Bypassing the Electoral College

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Massachusetts has joined an effort started some time ago to basically do away with the Electoral College:

Once states accounting for a majority of the electoral votes (or 270 of 538) have enacted the laws, the candidate winning the most votes nationally would be assured a majority of Electoral College votes. That would hold true no matter how the other states vote and how their electoral votes are distributed.

Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, Maryland, and Washington have already approved the legislation, according to the National Popular Vote campaign's website.
State senate minority leader Richard Tisei says of the idea that it is "one of the worst ideas that has surfaced and actually garnered some support." Indeed it is. And physicist Alan Natapoff once actually proved (and Will Hively of Discover Magazine explained in layman's terms) that the electoral college is a valuable check against tyranny.

-- CAV


: Shea Levy raises some interesting points I hadn't thought of in the comments.


Shea Levy said...

Hi Gus,

I haven't read the detailed mathematical arguments, but the layman's description includes the oft-repeated World Series analogy, which analogy I think fails to hold water in an individualist society.

In the baseball analogy, the question raised is: should a team who gets the most points win, or a team who wins the most games? In the context of the sport, the answer is clear, especially given that a)each game involves a different combination of teams and b)the games are self-contained units in the sense that factors that affect one part of the game (weather, low morale, an injury, etc.) are likely to affect another part of the same game, but not necessarily any part of another game.

Does these factors hold water when brought over to voting? I don't see how. First of all, everyone "plays" every time someone votes (the voter may vote for whomever he chooses), so one "team" trouncing another can't be written off as "well, you just didn't play against the best guys". More importantly, though, is the fact that there is nothing inherent in a state-wide voting pool that makes it more apt to be considered a "game" than an individual vote, or a city-wide voting pool, or a nation-wide voting pool. The factors that are relevant to MY vote are not tied to the factors that are relevant to my neighbour's vote any less than they are tied to the factors that are relevant to the vote of a man across the country. So why is a state-wide pool of votes a game? Why not consider the reasons affecting individual voters as the "points", and the individual vote the "game"? Or maybe we should drop the analogy altogether (especially since many people interpret it as if the state were a team, but the state doesn't win or lose, the politicians do).

As I was writing this I read over more of the article you linked, and the mathematician's proof is based on the idea of "voting power", which in his view is the chance of a single vote deciding the election, which is equivalent to the chance that the rest of the vote is deadlocked and your vote is the decision maker. He then discusses the increases in power that come to the individual if the electorate is overall skewed toward one candidate or the other (he admits there is no difference if voting is merely a coin flip). On average, then, voting power increases if there are smaller contests.

There are several problems with this (if this article is an accurate representation of the proof, which in my experience with popularized math is not a given): 1. Voting power may increase on average, but it must necessarily decrease for some. If you are in favour of candidate A in a state that heavily favours candidate B, you have effectively no power, whereas if you are in favour of candidate A in a state that is evenly split you have quite a bit. Why is it just to give more power to some voters because of the views of those who live near him? In a "count the votes" election, each individual vote has the same (admittedly small) power 2. Why should we limit ourselves to dividing by state? Why not by city, town, or household? Or why not go bigger, to dividing by region (midwest, atlantic, etc.) much like sports leagues? What is it about dividing by state that gives it special status?

Note that these questions are relevant only in the current scenario, where the electors have no choice but to follow the will of the majority of their districts (or states in a winner-takes-all case). If electors could make their own decisions, the case might be different.

Shea Levy said...

I seem to be having a problem posting comments. Did you get my previous comment on this post?

Gus Van Horn said...


Regarding your second and easier comment first: I moderate comments, so unless I'm logged in and not occupied with something else, they won't show up until I read and approve them.

Now, on to your first comment. If I recall correctly, the reason the EC was originally set up as it was, was (as with the makeup of the Senate) to make it harder for states with large populations to dominate the smaller states, and my sense of this argument -- assuming it's represented correctly AND we take voting power at face value as relevant) is that that is what he proved. Sadly, I also haven't seen the actual proof, so I could be wrong.

You do raise a good point in asking about why someone should get a boost just because his neighbors are more evenly divided than, say, in some deep blue or red state, and in doing so, you expose what I think could be a fatal flaw in this argument (i.e., that it doesn't inherently protect against tyranny) -- which in my haste this morning I simply remember having found convincing back in '04 when I first encountered it.

I'll note in passing that the measure struck me as possibly unconstitutional for disenfranchising voters -- except that states don't have to use elections to choose their electors, and this isn't strictly speaking, an election.

I'll have to reread the piece and think about this some more. Thanks for your comment.


Anonymous said...

The National Popular Vote bill would end the disproportionate attention and influence of the "mob" in a handful of closely divided battleground states, such as Florida, while the "mobs" of the vast majority of states are ignored. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in just 15 closely divided "battleground" states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in these 15 "battleground" states.

