NPV vs. Your Vote

Friday, July 25, 2008

Mike recently discussed the latest effort to abolish the Electoral College, noting among other things that John F. Kennedy saved it from oblivion at the hands of the Republicans half a century ago. He excerpts the following from Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe:

In 1956, a Republican proposal to abolish the Electoral College was defeated after a vigorous defense by Sen. John F. Kennedy, who declared that "direct election would break down the federal system under which most states entered the union, which provides a system of checks and balances to ensure that no area or group shall obtain too much power."
Nearly four years ago, I considered the question of whether the Electoral College still serves a useful role, after my wife and I talked about it.

Given that electors usually rubber stamp the popular election results of their respective states, this is a fair question. What I found was that a mathematician by the name of Alan Natapoff actually published a mathematical proof that a system of corralling votes into districts (as the Electoral College does) serves -- contrary to popular misconception -- to preserve the power of the individual vote.

An article about the proof, "Math against Tyranny", puts the gist of it into laymen's terms in this way:
The same logic that governs our electoral system, [Natapoff] saw, also applies to many sports--which Americans do, intuitively, understand. In baseball's World Series, for example, the team that scores the most runs overall is like a candidate who gets the most votes. But to become champion, that team must win the most games.


Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states. The Yankees won three blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0), but they couldn’t come up with the runs they needed in the other four games, which were close. "And that’s exactly how Cleveland lost the series of 1888," Natapoff continues. "Grover Cleveland. He lost the five largest states by a close margin, though he carried Texas, which was a thinly populated state then, by a large margin. So he scored more runs, but he lost the five biggies." And that was fair, too. In sports, we accept that a true champion should be more consistent than the 1960 Yankees. A champion should be able to win at least some of the tough, close contests by every means available--bunting, stealing, brilliant pitching, dazzling plays in the field--and not just smack home runs against second-best pitchers. A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a single issue to isolated blocs of voters.
In the sense that it protects our ability to cast effective votes, then, the Electoral College is valuable and worth preserving. But, as the saying goes, "A republic, if you can keep it." As valuable as the Electoral College and many of our other institutions of government are, they cannot guarantee that we will even have a choice. That is a function of what the broader culture is looking for in a President, as reflected by who gets nominated.

Four years ago, I said, "We are at war and the Electoral College might some day save us from choosing a bad commander-in-chief." Too late for that this time, I am afraid. To ensure better choices in the future, we who value individual rights must work to change the culture.

We should fight to preserve the Electoral College, yes. But we must also fight the cultural trends of which such efforts as National Popular Vote are a symptom.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

Gus, the Detroit Free Press's appeal for "Apportioning electoral votes" conveniently dismisses the 'check and balance' (as in voting fraud) role of the current process.

Also, in an era when online voting may be just around the corner and online spamming and fraud are rampant, the Press's timing could harldy be more inappropriate.

On at least one occasion I recall your gratuitously bashing the founders' notion of States Rights. I am heartened that we both now seem to support Mike's conclusion:

"To do away with the EC is to dissolve state borders and I think any politician who gives it a second thought would reject the idea."

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you for writing in, but not for putting words into my mouth.

To agree that states serve a useful governmental purpose is not, on my part, to condone the various fallacious "states rights" arguments that have been used throughout American history by charlatans of all stripes to excuse individual states violating individual rights.

My criticisms of states rights (such as this one) stand.


"The only valid application of the notion of states' rights is to permit states to handle relatively unimportant matters as they see fit. This allows, for example, a thinly-populated state like Nebraska to have a unicameral legislature, or a state originally settled by the French, like Louisiana, to base its legal system on Napoleonic Code rather than English Common Law. In neither case are individual rights being violated."

Anonymous said...

The bill would make every vote politically relevant in a presidential election. It would make every vote equal.

Senator Birch Bayh (D–Indiana) summed up the concerns about possible fraud in a nationwide popular election for President in a Senate speech by saying in 1979, "one of the things we can do to limit fraud is to limit the benefits to be gained by fraud. Under a direct popular vote system, one fraudulent vote wins one vote in the return. In the electoral college system, one fraudulent vote could mean 45 electoral votes, 28 electoral votes."

In Illinois in the 1960s, accusation of vote fraud by both political parties were commonplace. In 1960, a switch of 4,430 votes in Illinois and a switch 4,782 votes in South Carolina would have given Nixon a majority of the electoral votes. However, 4,430 votes in Illinois were only a focus of controversy in 1960 because of the statewide winner-take-all rule. John F. Kennedy led Richard M. Nixon by 118,574 popular votes nationwide, so 4,430 votes were not decisive in terms of the national vote count. Of course, if Nixon had carried Illinois and a state such as South Carolina in 1960, Nixon would have won a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, despite not receiving a majority of the popular votes nationwide.

The National Popular Vote bill has been approved by 20 legislative chambers (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Vermont). It has been enacted into law in Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These states have 50 (19%) of the 270 electoral votes needed to bring this legislation into effect.



Gus Van Horn said...


Thank you for stopping by. Your comments may be true in fact, but they fail to address Natapoff's argument.

And as for the long list of states that support this legislation, it, too is irrelevant -- except as a warning. To anyone who understands (and is grateful for the fact) that we live in a federal republic, and not a democracy, this amount of headway by NPV is bad news.