Florida 2000: It all seems so easy in hindsight

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I'm not the most ardent fan of the Electoral College that you're bound to find, but I do usually end up on the side of keeping it around.

Most of the arguments I've heard about abolishing it hinge, to greater or lesser extent, on the feasibility, desirability, simplicity, or similar aspects of turning entirely to the popular vote. I've just finished reading Tim Noah's two-part (so far) dressing-down of the electoral college (Part I, Part II), "America's Worst College" and I have to say I remain not only unconvinced, but rather depressed by the attempt.

First off, I'm surprised at the ease with which Noah assumes the recount process went in Florida 2000. Those 544,000 votes, and the 537 votes in Florida, appear obvious to hindsight. But it's worth remembering that the massive legal battles raging in Florida and elsewhere were largely about the method used to count those ballots. At the time, it was not clear at all how many went to either side. And thus we still, to this day, have cries about disenfranchisement during the process.

The uncertainty isn't just a tale about badly-punched cards. It raises the very real, very problematic issue of measurement error. Just how certain are you that every vote was counted correctly, every time, everywhere? If you claim 100% for numbers in the millions, we need to schedule a trip to Vegas, you and I, where I plan to take you for a good deal of money. From what I know of the recount process, that 537 number is, at the very best, the center of a range of possible numbers that it could have been. But lest you think we're talking about a couple of votes in either direction, just remember that as the number of total votes climbs, so too does the absolute number of miscounted votes in the total population of votes. In 50 million votes, the range would include thousands in either direction, maybe more. (The precision is growing with computer voting, I should say, though even that is subject to problems.)

But this is almost secondary to the other fallacy Noah appears desperate to hang his argument on: that the popular vote makes each vote "count more":

Remember, also, that under a popular-vote system, all votes are equal. Under the Electoral College's winner-take-all allocation (in all states but Maine and Nebraska), votes in big states count more than votes in smaller states because they can leverage a lot more electors.

Eh, no.

What do we mean by a vote "counting"? Well, there is of course the notion that your vote registered as part of the overall tally. You got your vote in, and the person doing the counting got yours and put a vote in the column for your choice. Civic pride abounds! But then there's the idea of one vote counting "more" or "less" than another. How does this work? Well, think of it this way: you're town is going to vote on a building a new bridge over the local stream. It's a town of a cozy 10,000 people. You live on the other side of the stream from the town, so the bridge is a good thing (assuming it outweighs the costs of the new tax that will have to be levied) and you plan to vote for it. Now, your 1 vote is entered, along with all 9,999 others. Your vote has counted. But of course, most of the town lives on the other side of that stream, so it looked like the bridge was going up, no matter what you voted. Did your vote really "count" then? Couldn't you have just stayed home, grilled a couple of burgers, and been happy the next day that you got the bridge and invested no costs in voting? After all, it's not like your vote would have been decisive...

And there's the rub. When we talk of voting counting more or less, we implicitly refer to the probability that your vote will be decisive in, say, an election. As the number of voters increases, that probability decreases. Would you have a better chance in your town of 10,000, or in your state of 10 million? If everyone is split perfectly 50-50, your chances are about the same. But shift the percent a little, and it's a proportionately bigger group that gets to be decisive one way or another. And so it is with the states. Voting in Montana means being one of 902,195 people. Voting in Florida means being one of 15,382,978 people. Where do you have a better chance of being decisive?

Being decisive, in the case of a presidential election, means having the chance to throw an entire state's electoral votes in the direction you prefer. Do you have a better chance of swaying Montana, or California? With the electoral college, the small states do get over-represented to some extent, since they all the get the same +2 for senators as the rest. But this is to help make sure the state's interests aren't avoided in federal policy making. By moving to the "popular vote", we simply become a nation of some 105,405,100 voters.

A couple of things happen. First, your chances of being decisive drop dramatically. The psychological effects of this are akin to those that prompted news outlets to stop forecasting results too early on election night: if you don't think your vote matters (well, less than generally for this case) you just won't go to the polls. Second, the areas with the highest population become far over-represented, since they have better information-sharing abilities. (Newspapers reach more people, television stations have more viewers, a single place holds a larger number of people at once, etc.) Politicians will simply work on those areas that are densely populated, rightly believing that they will get a much higher return on their investment in campaigning. Why spend $1000 a head to get a message out in Montana, when you can reduce your marginal cost per person in California and hit $10 per (I'm making the numbers up; the effect is what I'm trying to highlight)? In effect, NYC, Miami, Chicago, and LA will be electing presidents. Which means that policy will naturally follow.

While large states have more electors, the current electoral system attempts (to use an analogy) to use the group of people that voted as a representative sample of the whole state. Contrary to Noah's view, this isn't an accidental process. Had the number of popular votes been more condensed in one place or another, the electoral votes might well have gone differently. But as it is, with such a closely divided populace, the uncertainty in measurement is purposefully traded in favor of greater representation of diverse interests.

3 Comments

well, I agree with the idea that states should have go in one group, I just think it the number of votes should be based solely on population.
There's nothing democratic about 1 guy in Wyoming counting for 6 californians or whatever the ratio is.

I'm not sure where the ratio comes from, but I think I take your point. What I would answer, though, is that this is precisely the point of combining population represenation (the # of electors based on the number of Representatives, which is chosen entirely based on population) with a base number of electors (from Senators). It's not that 1 person in Wyoming counts directly for 6 Californians, since the number of electors in California is so much higher than Wyoming. After all, how often do we hear about numerous candidate trips to Wyoming in a campaign year? Would Ohio be a "swing state" if it only had 4 electoral votes? It's 21 votes make it a huge contributor to the magic 270. If we take away the Senator-based electors, but keep everything the same, the concentration of power is shifted even more to the huge population centers.

As it is, there is already a lot of concentration on the concerns of Cali, Fla, Texas, New York, and a few others. Time spent in places like the mountain areas or the Southwest realize marginal returns at best, despite the fact that these countries will face the same federal regulation as every other state.

Excellent post and particularly timely. The Electoral College, for all of its weaknesses, is the best system we've got.

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