Monday, May 09, 2005

Fairness of the Electoral College

Frank Warner and I have been sparring over the Electoral College for some time. In spite of my party sympathies, I am strongly in favor of the institution. I am amused that Frank has now resorted to using Vladimir Putin as an authority on the issue. Both of them are wrong.

The Electoral College, as 1) an institution, never makes a difference. The electors are mere mechanisms for recording the vote. This is the issue that Putin was referring to, motivated by either ignorance or desire to mislead.

The Electoral College as 2) an allocation of voting power always makes a difference. There are two issues here. The first is due to the different population sizes of the states. This can be a problem. The second is how regional consensus is encouraged, and this is the Electoral College’s great virtue.

Due to the ancient compromise, which enabled the Union to exist, small states are allocated more votes than they are entitled to by democratic principles alone. This enhances their actual power. In practice, this advantage has been completely superceded by the sheer number of states now in the union, where small states from different regions cancel each other out. The practice of bloc voting by state further diminishes the power of the small states, to the point where it has negligible effect on presidential elections. Some small states have tried to make their influence more noticeable by manipulating the primary election process. Early primaries and the Super Tuesday bloc have had an impact, but it’s hard to evaluate qualitatively.

The way to identify a state's influence in the presidential election is by the number of times that the candidates visit the state. You will observe that this influence is not related to size at all. It is related to the potential voter swing. Any state that can be relied upon is ignored. This is an example of the Tyranny of the Swing Vote. In this case, I believe it works as a benefit, forcing elections to revolve around the middle ground.

The second influence of the Electoral College on the distribution of power is suppression of regionalism. This influence is very important, but the opposite of a problem. If I can hypnotize the voters of California and get every last vote there, with 100% voter turnout, say by promising water from other states, it will provide me no more benefit than winning the state by a vote. Otherwise we are subject to the Tyranny of the Majority. Five big states, if inspired, could choose the President without reference to the will of the others in a three-way election. The consensus of the various regions in determining the President is much more important than the total number of votes.

A related issue is the problem of third party spoilers, such as Ralph Nader, Ross Perot and again George Wallace. Ralph Nader's campaign was a force to split the Democratic Party and was blamed for Gore's loss in 2000, but for the most part, the state bloc voting nearly suppresses these effects.

In summary, the Electoral College, as functioning today, has a generally benign influence on US politics. There is, however, a residual injustice due to the same grand compromise and related to the Electoral College. That injustice is the representation of states in the Senate. The Constitution does not allocate Senate representation fairly to the states and there is no mechanism for redefining state boundaries or representation as the US Census does for the House of Representatives. Small states should have fewer senators. Large states should be divided to increase their representation. It is puzzling to me that they don’t do it on their own.

5/9/2005 12:00 PM

Here are some other links:,1,3839359.story?coll=la-news-comment-opinion

Jonah Goldberg quote: ... The mere fact that it has been around for a very long time stands in its favor. ... The Weimar Republic's constitution was, for example, arguably the best written constitution of the 20th century. We need not dwell on its successes. Meanwhile, old constitutions are a rare thing. Our political institutions and culture are deeply invested in the Electoral College, and its two-century-long success is something g we should respect on its own merits. ...

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