11 August 2007

how should the electoral college be set up?

States Try to Alter How Presidents Are Elected, by Jennifer Steinhauer, today's New York Times.

Apparently factions in California and North Carolina are both considering apportioning their electoral votes by Congressional district instead of by state; this CNN article explains it a bit better. This is the same plan that's currently used in Nebraska and Maine, except that people just accept that as a strange quirk of the system because Nebraska and Maine are small, fairly homogeneous states, while California and North Carolina are not. The people in favor of these plans are pitching them as a matter of giving the states in question more representation. (More specifically, it's the minority party in both states that's pitching the plan that way, and so partisan politics clouds the issue; but I'll ignore that.)

But what is "representation", really? It seems to me like it comes down to this question: what is the probability that California can change the outcome of the election? In the current system, essentially zero; I suspect this election might be close, and a Democratic margin of victory will be slim enough that if California were to go Republican that would hand the presidency to the Republicans -- but California as a whole is not going to vote Republican. But in this new system, if it goes through? Now there's a little more of a chance for California to have some influence, because a few congressional districts might actually be in play. But the potential number of electoral votes that might actually be in play still is small; most districts are safe for one party or the other, thanks to gerrymandering. I will not attempt to compute the probability that I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph -- any calculation I can do assumes that districts vote independently of each other, which clearly isn't the case.

I live in Pennsylvania. The presidential candidates in 2008 will pay attention to me, since Pennsylvania is seen as a "swing state". But I live in a district (the 2nd) in which the current Congressional representative, Chaka Fattah, routinely receives 85% or more of the vote. The last time this district elected a Republican was sixty years ago. If a plan like this were to go through in Pennsylvania, you can bet presidential candidates won't care about my vote any more. On the other hand, there are some districts in the Philadelphia suburbs which will probably be quite close; the people in those districts become even more influential.

(A superficially similar plan was attempted in Colorado in 2004, which would have alloted the state's electoral vote in proportion to the popular vote. This would clearly have been a loss for Colorado, since it meant that basically, instead of the people's votes deciding whether Colorado's electoral votes would be split 0-9 or 9-0, they were deciding whether they'd be split 4-5 or 5-4.)

It's not immediately obvious that this plan, should it pass in California, disenfranchises the state of California as a whole. Let's say (and I'm making this number up) that ten of California's 53 districts are actually in play. The people in those ten districts suddenly get some attention from presidential candidates. And perhaps a plan like this could actually work if all states had it. I can actually imagine that it might bring some measure of relevancy back to the politically heterogeneous parts of the state. Perhaps it even makes sense, on a state-by-state basis, for "safe" states to pass this sort of plan (since it gives some part of them influence) while "battleground" states don't (since it just shifts the influence around).

But I don't think it makes sense for the various states to be choosing how they'll allot their electors based on some probabilistic calculation. That would create the perception that the elections were unfair in one way or another, and the perception of fairness is as important as actual fairness. People need to believe that the political system has the interests of the people at heart. A complex pastiche in which some states apportion their votes by congressional district, some winner-take-all, some in proportion with the popular vote in that state, etc. -- even if each state chooses its system in such a way as to maximize the probability that its choices can flip the election -- isn't the way to go.

I don't support the idea, though. If it were to happen, I would want to see redistricting to eliminate gerrymandering, but even so you'd still end up with homogeneous districts in some places. And I suspect that a lot less people would live in "swing districts" than currently live in "swing states". The obvious way to make sure that everybody lives in a "swing district" is to have the "district" in question be the entire country; that is, to just count the national popular vote. And indeed, there's an ingenious hack of the Electoral College which would do just this without a Constitutional amendment. The goal of the National Popular Vote Project is to get bills passed in states representing 270 electoral votes that say that those states will give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote -- but only if states representing 270 electoral votes have passed such a law. This seems like the fairest way to do things, to me; I understand that the purpose of the current system is to make sure that the concerns of all states are paid attention to and that a candidate can't just pile up votes in the big states and ignore the small ones, but that's not how it works right now.

A nationwide recount sounds scary, though...


Flooey said...

Just to give another spin on this, as a former Californian, this type of plan is largely about one of two things. The first you mentioned, which is the minority party (the Republicans in this case, probably the Democrats in North Carolina) attempting to figure out a way where they can eke some votes out of California without running Ronald Reagan. The second, though, is that right now, basically no money is spent in states like California and Texas because it's not worth anything, and a lot of people would like there to be a reason to do so (both Democrats and Republicans).

Max said...

The whole gerrymandering/electoral college thing seems rather bizarre up here... We divide the country into 300-some odd ridings, each of which is represented by one Member of Parliament, and each one is voted for separately and locally. The boundaries themselves are set by Elections Canada (I believe), and aren't subject to the same political interference.

Take a look at this map:
Each riding represents about 100,000 people.

Isabel said...


you've got a good point. It would be interesting to see, say, California and Texas agreeing to both do this (I'm assuming that the number of Republicans in California and the number of Democrats in Texas are similar), which wouldn't upset the partisan balance.

Roger said...

The goal of the National Popular Vote Project is to let someone get the presidency with just a plurality of the popular vote, without anyone actually winning the popular vote.

Blake Stacey said...

Some interesting items perhaps worth perusal:

Mathematician Alan Natapoff on the Electoral College.

Author David Brin on gerrymandering.

Anonymous said...

quote["... People need to believe that the political system has the interests of the people at heart. "]

... if the 'political system' does NOT have the interests of the people at heart, precisely WHY would they "need" to believe a falsehood ? People need the actuality of system that truly represents them -- not an empty 'belief' system.

The U.S. political-system indeed has not represented the interests of Americans for many, many decades. The election system is corrupt from top to bottom; however, the Electoral College process is one of the few more honest aspects remaining.

The American Electoral-College process is constantly criticized by those oblivious to the origin of the 'United States' nation and its "federal" structure. America is a federation of individual sovereign states; popularly elected 'representatives' from each state together elect the chief executive of their federation -- the "President of the United States". Complaints against the Electoral-College are basically complaints against the concept of representative-government and the federal-republic form of government.

Currently, the 'popular vote' winner within each state receives ALL of a state’s Electoral-College votes... known as the "Unit-Vote Rule". Therefore, in a very real sense, the Electoral-College system does reflect the popular vote of the citizenry.
Canada, Britain and other parliamentary government systems certainly do NOT elect their national leaders by direct popular vote either, but I've never heard any American similarly criticize those systems.

There is nothing sacred about pure "democracy". The word "democracy" is not even mentioned anywhere in our Constitution; that is quite intentional.

The 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was a mistake -- we should have stuck to the original Constitutional plan requiring
selection of Electoral-College electors by the peoples' elected representatives in state legislatures of each state of the federated states of America.