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Unity ’08 and the Electoral College

June 3, 2006

The Belmont Club on "Unity ’08", an online attempt to run a Presidential ticket with one member from each party:

The two party system has traditionally been a way through which voters could control policy outcomes by performing arithmetic operations on the partisan composition of the Legislature and the Executive. It was a kind of symbolic calculus in which ballot tickets were notation for political promises. Voters selected tickets and thereby selected the desired political outcomes through them; the correspondence was never exact but as long as it was "good enough" the calculus worked. What may be happening is that the voters no longer believe the calculus works.

Any perceived breakdown in the political calculus creates an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to create an alternative set of tickets and thereby get things working again. Whether this will actually succeed in a governmental structure designed along majority/minority lines remains to be seen. A large part of the problem is that the world truly did change on September 11, 2001; not in the sense of what happened on that day but in the sense of what that day revealed about the changes that had already taken place. Yet the political vocabulary of the West has not yet evolved to articulate the problems of the new age nor to deal with them. But the process is beginning. (Emph mine)

KungFu Monkey has some strong feelings about the inadequacies of the Electoral College. This too is a desire to change the system to make it more representative of the people;  less divisive, more purple. I would tend to blame the Primary system and a media paradigm that sells conflict, real or imagined, that must be sustained in perpetuity. You can check out his post and my comment in the CoComment box in the right sidebar.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Rufus T. Flinger permalink
    June 5, 2006 8:15 pm

    Relating to 3rd parties, I do think that if both the Repubs and Dems end up nominating their more devisive potential candidates…let’s say a Hilary vs George Allen…

    (I still don’t think McCain can win over the religious right that he ticked off with this speech “we are the party of Reagan not Pat Robertson…we are the party of Lincoln not Bob Jones.” To this day Roberson has said in NO circumstances would he support McCain.)

    … and assuming we end up with the most polarizing choices from the two parties, then I think there will be a hole big enough to drive a truck through for a 3rd party candidate. Not sure Unity08 would be it, but it’s telling that even this early, they’ve popped up and gotten attention.

    Maybe somehow we end up in 2008 with a more centrist Mark Warner vs. McCain ticket which in many ways would render the forces behind Unity08 needless.

    Relating to the electoral college there is a very interest reform movement listed in today’s Times. The Electoral college should go in my opinion. We didn’t set up one in Iraq, if direct elections are good enough for them, they should be good enough for us here.
    For all the reasons KungFu monkey said.

    Here is what is interesting. There is no way politically to get rid of the Electoral College via constitutional amendment…but there is a very big loophole as each state is able to freely define how they apportion Electoral votes relating to the election.
    But as the LA times writes:

    “But a new group, the Campaign for the National Popular Vote, has proposed an ingenious solution. States, under the Constitution, can allocate their electoral votes any way they see fit. The campaign proposes to secure legislation — state by state — to allocate votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. As soon as you’ve signed up enough states to get 270 electoral votes, you have a de facto popular vote system in place.”

    Here is their web site:

  2. June 6, 2006 8:45 am

    Hi Count and Rufus T.,

    The Electoral College is one of the most genius aspects to the American form of government. The Electoral College is a shield against the cheating by party hacks at the local level which includes, but is not limited to, illegal’s voter’s in California, casket voters in Chicago and Arkansas, felon voter’s in Florida, etc., etc… Changing the Electoral College is a sure fire way to start a civil war. Rufus T., what on earth are you smoking?

  3. June 6, 2006 10:55 am

    I tend to agree that the Elecoral college is a briliant way to adress a number of potential issues as David describes.

    Some potential changes to consider:

    1) Holding all primaries on the same day in each state. This would force politicians to campaign more widely- to what effect I am not sure. Perhaps it would favor more moderate candiates- perhaps it would increase the partisanship even more to get attention. At least the process would be less in the control of the media circus and less subject to phony positioning by candidates. Then again, the parties wouldn’t be able to gradually come to a candidate and platform that seems the most responsive to the electorate.

    2) Giving electoral votes on a porportional basis on a state-by-state level. I am reluctant to give up some sense of state’s preference in the election. At least this way, some porportion of the vote would be reflected in the vote count.


  4. June 6, 2006 11:23 am

    Hi Count,

    What problem are you trying to solve with your suggestions?

