taylor:

    it strikes me as philosophically inconsistent to claim a position predicated on the sanctity of the individual and individual liberty at the same time state that one of the most fundamental political decisions US citizens can make is to allocated in a way that some individuals count more than others.

    I don’t think libertarianism locks you into advocating any particular form of government, or system of selecting leaders. When one is forming a government, there are a host of factors to consider, including the question of balancing interests and protecting minority’s from the Tyranny of the Majority.

    Moreover, I would disagree with any suggestion that libertarianism requires “democracy” since the very nature of the ideas presumes living the powers of the government, even if that government was selected by a majority of the people and wants to do something supported by the majority.

  59. @Doug Mataconis:

    Moreover, I would disagree with any suggestion that libertarianism requires “democracy”

    Apart from anarchy, I am not sure what your options are, regime-wise.

    And I would note, democracy properly understood, includes some form of protection for minority rights.

  60. @Doug Mataconis: Also, I am not sure you have actually addressed my claim.

  61. “So please explain to me how this is any different with fraud when the federal government is running the election. It seems to me that any fraud in any situation threatens the legitimacy of the system. Such is the nature of fraud”

    A fraud in the EC affects only the state. In the EV, it affects the whole system. A small state controlled by one party(Wyoming or Vermont) could “create” votes just to benefit a national candidate.

  62. Boyd says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa: Fraudulent votes can be created by unscrupulous individuals regardless of whether they work for the state or the US government. In fact, with the popular vote, then the fraudulent votes affect the entire system.

    Your response makes no sense.

  63. An Interested Party says:

    So because you’re a mod you got to toss in gratutious insults.

    Pointing out an obvious truth is hardly a “gratutious insult” or even a “gratuitous insult”…

    First, Pennsylvania should go back to the old way and just lest the state legislature choose their elector. Ron Beasley’s head might explode.

    Making the votes of millions of people utterly meaningless would make many heads explode…

  64. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I would note, democracy properly understood, includes some form of protection for minority rights.

    Why? It seems to me that democracy in it’s purest form has no respect at all for minority rights. This is why the founding fathers put strict limits on the rights of the majority and why the antifederalists insisted on having individual and minority rights expressly stated.

    -Polaris

  65. @Polaris: Well, you would be incorrect. Democracy does not mean crude and simplistic majoritarianism.

  66. Polaris says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I would note, democracy properly understood, includes some form of protection for minority rights.

    Demos==People, cracy==government.

    Why doesn’t “democracy” mean simple majoritarianism. It did for Athens and other ancient city states that first followed this (except ‘citizen’ was closely restricted so in practice I suppose they were really oligarchies.

    I see nothing in the term “Democracy” that says it has to respect minority rights whatsoever….only the modern western european ideal….which probably comes from governments that called themselves “democracies” but were really republics.

    -Polaris

  67. @Polaris: Well, a couple of thoughts:

    1) Complex concepts are rarely that easy to define (i.e., look at the Greek, in this case, root, and there you have it). Again: you have claimed to have an academic background in previous thread, so surely you know that this is the case. I could provide a rather lengthy lists of readings if you like.

    2) Your example of Athens, actually, is not so simply understood as simple majoritarianism.

    3) As a practical matter, there is no example in the whole world of a “democracy” that functions a crude, simple majortiarianism. It is rather difficult to have democracy withouth protections for political minorities.

  68. Polaris says:

    I was making a point in an admittedly somewhat snarky way, but I will concede that Democracy for many (including political scientists it seems) has come to mean more than the root meaning of the word suggests. I would also suggest though that this has been a corruption of meaning. That isn’t a bad thing. Words mutate their meanings all the time with usage and understanding.

    I think a lot of the reason for this is people (and I think you’d agree with this) tend to equate “Democracy==good; undemocratic==bad”.

    I am trying to get others (including you Steve) to reconsider. I don’t think democracy in of itself is the force for unvarnished good everyone thinks it is, and “redefining” the word is IMHO the worst sort of refuge. If it pleases you, I’d say that “Majority Rule” is not universally a good thing and if you understand Democracy to mean such (and I think you’d find most people do at some level), then some checks on democracy are needed. Madison certainly thought so.

    -Polaris

  69. mattb says:

    @Polaris:

    Democracy for many (including political scientists it seems) has come to mean more than the root meaning of the word suggests. I would also suggest though that this has been a corruption of meaning.

    I’m having a hard time with the concept that words have a core “root meaning” that can be directly indicated by their construction. That seems to be a naive (or perhaps vulgar) objectivist view of language. Ditto the idea that a deviation from a 1:1 match of root structure is a “corruption” of meaning.

    Put a different way, can you even prove the “original” or “natural” meaning of democracy? And simply pointing to it’s construction from two root Greek phrases is not doing that.

  70. Andre Kenji says:

    “Fraudulent votes can be created by unscrupulous individuals regardless of whether they work for the state or the US government. In fact, with the popular vote, then the fraudulent votes affect the entire system.”

    Fraudelent votes makes little difference in states like Alabama or Vermont. I would make a lot of difference in a PV.

  71. @Polaris: I am sincerely curious now as to your educational background, as I find it difficult to believe that you think that a concept can be understood via one very simplistic interpretation of an ancient version of a word. By that logic the true meaning of “democracy” can only be had by looking back 1000s of year to the very first coinage of the word in ancient Greek.

  72. mattb says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It seems to me that Polaris is the type of person who would push the idea that Saul Alinksi’s is an important an influential figure in the field of Political Science.

  73. Fargus says:

    A fundamental problem here: Polaris has a different dictionary than everybody else. One where “disenfranchisement” doesn’t mean that people’s votes don’t count, but rather that they don’t get sufficient attention from presidential candidates during the campaign process. There is absolutely no honest reading of history where disenfranchisement is defined that way.

  74. @mattb: Methinks you have a point.

  75. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s not really useful arguing with Doug and Polaris. One is falling back on the status quo argument, showing his bias, while the other is speaking in tongues.

    So much for free market ideology. In business, sure! In elections, it’s always been done this way!