Posted by Thomas Nephew on October 19th, 2012
Like most of news-following America, I suspect, I’ve been visiting fivethirtyeight.com a lot recently. And while I don’t see a way to discern trends for the numbers, it’s my impression that Nate Silver’s multiple poll, multiple simulation-based estimates of the likelihood of controversial outcomes have been rising; as of today, those included…
- Electoral College tie: 0.5%
- Obama wins popular vote but loses electoral college: 1.9%
- Romney wins popular vote but loses electoral college: 5.2%
As of mid-October, poll results suggest the chance of the US
presidential election winner not being the popular vote winner
is about the same as drawing a jack from a deck of cards.
Adding these up, the likelihood of the popular vote winner not winning the electoral college is 7.6 percent — about the likelihood of drawing a jack from a random deck of cards.
Of course, unlike in 2000, in 2012 it’s the Democratic candidate who is most likely to benefit from an electoral college override of the popular vote. And while that may cause a little heartburn for some well-meaning people on the left, I’m going to argue it shouldn’t.
First of all, of course, that’s how George W. Bush won in 2000.* A little historical balancing of the books isn’t a bad thing.
But it’s also high time to admit that in principle, the electoral college is a pretty good idea for a diverse, federal, continental-scale democracy like the United States.
First, it provides refuges for many voters to vote based on their convictions rather than for the so-called “lesser evil.” Second, it preserves the need to compete for the majority of votes in actual political subunits of the country — the states — rather than merely in the aggregate national mass media market. Finally, and perhaps most decisively, when states prove to be harming the exercise of the vote, the electoral college helps isolate democratic damage to the state or states responsible, and helps limit the remediation needed when corruption or irregularities occur.
Third party democratic refuge
The electoral college system of 51 state winners inevitably allows voters in some states greater flexibility than in others. For example, in Maryland (where Romney has no chance at all of winning) disaffected but wavering left wing voters can more easily choose to protest against Obama and vote for a third party candidate, with much less concern than if they were in neighboring Virginia, where the race is closer. This opportunity would diminish in a national popular vote election format. Let’s say that voters tend to vote for their second choice rather than for their true first choice once the reported margin between the two most likely contenders in their voting zone is below, say, 2%. Even when that’s the national margin — so that very few voters would take the risk – inevitable state by state variance allows voters in some states to avoid that dilemma in the electoral college election format.
Bulkheads of federal democracy
The biggest problem with abolishing the electoral college is that you’re only half done. Without truly national, vigorously enforced voter registration, election, counting, and verification standards, a state or group of states could rig election processes to exclude or “underinclude” voting groups, fraudulently and undemocratically skewing the vote tallies they report. Other states, the ones running legitimate elections, would then face the perverse risk of designating presidential electors based not on their own legitimate results, but on fraudulent results elsewhere — and would have no recourse. As I wrote in 2007 in opposing the National Popular Vote (NPV)** proposal (emphasis added),
Under the NPV system, Maryland would routinely risk forfeiting its electoral votes to a candidate its voters didn’t favor — a candidate who necessarily only won elsewhere, in elections that were by definition completely unaccountable to Maryland voters.
This is no abstract, theoretical concern: Florida was already known in 2000 for its voter list purges of ex-felons and, conveniently, people with similar names and addresses to ex-felons. And there’s a systematic push to suppress the vote nationwide: the corporate-funded, right wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is notorious for pushing voter suppression(/”identification”) laws nationwide to receptive, generally Republican state legislatures. The intent and the effect is to keep minorities and the poor off the voter rolls, making it easier for parties of the white or the rich to gain or keep their hold on power.
Like bulkheads in a ship that keep one flooding compartment from sinking the ship, the electoral college keeps serious flaws like these localized to the state in which they occur. Given the arithmetic of a given electoral college tally, it may then turn out not to matter enough to tilt the election one way or the other. By contrast, corrupt and undemocratic state vote counts will necessarily corrupt a single, national popular vote count. Conversely, the electoral college also allows both fundamental remedies and one-time recounts to be pursued just for the states that need it. With the electoral college, there was just a Florida recount in 2000. With a national popular vote, there would be powerful incentives for recounts everywhere, despite the problems being clearly localized to Florida.
This seems counter-intuitive at first — don’t candidates routinely ignore states like Idaho or Alaska, and spend disproportionate time in relatively small- or midsized-population states like New Hampshire or Colorado? Yes, they do — but some of that is due to the poor design of this electoral college rather than being an inherent feature; I’ll write more about that below.