The current system does not provide some kind of check on the "mobs." There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. The electors are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

Gus Van Horn said...

"There have been 22,000 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 10 have been cast for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector's own political party. The electors are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges."

I can see how it would end disproportionate attention to a few states to have a direct vote, but you neither explain why having so few "rogue electors" is bad, nor how a direct election would fix it.

Sure. Perhaps my original position was wrong. But my impression of this drive is that it is supported by leftists, for whom this would (usually) be a boon. Should Obama be as unpopular in 2012 as he is now, I shall enjoy watching California, Massachusetts, et al. bright red on the electoral map, and this drive go up in smoke.

Alexander V. Marriott, ABD said...

Just to answer Shea's quibble over the how the republic is subdivided. This seems a clear case of historical obliviousness and a missing piece of crucial republican political theory (derived almost entirely from historical experience)--namely the division of delegated sovereignty. The existence of the states as the repositories of the remaining delegated sovereignty of the people (the portion not delegated to the federal government) was considered to be an essential and necessary element of preserving republican liberty in America. Very small polities, like cities, were thought far more prone to tyrannical excess (at the time of the founding the smallest state, Rhode Island, was ridiculed by the rest of the country for corruption and political chicanery).

We are citizens of states for some purposes and the whole country for other purposes. The reasons for the electoral college were numerous, ranging from the fact that the Presidency was a tremendously powerful position and the only one placed in the hands of the people (indirectly) as a whole to the delay that ensued between the election and the meeting of the electors in case something occurred requiring the electors to deviate from their intended course (such as death of a candidate or a crippling revelation of intent, character, etc.) Also, no one at the outset actually thought there would be nationwide campaigns for the office by entrenched political parties, so some of the problems posed to the checks they devised were wholly unanticipated, the electoral college is not exempt on this score. Another consideration now all but absent from our thinking was that the only way to ensure that states didn't merely all vote for their own native favorites, the electors were constitutionally enjoined to cast two votes, one of which had to be for the resident of another states--this was modified by the 12th amendment, but even now the President and Vice-President cannot be residents of the same state. But, the general thinking was that tyranny of all sorts deserved to be checked. The President would be an immensely powerful person endowed with the aura of representing the entire country. Unlike the legislature, he was always at work and was the active force of the government. He appointed the entire judiciary subject only to approval by the Senate and, above all, was constitutionally empowered as the commander-in-chief of all the republic's armed forces. Any way to make his selection as cautious and deliberative as possible was considered a sine qua non to the creation of the office in its singular form.

As to the notion that the current system distorts the relative weight of some votes over others--so what? In any election the votes of everyone who votes for the loser is nugatory. The 14th amendment was not adopted with the idea of obliterating the fact that in national elections, voters voted nationally in their respective States. The notion of “one man, one vote” is a truism in the American republic of limited application since this is not a democracy. And voting in a presidential election is neither an inexorable right of human existence, nor a duty enjoined on citizens nonetheless bound by the laws that President is charged to execute.

Finally, let me reiterate, under no state inspired "reform" of elector selection, can electors be prevented from acting as they wish when they meet as electors. States have attempted to impose such restrictions, but so far there has been no cause to challenge those laws in court. If there was, I'm quite certain they would be declared unconstitutional, since the states are simply enjoined for devising means of selecting the electors, not assuring whom the electors vote for. If a candidate died or was suddenly revealed a traitor or a foreign born alien or something of that nature, the electors would be bound by nothing in selecting someone else, except their own deliberative good judgment.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for adding your thoughtful comment to this discussion.

One bit of clarification seems necessary on my part: I think the previous commenter was complaining that there were too FEW "rogue" electors.

Of course, you might have sensed that he was complaining ABOUT such electors and were nipping in the bud the notion that states would somehow gain control over their electors through this measure -- which, as you rightly indicate, they wouldn't.


Anonymous said...

I feel the electorial college was for protecting the country unity not an individual voter. It was to provide a balance between the less populated areas that were agrarian in nature( having their own set on intrest that differed from those living in the more populated cities). The idea that NOT everyone got to vote was also to protect our liberty. Only people with skin in the game were allowed to vote, aka Property owners, assuring that the politicians wouldn't have as easy of a time robbing the treasury to buy votes from the poor and the ignorant. They were wise!

Jim said...

I approve of the Electoral College. In fact, I would like the option of voting none-of-the-above so that none of the listed candidates would get my state's vote and instead the process would function as originally intended, whether other states do so or not.

Gus Van Horn said...


You're right about the intent of the EC, but the question here is really, "Does it achieve its intent?"

Regarding whether only property owners ought to vote, I will say that I find the idea appealing for the reason you mention, but that I haven't thought about that enough to say whether we should do that again.


Your idea, too sounds appealing, although I wonder whether it could backfire in today's cultural context, given the slates of party hacks who end up being electors.