Some Electoral College Thoughts
It really is rife with problems.
James Joyner’s post on consternation over potential third party runs at the White House in 2024 got me thinking about the Electoral College and how it influences third party development and general political behavior in the United States. Plus, I think some key points are worth emphasizing or, in some cases, raising yet again.
Here we go.
What are the Alternatives?
Setting aside the obvious difficulties of change, what are other ways we could elect the president? Presidents around the world are elected via the popular vote, with the two main options being via a plurality (i.e., simply majority or the candidate with the most votes wins even if they do not get 50%+1) or via an absolute majority (requiring 50%+1 of the vote) which is usually accomplished via a run-off but could also be done via instant run-off. There are some variations and tweaks that are possible within these systems (such as allowing a plurality winner if one of the candidates hits a certain percentage, say 40%, but having a run-off if no candidate hits that mark).
We could also tweak the Electoral College. A current proposal, the National Popular Vote Compact, would require states to award their electoral votes in accordance with the national popular vote outcome. Without getting into how this would happen, and what the odds of it happening are, I will simply note that it is possible to retain the structure of the EC but to have the popular vote be the guiding determinant of the allocation of the electoral vote.
Other tweaks include changing the allocation of electoral votes by using the district method, as is the case in Maine and Nebraska. That, however, would be a terrible idea because it would mean that EC would be subject to gerrymandering and all of the electoral pathologies associated with the election of Congress that I often write about. This system is often described in the press as “proportional” but it isn’t.
We could, theoretically allocate the electoral vote per state in a truly proportional fashion, which would be an improvement over the current situation, but would still have several distortions associated with the size of some districts (i.e., the states) and the existing distortion created by each state having two electors automatically regardless of population size. The fact that the House is far too small a chamber given our population growth since the early Twentieth Century is also a problem.
Understanding What the EC Really is
I often complain about the usage of single-seat districts and plurality winners in the US electoral system. But the only thing worse, from a democratic point of view, is the usage of multi-seat districts with plurality winners, which is what we have in the Electoral College. While we in the United States tend to think of the Electoral College as some unique process to elect the executive (and it is) it really should be properly understood as a very peculiar system to elect a collective body like a legislature. This may be immediately obvious to some readers, but it is certainly not the way most voters conceive of it. But consider, the elections of the EC are really 51 individual multi-seat plurality elections plus five single-seat plurality elections. Note that Maine and Nebraska send two electors statewide per state (multi-seat districts) and then have district-level elections for the rest (two in Maine and three in Nebraska). So, there are really 56 total elections that determine who gets the electors.
As such, the state of Texas, for example, is one district with a magnitude (as we say in electoral studies) of 40 (based on its 38 House seats, and its two Senate seats). All of the seats (electors) elected in Texas are allocated on the basis of who wins the plurality of votes in Texas. This also means that each of the 56 elections are winner-take-all, and in 51 of those elections the winner takes multiple electors as a unit).
The Core Problem
For voters to matter, their votes have to be of some mathematical significance to the candidates. This is a major component of democratic accountability. The more that candidates, and by extension elected officials, can ignore certain voters, the worse the quality of democracy.
Indeed, the above sentence encapsulates the core criticism I have of American democracy, as it applies across the board. Only some voters matter. Worse, as I repeatedly note, the ones that tend to matter the most are in the primaries, not the general (this is especially true for congressional elections).
The structure of the Electoral College, contrary to popular mythologizing, does not force candidates to pay attention to small states, nor does it require them to pay attention to a mixture of different kinds of states. Rather, it causes them only to care about competitive states (except when it comes to fundaraising), the number of which are small relative to the whole.
While Republicans will complain that the if we engaged in a national popular vote for president that their voters would be ignored and that the system would be dominated (as the lament often goes) by “New York and California” or, more ominously, “Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago” the reality is that all a national popular vote would do is require candidates to see all voters as worth their attention–including a lot of Republican voters who are currently utterly ignored.
While the bogeymen of urban blue states may haunt the dreams of some Republicans, allow me to note that Texas and Florida are large population red states. But, more importantly, there are millions of Republican voters in blue states. Indeed, one of the pernicious effects of the EC is to lock us all into a mentality that a state is red or blue without thinking about the voters inside those shapes who are not all one thing or the other.
In 2020, Trump won 6,006,429 votes in California. That is the most votes he won in any state, even Texas where we won 5,890,347. His CA total is only slightly higher than than what he won in deep red AL, TN, and NC combined (6,052,420).
Third Party Thoughts
While it is true that the EC’s plurality-winning processes make it less attractive for third parties to form and compete, I would still argue, as I have repeatedly, that the primary system is more responsible for the lack of third parties. The entry cost is lower, and the potential reward is radically higher, to try and enter the presidential election process via the primaries. And the porousness of the parties further incentivizes that behavior (which was a core point of my recent post about RFK, Jr.).
I think it is also true that, unlike the dynamics in two-round presidential elections, there is no space in the US system for alliances to form between third parties and the two major parties, which further diminishes the incentives for third party formation.
In other words: there is no room to really win much of anything (not states, not electors, not influence, and certainly not the presidency) as a third party candidate. And if what you really want is attention and air time, best to run in one of the two major party primaries.