    Politicians are partisan. So what? Government, in my lifetime at least, has been very centrist. Johnson, Nixon and Carter moved the country a little to the left. Kennedy, Reagan, and Bush II a little to the right. Eisenhower, Ford, Bush I, and Clinton maintained the status quo.

    Sure, I would like better choices, but I don’t know that overall government policy would be much different than it is now if we would have had different Presidents for the last 50 years. The system we have is very moderating for all.

  5. June 6, 2006 11:37 am

    I think the idea of a simple popular vote is hard to resist. It is not implemented elsewhere, so it feels wierd and archaic. Which is no good reason to get rid of it, I hasten to add. My gut feeling is that the Electoral College is indeed a brilliant solution to many problems far more worthy of consideration.

    Sometimes, I’d like to drastically shorten the process. It’s been all about ’08 since the election.

    Other changes I’d consider:
    *Getting rid of term limits for the president
    *and/or, lengthening the term of the President to 5 years.0
    *eleminating the Office of Special Counsel

    I’m sick of the now mandatory 2nd term investigation and threat of impeachment etc. What a time waste. Hated it for Clinton, hate it now. Too clueless on Regan at the time. It also seems like 4 years is now too short a time to get anything done, especially if it’s the 2nd 4 years. Better to proceed not knowing if the President might get elected again.

    All of this from the hip thinking, not my specialty.

  6. June 6, 2006 1:19 pm

    Hi Again Count,

    Even if we knew with absolute certainty every vote was a legal vote and every voter was still alive, which we never will, the Electoral College system has a moderating effect on politics. Since each state has a maximum number of possible votes in the Electoral College, politicians must address regional and state issues across the country. Otherwise, California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida voters could control every Presidential election. The Electoral College is a good system that has served America very well.

    It sounds like you want less time, effort, money, etc., spent campaigning and more time and effort spent governing from our elected officials. This sounds nice, but I’m still not sure what problem you are trying to solve or why we would get better laws and better enforcement of existing laws with less campaigning.

    Cutting through all of the BS seems to be a part of freedom. Choosing a President, a bar of soap, a new carpet, jogging shoes, etc., would be so much easier if we just had a simple algorithm for calculating the bang for the buck. However, along with freedom comes advertising and spin. It is not limited to politics.

  7. Andrew P permalink
    June 6, 2006 4:15 pm

    A chief problem with the electoral college is its formula, which assigns each state 2 votes for its two senators + 1 for each congressional representative (this latter based on population).

    By design, this favors small states at the expense of more populous ones. As I recall, originally this was an inducement to persuade smaller states to join the union: they would not be overwhelmed by the population of heavy hitters such as (at that time) Virginia and Massachusetts.

    I would argue that in modern times the resultant distorting effect is undemocratic enough that the EC should be reformed. For example, using 2000 Census data, each California vote corresponds to 1/616000 of an elector, while each Wyoming vote corresponds to 1/165000 of an elector, or 3.74 times as much as a Californian’s vote. (These ratios calculated using total population; using registered voter totals the values are CA: 1/286000; WY: 1/73000; ratio WY/CA: 3.89).

    This effect has been around for quite a while. It used to be moderated somewhat when there was more diversity of small and large states in the D and R camps. These days when many D voters are crowded into a few populous urban states, the effect seems more pronounced, more one-sided, if you will.

    To me, winner-take-all is not as serious a problem, since states can unilaterally use other means for apportioning their votes; Maine and Nebraska already do so.

    Yes, our federal system needs some mechanism to make sure that voices from Wyoming, Alaska, Vermont, the Dakotas, etc. aren’t ignored. But the current electoral college formula tilts the balance much too far in the other direction.

    Rufus T. mentioned that we didn’t set up an electoral college system in Iraq. In the burgeoning democracies we see in E. Europe, Asia, Latin America, archaisms such as the EC are on the wane, while European-style parliamentary systems are seen as more direct and hence transparent. A true multi-party parliamentary system, with publically financed elections — now that would be a way to show the world we are serious about one-person one-vote small-d democracy.

  8. June 6, 2006 4:28 pm

    Hi Andrew P.,

    I’ll ask you the same question I asked the Count: What problem are you trying to solve? America is already more successful and more influential than any other country. Why do we want to be more like Europe or any other democracy?

