Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Getting Rid of the Electoral College ...

From now until Nov 6th, barring some black-swan event, there's going to be a steady cadence of attack ads, campaign press releases, and, oh yeah, polls.

  • The polls show it a dead-even race. No, Romney has not put away any of the swing states beyond North Carolina--but Florida is getting close. If he gets another one or two in the next 13 days? He's probably at or above 50% to win. If not ... then still the underdog.
  • There's reports that someone responsible for the Libya attack has been caught. A major breakthrough on that front could be good for Obama--but to really exploit it he needs to bomb something. We'll see.
  • Team Obama has released a full color printed book that covers his plans for his second administration. Apparently it's pretty. The multi-million unit printing is almost unheard of. You can get them if you live in a swing state. Which I do. Maybe I'll pick one up just to see. I bet he's going to kill Bin Laden again. Or maybe Abu Nazir. That'd be good.
Let's Talk About The Electoral College
I know there is at least one reader of this blog who didn't understand how the EC worked until I explained it. So let's do the short form:
  1. Every state has a certain number of Electoral Votes (EV) based on its population adjusted by census. It all adds up to 538. A winning number is 270 (or 269 for the Presidency if your party controls the House which gets to decide in the case of a tie).
  2. To win a state's EV you need 50+% of the popular vote. It's winner take all. So if you win 51% of Florida you get a whopping 29 EV. If you win 99% of Florida? The same 29 EV.
  3. This means that some states with relatively little population get a disproportionate share of the vote because of the way EV are assigned--however it also means that "Deep Red/Blue" states are taken for granted because, well, if you are already getting the 55 EV California grand prize, why spend any time there? 
  4. As demographics shift states become more red or more blue over time. A swing state can be called "purple."
  5. It is possible (and has happened--in modern times) to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. This is because millions of people in big states may vote for you (boosting your popular vote count)--but if you don't win enough states ... you lose anyway.
So, Should We Get Rid Of It?
No. Although I definitely see some problems with the Electoral College (and I have left out Faithless Electors as a problem up above) I believe that, on the balance, it should remain. Why? Because needing to win across the nation (width) is as important as needing to win large population clusters (depth). I think the Electoral College is a strength in this regard that, while it does drive some unwanted behavior (the assault of negative ads on Ohio, for instance) it also ensures that whoever is playing in politics has to, to a degree, deal with the other side. 

This might not be the case if someone just got a massive population in, say, California--and then gave them all the juice. It makes it more costly to "buy votes."

Here are some reasons I think are NOT especially good ones:
  • States Rights. I'm not a big fan of protecting the "character" of individual states. There are certainly differences between, say Texas and New York and, yes, we do get an advantage from that--but I do not think that the (original) requirement that each state be its own semi-sovereign little nation is something we should idolize in this day and age. A lot of what people want to do with States-Rights is, to my mind, fairly unpleasant stuff. It's not big on my agenda (see the origins of the Senate).
  • It's In The Constitution. This is why we will keep it. A constitutional convention to get rid of the EC would be a scary, scary thing. Opening up the patient and being able to re-write the internal organs is nothing I'd want to see done. That said, by itself, that isn't a reason not to do it. The Constitution is first and foremost a brilliant compromise. The founders were extremely bright--but the forces that shaped the fledgling America were not "Let's make the best country on earth" but rather "How can we get all these different agendas to hang together!?" The EC is one of those compromises--rules for counting slaves as votes was another. They're not all good. The EC isn't a bad one--but it also isn't holy-writ just for being part of the American foundation.
And Then: Commoners
There was allegedly some concern that common people couldn't be trusted to vote for President in any meaningful way. The EC could theoretically stop people like Warren G. Harding from becoming president but, hey, they didn't. It's also possible that if the Electoral College voters decided to, they could, like, decide that Alan Greenspan should be president ... or Wolf Blitzer. That's a problem--but fortunately a rare one.

I think this line of reasoning is fairly obnoxious in that (a) we've never had an EC upset so bad that, like, someone not even running has been made President--and we don't seem likely to and (b) deciding that the populace of the US can't be trusted to vote seems awfully elitist.

That said--and I am not exactly serious about this--but it is a concern--when people are able to vote through their smart phones the electorate is going to look very, very different. When they can vote through telephones or TVs ... even more so. The combination of ease of voting with almost-complete coverage will make it possible for things like popular movements to include people who were never included before. This could make us wish there were certain restrictions in place the founding fathers never dreamed of!


  1. Hey, I like your blog, and have been reading it for a few weeks.

    You got one detail wrong on the Electoral College. The number of Electoral votes for each state is not exactly based on the census. It is based on the total number of representatives in both houses of congress (+3 for DC). For example, Florida's 29 EVs are based on 27 Reps (after reapportionment) and 2 Senators. This is why small states wield such a disproportionate amount of power in electing the president.


    1. You're right. Good catch!