Electoral College Questions

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As painful as it is to relive, it seems like people are preparing themselves for another round of "electoral v. popular" vote issues. This time, however, the positions are reversed: Zogby, among others, suggests that Bush may lose the electoral college but win the "popular vote."

(NB: I still don't believe there is such a thing as a true popular vote in this country. Since we still operate under the electoral college, and since people understand this is the case, the representativeness of the "popular vote" as derived by simply totaling up all the people who voted is questionable, since the incentives to vote would -- in my view -- significantly different.)

I have to admit, I'm starting to think the possibility of a 2000 repeat is entirely possible (though I think Ohio, Wisconsin or Nevada might be the place to look this time, depending on the electoral votes needed to hit the magic number). I differ from a number of people that I've spoken to, however, in that I don't find this a terrible problem. What I worry more about is the unrelenting press coverage, the unending debates about lawyer tactics, and snide comments from both sides about vote-tampering.

More importantly, this could well bring a referendum on the electoral college itself. And on this, I happen to be partisan: I like the electoral college, and think tthat it should be retained at best, and only slightly modified at worst.

Among the arguments I hear on scrapping the system (and there are plenty others -- for another time) is that the current system forces the candidates to play favorites among the states, driving them to the places where things look tied up, rather than looking across the entire country. Which is true, I suppose. In every election I can recall, the importance of national polls has always taken a backseat to the question of performance of "Battleground States". As we can see by just turning on the news, the candidates are once again in Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and others where the polls show nearly dead heats.

What are we offered by the alternative? The immediate reaction would be for presidential candidates to focus solely on population centers where the cost of reaching the next voter is smaller because of TV access, transportation costs, size of audience issues, etc. Effectively, a directly popular vote would turn us into a single nation of 100 million voters, rather than subdivisions of far smaller groups. While we all know that voting makes no rational sense since it takes time and money to do so, and the chance of the vote being decisive in any way is vanishingly small, people vote anyway. It's an emotional choice, not a rational one, and I'm fine with it being so. I like to vote, no matter how many times people show me that it's a waste of time. Apparently, there are millions of folks who agree with me.

If this is the case, imagine what the effects are of saying to the middle of the country that their votes are now being pooled with the major population centers of the US. When Miami, New York, LA and Chicago are orders of magnitude larger than numerous states combined, there would be no reason to even feel good about voting, since candidates would spend the majority of their time talking about issues of concern mainly to urban populations. I can imagine entire swaths of the country becoming even more disaffected in relation to national politics since they could see that their future is tied to whatever the large cities choose.

Taking the process as slightly more rational, removing the electoral college still acts as a disincentive to voting. The chances of a single vote being decisive are chiefly a function of the size of the voting population (as well as choices available; here I'm still just assuming two, though with more the effect is roughly the same) . You have a higher likelihood of casting a deciding vote when you are one of three than when you are one of a thousand. Separated into states, voters are part of a much smaller population than they would should the country vote as one large mass. If more people vote the more likely their vote to be decisive (or even the more they believe their vote could be decisive), then moving to a mass vote would tend to drive down the number of people voting since that marginal person went from being one of 3 million to one of 100 million.

I'm not convinced that, on grounds of efficiency alone, we want to depress the number of people voting. We don't get much more "democracy" when more people vote than we have currently, but I don't see the need to induce flight if we get little benefit from it. The objection I hear, of course, is that the president should be focused on doing the most for the greatest number of people, which is made possible by letting population centers drive elections.

I tend to recoil from this idea simply on historical grounds alone. The arguments made by the framers of the constitution make it abundantly clear that there are real problems with not only mob rule, but rule by minorities as well. Republicanism versus outright democracy isn't a distinction without a difference in my view. The electoral college, it seems to me, was devised as a balancing act between these two potential outcomes. While areas like Miami, NYC, Chicago, LA, Atlanta and a few others do house the most people, they don't necessarily cover a full range of concerns for te US. Urban populations face very different issues, and thus have very different preferences on domestic policy, than do rural populations. The weighting system of the electoral college attempts to find a point where the size of "large" (population-wise) states doesn't entirely swamp the "smaller" states. Voting through the electoral college strikes me as a way to get a representative sample of the preferences over various issues of concern to the entire US.