  9. Rufus T. Flinger permalink
    June 6, 2006 5:27 pm

    To David’s repeated question, I think here is the problem you are trying to solve (pulled from the national popular election site):

    First, voters are effectively disenfranchised in two thirds of the states in presidential elections. Under the now-prevailing statewide winner-take-all rule, presidential candidates do not campaign in states in which they are far ahead because they do not receive any additional electoral votes by winning such states by a larger margin. Similarly, candidates ignore states where they are far behind because they have nothing to gain by losing those states by a smaller margin.”

    Second, the current system does not reliably reflect the nationwide popular vote. The statewide winner-take-all rule makes it possible for a candidate to win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.”

    Third, not every vote is equal. The statewide winner-take-all rule creates variations of 1000-to-1 and more in the weight of a vote. For example, Gore won five electoral votes by carrying New Mexico by 365 popular votes in the 2000 presidential election, whereas Bush won five electoral votes by carrying Utah by 312,043 popular votes—an 855-to-1 disparity in the importance of a vote.”

    Nationwide popular election of the President is the only system that:

    (1) makes all states competitive in presidential elections,

    (2) guarantees that the candidate with the most popular votes nationwide wins the Presidency, and

    (3) makes every vote equal.

    Either David: can I understand better why you view the electoral college is a moderating force?

    Wouldn’t it be more moderating to force Presidential candidates to take issues from EVERY state seriously and to campaign on the issues effecting EVERY part of the country, not just “Swing State” issues?

    And relating to the issue of voter fraud, they make a good argument on the national voter site as to how the electoral college would encourage fraud, and the direct vote discourage it:

    “…one of the things we can do to limit fraud is to limit the benefits to be gained by fraud. Under a direct popular vote system, one fraudulent vote wins one vote in the return. In the electoral college system, one fraudulent vote could mean 45 electoral votes, 28 electoral votes…. So the incentive to participate in ‘a little bit of fraud,’ if I may use that phrase advisedly, can have the impact of turning a whole electoral block, a whole State operating under the unit rule.

    Therefore, so the incentive to participate in fraud is significantly greater than it would be under the direct popular vote system.”

  10. Andrew P permalink
    June 6, 2006 5:47 pm

    David Smith asks the Count and also yours truly:

    What problem are you trying to solve?

    i.e., by suggesting reforms the electoral college/our entire electoral system.

    After all,

    America is already more successful and more influential than any other country.

    As good stewards of our success and influence, blessings indeed, we should always be on the lookout for problems in our system and ways to preserve and improve it.

    The Count mentioned a few nits: disunity, immoderation, media circus fanning pseudo conflicts and encouraging candidate grandstanding on silly wedge issues (while ignoring other more substantive differences?).

    I would go on, starting with a more perfect union vis-a-vis a fairer process.
    I would add addressing low and declining participation in the electoral process, which arguably comes from people correctly judging that their votes don’t matter very much (swing voters in Ohio, maybe, but the rest of us). I would conclude with the pernicious and corrosive influence of money (corporate, union, lobbyist, special interest, 529, hard, soft, PAC, pretty much all of it) on the process.

    Will a parliamentary system solve all of this? Of course not! But a system where some voters’ votes count more than others should be an insult to the sensibilities of all, not an excuse for resting on our laurels. And I might add that a system where a president whose popularity is in the 30’s could get a realistic kick in the pants is an improvement over one which encourages an “Apres moi” type of stubbornness.

  11. June 7, 2006 8:57 am

    Hi again Rufus T. and Andrew P.,

    I completely agree with Andrew P. that as a country we should always strive to be better. Actually, most of the time, we need to strive just to stay good. However, I do not agree that changing a system that has worked better than every other system on earth would be a step in the right direction. Other countries should copy us, we should not be copying them.

    The direct election of our President and/or higher voter turnout would probably give us worse government, not better government. Countries with pure democratic elections of their President or Prime Minister are all more corrupt than America. Countries with higher voter turnout than America, and most countries have higher voter turnout, all have worse leaders than America. I don’t think this is purely a coincidence. There is a correlation between direct elections, high voter turnout, and bad government.

