Monday, August 27, 2007

The Electoral College

Last week, The New York Times editorialized in favor of abolishing the Electoral College. That is a popular position among progressives.

Let's be honest: the Electoral College is going to be with us for a long time to come. Amending the Constitution to abolish it would require the consent of too many small states that benefit from its undemocratic distribution of electoral votes. (The mal-distribution of votes comes in part from the fact that they are handed out only after every decennial census, but more from the allocation of electoral votes by the total number of senators and congressmen that each state has; a state like Wyoming gets one vote for its single congressman, but two for its senators. Thus Wyoming, though not a significant source of electoral votes, has proportionately much more influence than New York, California or Florida. Why would Wyoming, Alaska, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont or other small (in population) states give up that power? They won't.)

Actually, the Electoral College has good features. What if we had had to recount the entire nation's vote in 2000? If you think the shenanigans surrounding the hanging chads in Florida were bad, imagine what would have happened in reviewing 100 million ballots. We might not have a winner yet. (I know what you're thinking: we still don't know--and probably never will--who actually won that election.)

This does not mean that the electoral college should not be reformed. It should be. However, as The Times pointed out in the editorial mentioned above, there are good ways and bad ways to make changes. Repubs in California are hoping to sneak through a change that would allocate the state's electoral votes based on who wins each congressional district, with the winner of the most electoral votes getting the two additional ones allocated for the state's senators. That's a palpable attempt to give the GOP perhaps 20 more electoral votes than it would now get, under the winner-take-all system. (The proposal would be voted on in a referendum. As argued in a letter in today's Times, that would be patently unconstitutional.)

The present system, where all of a state's electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote by even the smallest margin, is plainly undemocratic, and leads to crises such as we had in 2000. The idea of allocating electoral votes by congressional district is equally unfair, however; should a candidate win an overwhelming majority in, say, two of eight districts, and lose the other six by small margins, he or she might have the most votes in the state as a whole, but get only two of ten electoral votes under the system proposed for California.

A practical, and fair, change would be to allocate electoral votes for each state in proportion to the popular vote. Take that state mentioned above, with ten electoral votes. If candidate A got 52 percent of the vote, he or she would get 5 of those votes. Candidate B, with 48 percent (assuming there are no significant third parties) would also get 5. That is not perfectly democratic, true, but it is far more fair than the system we now have. (Because there are ten votes, one is allocated for each 10 percent of the popular tally. To get one, a candidate would have to obtain more than half of that ten percent. Thus, the winner of 5 to just under 15 percent would get one vote, the winner of just over 15 to just under 25 percent two votes, and so on.)

Proportional allocation has a particular value when the vote in one or more states is very close. Take the example above, but let's assume that one candidate has 54.9 percent of the vote and one 45.1 percent. A recount might swing candidate A from 5 to 6 electoral votes, and candidate B from 5 to 4, but there would not be a wholesale change. In other words, the likelihood of an election turning on a recount would be much diminished. Had such a system been in place in 2000, Florida and its hanging chads would not have been an issue.

(For any who might be wondering, I have not gone through the state-by-state results to calculate who would have won in 2000, had the system I've described been in place. I'll try to find the time to do that, and if I do, I'll post the results, even if they show that W would have won.)

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