While it may seem like we're all talking about Florida once again, the makeup of battleground states tends to change over time. Colorado was of no real concern last time around. But what I find more compelling is that the characteristics of the battleground states represent a vast array of concerns that may be an accurate reflection of the country as a whole: the concerns over the manufacturing sector in Ohio and Pennsylvania, farming and taxes in Wisconsin, immigration and the war in Nevada, etc. and so on. No, it's not perfect. But the alternative means presidential elections predicated on almost purely urban issues. Candidates being forced to deal with a small subset of states strikes me as as a better (though still not perfect) outcome than dealing with only a few important cities.

In whatever kind of split may occur, I take the electoral vote tally as the only significant outcome, and have no problem with a president who did not win the "popular vote". At least, no problem in terms of how he achieved office...

I will say, however, that I never did understand why electors aren't held to voting the way their states request. The "faithless elector" problem strikes me as real and unnecessary -- though if someone has a decent explanation, I'd be glad to hear it.

7 Comments

Do those mobs who want to change the rules of the game (by removing the Electoral College) stand to benefit politically or economically at those expense of those who want the rules to remain the same? Or is this an ideologically-driven crusade to enshrine 50%+1 votes as the morally just and truly democratic outcome?

"Faithless elector" seems like a last resort to help protect the republic against an elected enemy. Instead of the near costless opportunitu for an elector to defect, what do you think about an elector being bound to his state's request by stiff criminal and/or civil sanction? That way, all electors could, in principle vote their conscience (or collude with one another, as they can now), but they would have to pay a severe penalty for doing so.

In other words would you go to jail for 20 years if you could stop a 21st century Hitler from assuming power?

Mostly, the folks who argue with me on this suggest that the electoral vote invalidates the "one person one vote" ideology that, I'm guessing, they see as fundamental. Honestly, I'm not sure where this ever came from, but it's the argument I've heard most recently from a number of places. If I were better at recalling the specifics of our founding documents, I'd feel enabled to retort with "please tell me where 'one person one vote' was ever part of the elective process for president." I have the impression that it isn't anywhere in there (at least, from my reading of The Federalist), but I'd have to review.

To be partisan for a moment, the only people I've met who argue this way have been on the left of the political spectrum. Note that this is a sample that could well be a result of selection issues: those with whom I'd be likely to get into an argument are those with whom I wouldn't see entirely eye-to-eye. Just saying...

I'm admittedly torn on this elector issue. My view on aggregate decision making is such that, absent an elector with access to information not available to the populace (electors chosen from, say the CIA or the NSA) the information at play in the group decision is at least as good a choice as the individual elector might make. That is to say, the people would either know as well as or better than the elector that the candidate is a potential Hitler. (Frankly, I'm a little skeptical of the whole "Hitler was democratically elected" line. I don't know enough of the history to drive out my suspicions about registration fraud, vote tampering, and general shenanigans such as we see in lots of nations today that are watched over by the UN. Plus, in a country that size, if the people's elected representatives were the ones to vote on the new leader, there is a real chance that some sort of spoils were promised to 50%+1 of the political body of the time.)

Perhaps if the possible sanctions against the faithless elector were preceeded with some sort of legal review (presenting a case, arguments for and against, etc.), then it might make the elector weigh the strength of their beliefs before casting the vote. Maybe something like the proposals that are sometimes floated for having a plaintiff in a civil case pay the legal fees if they lose.

The notorious right wing pandering infosource NewsMax.com is encouraging people to vote the way Zogby polling suggests that the American polity MIGHT vote come November 2nd.

Polling seems to me to put gambling into driver's seat of the election process; prodding people to vote by what others suggest we ought to since "everybody else is" voting that way. ...or not.

Ian's speculation about opposition about the electoral college coming principally from the left is undrstandable, but speculative at best, and thus, no better than the polls for guessing the source.

I agree, however, that ours is not a one-person one-vote dmocracy, and never was from the outset.
My concern about the electoral college is the relative lack of public awareness as to the actual players on the college.

Anyway, only a week left of bread and circuses to find out whether a crypto-fascist cabal or a corporate apologist regime runs the country.

Well, I did qualify my position on who is doing the complaining about the electoral college.

I'm not sure what you mean about the "players" behind the EC.Do you mean the faithless electors issue we've been talking about? Or the process for calculating the number of electoral votes in each state?

there are some

Well i'm doing a debate on the topic of Faithless Electors and whether it should be illegal or not.....I'm arguing that it should be illegal.....so can anyone give me a little more information on it or give me some good points for my arguement?? thanx!

Okay i just posted a comment about Faithless electors and whether it should be illegal....so if you have any information if you can send it to me at my email.... curlycutie24@yahoo.com

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This page contains a single entry by published on October 25, 2004 2:10 PM.

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