    With the Electoral College, there is no reason to cheat in most states. The outcome in California, New York, Texas, etc., is all predetermined. Cheating is constrained to the few competitive States where the outcome is uncertain. With less reason to cheat, fewer opportunities to cheat, and a greater focus on the States where cheating is suspected, the cheating can be identified, sometimes prevented, and usually fixed. However, without the Electoral College, cheating would happen up and down every state. It would be impossible to identify and correct all of the corruption.

    We will never know with certainty who won the 2000 Presidential election. However, we do know it was a photo finish and it was so close that either candidate had a legitimate claim to the Presidency. Without the Electoral College, a legitimate President would not have been possible. President Clinton never won a majority of the popular vote, but he had the support of the majority of the population because of our system, and he had a successful Presidency for the most part.

    The reason I can claim the Electoral College is a moderating force is because in my lifetime every President has governed as a centrist. See my earlier comment. Like both of you, I would like better government. I would also like a more beautiful wife, more obedient children, and a higher paying job, but I’m not about to get rid of my wife, my children, or my job, because when I compare my wife, my children, and my job to other wives, children, and jobs, I realize I already have it as good as it is going to get this side of heaven. Our Presidential election system is not perfect, but it is the best. Changing it would be a mistake.

  12. Andrew P permalink
    June 7, 2006 5:50 pm

    I agree with David Smith on two points.

    (1) If we believe our electoral system is the best and has produced the best results because of its unique characteristics, by no means should we make any changes.

    (2) Voter fraud should be taken seriously. If the EC reduces fraud, that is a point in its favor.

    Some analyses find that fraud is minimized by the grouping effect of the electoral college. Others maintain that the disproportionate value of swing voters give well-situated fraudulent votes huge sway, and so the EC is worse w.r.t. fraud. (I note in passing that minimizing fraud was not the founders’ intent, but attenuating the effect of the masses, by mediating the popular vote through the EC (and state legislatures originally) and of course, limiting the vote itself to landowning men).

    And yet, a few points counter to David’s conclusions, however, arise:

    A. Many of the 16 countries which show better than we on Transparency International’s corruption index are liberal democracies with parliamentary systems. (No, not “pure democracies,” but pretty clearly more direct than our own odd bird; and generally with high turnout). These are places like Iceland, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark, etc. Countries similar to our in culture and heritage (UK, Australia, Canada) all show us up as well.

    One doesn’t have to accept all of TI’s assumptions or conclusions to recognize that other countries have implemented democracy more directly and completely without turning into fraud-ridden dens of corruption.

    B. Granting for the sake of argument that our EC system is superior, how do we rationalize that changes that we have made? I mean, if tinkering with a good thing is so dangerous, why did we sanction amendments 12, 15, 19, 20, 22, 23, and 26, all of which changed elections, some to a great degree.

    Many of these amendments made our system of representation broader, fairer, and more direct. Reforms to get rid of the influence of money and to reducing the skewing effect of the EC make sense using the same rationale.

  13. June 8, 2006 9:50 am

    Hi Andrew P.,

    Voter fraud should be taken seriously. As should the affects of money in politics. Fraud, corruption, and money in politics all go together. I am convinced, at this point anyway, that the EC is a shield against all of these factors for the reasons I have previously given.

    Of the countries you listed, most have monogamous populations and do not have a high degree of controversy, corruption, or significance on the world stage. Canada and the UK are a little different. These two countries are less monogamous than the others, have some significance on the world stage, and do have a very high degree of corruption and marginal leadership. Australia is somewhere in the middle.

    In the past, like you, I have been attracted to the parliamentary system. It seems on paper to represent minorities better than a two party, winner take all, system. However, I don’t see any evidence that it has worked any better for the countries that are parliamentarian.

    I am not against tweaking our system if the tweaks will make the system better or fairer. However, a case can be made that the direct election of Senators and the popular vote for President has added to the money, fraud, and corruption in elections and in government. As a voter who researches candidates, I think one improvement would be a minimal qualification in order to vote beyond citizenship. It seems to me that the money and corruption in campaigns and government is a result of voters getting their information from television and direct mail. Requiring voters to take a quick test before voting might be an improvement I would support and could lead to the withdrawal of my support for the EC.

  14. June 8, 2006 11:09 am

    I need and editor. I meant homogeneous not monogamous.

  15. Andrew P permalink
    June 15, 2006 5:08 pm

    Maybe voter fraud is more serious than I had imagined.

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