Saturday, December 22, 2007

The electoral college

Another responder writes that "I think the electoral college can be salvaged by eliminating the winner take all system. We could assign 1 electoral vote to the winner of each House district (which, with the exceptions of the Wyomings, et al) are of close to equal population, and just assign the two 'senate' electoral votes to the state's overall winner."

This might well be preferable to the system we have now (and requires no constitutional amendment inasmuch as the "winner-take-all" system is the product of state decisionmaking, not of any constitutional requirement), BUT I have one huge reservation: We are already suffering terribly in the House of Representatives from the consequences of "partisan gerrymandering," where, as two friends of mine once wrote, "representatives pick their voters rather than the other way around." If we shifted to the district allocation mode of assigning electoral votes, there would be ever greater incentives for both of the major parties to engage in ever worse gerrymanders and the further poisoning of our politics. Thus, if we are to retain the College, I would prefer that votes simply be assigned on the basis of statewide percentages, with the two "Senate votes" going to the statewide winner. This would basically eliminate the "human dimension" of the electoral college.

I recently engaged in a debate on the electoral college with professors John McGinnis from Northwestern and Daniel Lowenstein from UCLA, both of whom vigorously disagree with me. You can find it at

My own preference is to eliminate the electoral college and shift to a popular election with a mechanism to assure that the ultimate winner can plausibly claim majority support. The French have a two-stage election; San Francisco has an "instant run-off" so called Alternative Transferrable Vote. No doubt this would be one of the most vigorously debated issues at a Convention.


Anonymous Blue Sun said...

Some thoughts on revising the electoral process -

If we were to keep the Electoral College, I would restructure it to more closely represent one-person-one-vote:

I would first get rid of the two extra votes each state is awarded for its two Senators. Despite your point that it is less unfair than the structure of the Senate itself (to which I agree), it still distorts the value of each individual vote. One way or another, each electoral vote should represent approximately the same number of individuals.

Second, if we are to keep districts (not my first preference), I would like to see them assigned them through an open-source computer program whose algorithm's source code is publicly available for all computer scientists and others to examine for correctness, fairness, or any hidden biases.

I would prefer to see all electoral votes contested at the state level, not district level, with votes apportioned according to the popular vote for each candidate. No more winner-take-all systems that disenfranchise smaller parties and result in millions of voters who are deprived of a representative who speaks with their voice (which is the intent, after all, of representative democracy - a virtual townhall). It would be gratifying to see everybody from vegetarians to gold standard supporters have at least a chance to have their voices heard in the House.

Federal elections differ from all others and should be subject to common rules and guidelines. They should be totally under the supervision of an independent federal election agency. State roles in selecting voting systems, determining who does and does not qualify to vote, and supervising the election, the counting, the recounting, and the final certification should be abolished. National standards on automatic and requested recounts should be established, as well as provisions for re-elections if anomalies can not be reconciled.

Whether by the electoral college or by nationwide popular vote, no President should be elected by a mere plurality of the votes. If no candidate receives 50% + 1, then there should be a runoff election between the top two vote-getters.

There are many other questions that I believe need to be addressed, such as the role money plays in modern campaigning, the absurdly lengthy campaign season, the roles the Senate and the Presidential Veto (and "signing statements") play in thwarting the will of the people, and the lack of any mechanism for recalling a President, Supreme Court Justice, or Congressperson short of impeachment for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Just a few thoughts...your mileage might vary.

December 22, 2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger Bob Richard said...

Two proposals for keeping the Electoral College are mentioned: allocation of electoral votes by Congressional District (with or without two extra votes per state), and allocation in each state in proportion to the popular vote in that state.

FairVote has a detailed analysis of both proposals that advocates for them should study and be able to respond to. FairVote's bottom line: "Neither reform option promotes majority rule, greater competitiveness or voter equality. Pursued at a state level, both reforms dramatically increase incentives for partisan machinations. If done nationally, the congressional district system has a sharp partisan tilt toward the Republican Party, while the whole number proportional system sharply increases the odds of contingent elections (the selection of president by Congress)."

December 23, 2007 12:27 PM  
Blogger eusko said...

