Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Electoral College is a wonderful institution for federalism and democracy

I made my case for why I like the Electoral College the other day.

Now Garrett Jones offers his take. Here's a great line from it:

"As it stands, presidential candidates are trying to appeal to the median voter in each state across a large number of states. That's how you get to be president. This reduces regional tensions because candidates are never trying to get 90% of the votes in a state."

He makes essentially the same point - in a federation you want consensus across the states, not just across the people. The one reform I'd support is giving electoral votes for each member of the House, not doing this House plus Senate thing that makes someone from Wyoming get a stronger vote for president than a Texan. But the winner take all nature of it - the insistence that Virginians get together and decide democratically who the commonwealth of Virginia will back - is very important.

Does any other country do it like this? I for one think the Electoral College was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the founders (not their only stroke of brilliance, of course).


  1. I personally think of republicanism when I think of the electoral college. I also believe that the purpose of the electoral college was to dilute democracy as much as possible to prevent an "overbearing majority", whilst also allowing each faction to have its influence.

    The founders knew the downfalls of democracy well, so their constructs were often an attempt to create somewhat of a hybrid system whereby the people have a say, much like that found in a democracy, but that the detriments of mob-rule are lessened by the implementation of indirect electoral processes.

    I must say that, as with any system, there is still the opportunity for corruption.

    As for your "reform", I can certainly see that you seek more democracy, which is much of what the founders were trying to avoid.

  2. With the sophisticated targeting to get to 270 electoral votes, I'm not so sure that the electoral college drives to wanting to appeal to the median voter in all states. In addition as we saw in 2000 the popular vote winner may lose the electoral vote, and have a tarnished mandate as a result. So, I'm not sure I'm convinced.

  3. Bruce: Let me assure you, the Electoral College misfires a lot less than alternative systems -- winning the College but not the popular vote happens about one in 25 elections, so not often.

    I see the Electoral College as one of the more "Venetian" aspects of the system Madison designed -- a good model, since the Venetian Republic way outlasted any other in duration.

  4. Since the Electoral College does not function as intended to credit the Founders is silly.

    By someone insightful, it only takes about 30 minutes of reading American history to come to understand three things.

    1. Like the Sherman Plan, the primary intent of the College was to preserve Slavery.

    2. The sole reason that the Constitution is "republican" was to preserve slavery

    3. Because of the Sherman Plan and the Electoral College the Constitution is fundamentally flawed. Those flaws caused the Civil War because, on the one hand, a majority of Citizens could not end slavery but a minority could elect Lincoln who did (that is madness)

    The root source of our current situation is the reverse of the good luck we had by the election of Lincoln as President.

    The Electoral College gave us Bush II and the Sherman Plan has given us a right wing wack job Congress. To Defend either the Sherman Plan or the Electoral College you have to defend Bush II and mitch mcconnell: you judge a political system by the leaders its produces, the results of their governing, etc.

    Last, you claim to be an economist, albeit I sell little evidence of such. If you were, you would look at the Sherman Plan and the Electoral College through the lens of location economics. Look at the split taking place between regions with high educational achievement and low achievement. Go to Angry Bear, which has some of the studies. Cities like Austin where college grads make 50% more than college grads in Flint Mich or StL or Cleveland. Translate that into political reality.

    Last, your argument about "regional" differences is bogus. No underlying facts drive to any "regional" differences. What pray tell are the "regional" differences of worthy of constitutional recognition?

  5. The president is the president of everyone equally, regardless of one's state. There are already people to represent interests at the state level (and some of them happen to comprise the most malapportioned representative body in the world). I don't see why that should be the president's job, too. If that means that campaigning in a purely popular election would consist of hunkering down mostly in cities, so be it; that's where most people are, after all.

    Also, I would support a significant revision of the role of the Senate, (if not its outright abolition) concurrent with an expansion of the House such that the person/representative ratio drops to something like 100k. Maybe even less. I think the great compromise was a poor choice, and so is the bizarre, cultic emphasis on the founders' intent that pervades American discourse, as though some 18th century landowners somehow ate from the tree of knowledge and then chopped it down to deny future generations its fruit — cherries, perhaps.

    1. I agree, but you're sort of wishing for ponies here. If we're enumerating the ponies we want, let's scrap our arcane constitution, move to a parliamentary system with a prime minister, allow state lines to be redrawn with changes in population, and make amendment fairly simple.

    2. Why would that be better though? Anyone who knows and understands Westminster style systems recognizes that they're full of problems too. Everywhere is tradition bound, which make change hard. But, just as difficult is finding what to change to get real improvement, it's not simple.

    3. That's a good question. It depends what you think representative government should do.

      If your answer is, "as little as possible," then a system with supermajority requirements, first-past the post elections, entrenched change-averse interests, and lots of veto points might be good. Except that it stopped achieving the desired outcome in the 20th centuries, as the executive and the supreme court both, in their own way, pulled end runs around the "checks and balances."

      If your answer is, like mine, "to represent and balance the interests of different groups and classes in society, including marginal groups," then a parliamentary system with proportional representation and the power to act is better. I'm a bit biased, as I'd prefer a system where social democrats and libertarians could have viable parties in government.

      Not that it matters: reverence for the constitution is too baked in. Only some kind of grave war crisis could see it done away with de jure.

  6. I don't think the electoral colleges are a good idea.

    I can see the argument that various different areas should have a voice that isn't in close relationship to their population. So, in some sparsely populated areas a vote may have more weight than in more densely populated areas. In the UK that's done by varying the size of the constituencies. So, English constituencies had ~72K people in them, Scottish ~67K, Welsh ~57K and Northern Irish ~66K. There are a few special cases too, so a vote in the Western Isles is worth 5 times that of a vote on the Isle of Wight.

    In practice what this has led to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland becoming very dependent on England. Some say this is because of low population density in those places, I don't believe that, the Republic of Ireland where I live has lower population density. Successive governments have spent lots of money in those places to encourage those electorate to vote to re-elect them.

    In the UK this is all changing, at the next election many boundaries have been redrawn to make most constituencies in most of the UK a similar size. The idea being that devolved parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be the replacement for their extra weight at Westminster. We'll see how it works out. What's certain is that it'll benefit the Conservatives.

  7. You lost credibility in understanding the issue and being able to proclaim "the Electoral College was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the founders" by saying "The one reform I'd support is giving electoral votes for each member of the House, not doing this House plus Senate thing " That "thing" is mandated by the Founding Fathers in the U.S. Constitution.

    If you support the current presidential election system, believing it is what the Founders intended and that it is in the Constitution, then you are mistaken The current presidential election system does not function, at all, the way that the Founders thought that it would.

    Since 1796, the Electoral College has had the form, but not the substance, of the deliberative body envisioned by the Founders. The electors now are dedicated party activists of the winning party who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

  8. The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

  9. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80% of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the conventions.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    With National Popular Vote, the United States would still be a republic, in which citizens continue to elect the President by a majority of Electoral College votes by states, to represent us and conduct the business of government in the periods between elections.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

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