Consider the alternative, though: with a simple national majority vote, candidates could — indeed would have to — simply compete in major media markets. The country would shift from a corrosive red-state/blue-state divide to… an even more corrosive urban/rural divide. In state by state races, rural areas can at least occasionally figure in the calculus of a path to victory. In a national race, they never would. And this point can and should be extended. As I wrote in 2007, consider a scenario
“…where Candidate A wins 50 out of the country’s 51 states and jurisdictions by slim but consistent margins, say 51-49%. But Candidate B is a favorite in one large state, say… Texas. Or Florida. Or wherever. She wins by 60-40% there, and hence wins the popular vote. But just look at the map; personally, I would like Candidate A’s claim to the whole country’s leadership better than I like Candidate B’s — and so would quite a number of other voters, in quite a number of other states.”
The United States is a federation of states of continental scope; its electoral college imposes a reasonable, valuable, and I would argue very necessary breadth of victory requirement to become the president of that federal democracy. The need for something like an American-style electoral college would actually be even clearer for the European Union, should it ever attempt to elect a single executive leader.
The real problem(s)
While the electoral college per se isn’t a problem, the design of the one we use certainly is.
One of the compromises in the original Constitution — needed to get small states to buy in to the result — was that the numbers of electors each state gets in the electoral college are derived from the sum of (1) its representatives in the House, allocated proportionally to each state’s population and, crucially, (2) its two senators, allocated to each state regardless of population size. The number of electors is thus related to the state’s population, but not actually proportional to it. It’s the skew from the “Senate part” of each state’s electoral count that gave Bush the election in 2000; if each state had 2 electors fewer in 2000, Gore would have won the modified electoral college in 2000 (click for a spreadsheet showing this), and the Florida result would not have mattered.
Again, the point of a “House-based” rather than “Congressional delegation based” electoral college wouldn’t be to guarantee that a popular vote winner doesn’t lose the electoral college — though that result would probably happen less often. The point would be to ensure that every American’s vote has an equal impact on the outcome, instead of having voters from Wyoming or Alaska (states so small they have only 1 representative, but therefore 3 electoral votes) have their votes count disproportionately far more than those from California or New York. While the “solid South” poses a well-known political problem for the modern U.S, it’s the “empty West” of 1- and 2- and 3-representative states like Wyoming, Idaho, North Dakota, etc. that pose a democratic one by distorting the electoral map.
This post has been primarily about the electoral college, but in conclusion it’s important to return to some of the points alluded to above. Far more than the electoral college itself — which, again, has real value, and could be made even better with a simple re-design — the real obstacles to democracy in the U.S are the lack of a clear, affirmative right to vote, vote secretly, and have that vote be verifiably counted. Those issues are the ones to resolve first, while we preserve what’s best of the system we have.
FIVETHIRTYEIGHT UPDATES: 10/20: tie+Obama+Romney electoral-loss-despite-popular win estimate climbs to 8.2% (=0.4+1.8+6.0). 10/23: 8.3% (=0.6+1.8+5.9). 10/24: 9.0% (=0.7+1.8+6.5); 10/30: 8.0% (=0.4+1.9+5.7); 11/2: 6.7% (=0.3+2.0+4.4).
OTHER UPDATES, 10/22: Daniel Foster, at National Review Online, 10/19, The Old College Try : “Conservatives shouldn’t complain if Romney pulls a Gore” ; Jonathan Bernstein, 10/19, A Better Case for the Electoral College: “the interests which benefit from the electoral college are, on balance, those that are hurt by other factors in the overall system”; both via Andrew Sullivan. 10/23: G. Magliocca, “Balkinization,” approvingly cites a Justice Jackson 1952 dissent: “To abolish [the Electoral College] and substitute direct election of the President, so that every vote wherever cast would have equal weight in calculating the result, would seem to me a gain for simplicity and integrity of our governmental processes.” The dissent was from a ruling upholding (but noting as nonbinding) Alabama Democrat efforts to prevent a”faithless elector.” 10/31: should mention that my friend and State Senator Jamie Raskin is squarely on the other side of this issue, most recently in a July article for ACSBlog: Singing the Electoral College Blues: Time for a National Popular Vote for President.
* Setting aside, for this discussion, the media consortium finding that Bush probably didn’t win the true Florida voter-intention vote count once spurious undervotes and overvotes were reviewed.
** NPV is a state-level, legislative compact to deliver participating states’ electoral college votes to the popular vote winner, regardless of the outcome in each participating state. It has passed in Maryland and (I believe) in California. Once an electoral college majority of states ratifies the plan, the electoral college as we know it would effectively be abolished, barring a successful court challenge to the process.
IMAGE CREDIT: Four jacks (22 January 2007, Enoch Lau, orig. filename IMG_1159.JPG), via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Jack_playing_cards.jpg