The electoral college has to go, period! It's intent was to serve as another mechanism to keep the political process under the control of the rich white guys that wrote the Constitution. Granted, many more classes of citizens have the vote today, but the "deciders" still essentially run the system. Remember Stalin's wise words: those that vote decide nothing; those that count the votes decide everything.
Voting has to be elevated to the status of a duty of being a citizen of a democracy - much like jury duty.
Citizens of a democracy must know - not feel - that their votes are counted honestly the first time. What better person to count the votes than the citizens themselves?
Just as you can't lead a horse to water and expect it to drink, you can't expect citizens to vote if there is no real choice. Any "improved" Constitution will have to make it impossible for a conspiracy of two parties to limit the citizens' choices.

December 24, 2007 3:17 AM  
Anonymous Sagebrush said...

After the 2000 election, when there was talk of changing the electoral college to a "by district" system. I think it was one of the major Florida papers that took the time to study who the winners would have been over the past several elections if the system gave candidates "one elector per district won, two per state won." They didnt' find a single election -- including 2000 -- going back into the 1960s, if I remember right, in which the end result would have been different from what happened in reality.

This is actually a good argument in favor of moving every state over to a by-district determination, I think. Defenders of the college keep the present state-to-state power ratios over the election result. If nothing else, it has the virtue of being easier to explain: "One district One vote." As to the two extra state votes, I think that you'd have to pry those from the cold, dead hands of the small states. Good luck.

The problem of gerrymandering remains, but I think that it can be solved (with all due respect, blue sun) without resorting to "open source software." I'm as big a geek as any man alive, so I'd probably be one of the guys proofreading the open source code, but this is all just too opaque for the average citizen. I do believe, though, that a few simple, understandable rules about compactness of districts could go a long way.

Even in compact districts, though, the spirit of Elbridge Gerry lives wherever the majority conspires to dilute the minority's votes.

The "proportional distribution of electors" idea is seductive, though it might get messy in the small states, most especially if there were more than two viable candidates.

December 24, 2007 9:49 AM  
Blogger Gene Wine said...

This is to comment on some things blue sun, Professor Levinson and others said.

After all the prating we do about democracy, the president should surely be elected by popular vote. Instant Runoff Voting would assure that a presidential candidate would receive a majority.

I agree that all federal elections should be under the supervision of an independent federal election commission, probably composed of several senior federal judges chosen at random.

For every federal office there should be voluntary public campaign financing, such as they have in Maine and Arizona.

Nomination of candidates is often as important, or more important, than election. Therefore, public campaign financing should be introduced there as well. If you believe in democracy, there should be a national presidential primary, in which each vote would count one. If interest could be sustained in the summer, I would recommend a July vote; if not, then in late May of the presidential year, to mercifully shorten the campaign season.

The Senate should be abolished, but that couldn't be done without a revolution. Possibly we could get more senators for larger states. To be democratic, all important votes in Congress should be by majority (no filibusters or "holds").

Presidential "signing statements" should be eliminated. The presdient should be given a line item veto, but the veto should be reduced to 55%.

The president and all members of Congress should be subject to recall, as some progressive government entities have now.

Supreme Court Justices should have a nonrenewable term of 15 years.

If you really want to be Utopian, you should take federal House districting away from the states, so that "representatives don't choose their constituents," and create districts that are divided as equally as possible between the two major parties. As it is now, most people are disfranchised because districts are one-sided. This would be gerrymandering for a democratic purpose.

January 5, 2008 9:33 AM  
Blogger Scott Trimble said...

Sandy Levinson wrote "My own preference is to eliminate the electoral college and shift to a popular election with a mechanism to assure that the ultimate winner can plausibly claim majority support."

Even discussing any alternative method for electing a president is condoning the most undemocratic aspect of our government, the presidency. The executive branch is the one which the citizens are most likely to interact with in their daily lives, and it is entirely run by one individual. Certainly, he appoints delegates who in turn hire agents who direct the various levels of civil servants, but ultimately, the direction of the entire executive branch turns on the opinions of one person. This is the opposite of democracy. It is elected autocracy. Sure, the constitution has some checks built into it, and yeah, maybe we could strengthen the checks on presidential power in some ways, but it will still be a hierarchical system descending from one opinion, filled with appointees who are probably chosen for how well it is believed they will fulfill the wishes of that individual, that elected monarch.

The electoral college is a bad way to elect a person to an office, but in this case, it must go not because of that, but because the office for which it has been used must go. We must abolish the presidency and replace it with a more democratic method of directing the executive branch of our government.

June 11, 2008 11:12 AM  

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