In defense of the Electoral College followed by a plea for real reform

As I write the first draft of this (November 8, 2000) there is a more than even chance that the winner of the popular vote in the 2000 presidential elections, Al Gore, will not be the winner of the Electoral College vote, and thus George W. Bush will become President. And this is indeed as it turned out. See A tale of two principles for some of my comments on that. There will be comments and suggestions that the Electoral College (henceforth "EC") is unfair. A number of very reasonable people who have thought deeply and carefully about Americans elect our president argue that the EC is unfair for exactly these reasons. They will also point out other anachronisms of the EC which make it seem unsuited to a modern democracy.

The objections to the EC are merited. But, I argue here, there are also some good reasons for some of the seemingly bizarre stipulations of the EC. I am not, however, defending all aspects of it. Indeed, it is most certainly not the system I would support if we were designing a system from scratch today, although there are some properties I would try to keep. Let me also note that I do consider the current voting system massively unfair, but not because of the EC.

Objections to the EC

Although, they have all been stated before, I'd like to very briefly review the objections to the EC, all of which have merit (although some less than others).
  1. Violates "one person, one vote" principle. If the popular vote and the EC outcome do not match, then clearly not all votes are equal. A voter in Florida has had more influence on the outcome than me, a voter in California. Indeed, the candidates know this which is why they put much more effort into campaigning for votes in Florida than they did in California. Those Florida votes (as ones in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc) were simply more valuable then votes in California, New York, the Carolina's, etc. This is a direct consequence of the "winner-take-state" property of the EC. It doesn't matter the margin by which you win a state. Getting a simple plurality of votes in the state is worth as much as getting 90% of the vote in the state. Likewise, losing by 1% is no worse than losing by 80%.
  2. Indirectness of voting Technically, Americans vote not for presidential candidates but for "Electors committed to a particular candidate". There is nothing that actually binds these electors to their commitment. Originally, the idea was that the electors wouldn't even be committed, but that voters would really be selecting individuals who would then select the president. While there may have been some virtue in that 200 years ago with the idea that voters may trust the judgment of local officials that they know, who in turn knew more about national politics, there is clearly no justification for that kind of indirect election today. Although, one advantage is that it provides a mechanism for selecting a president if the EC favored candidate dies between the time that voters' ballots are finalized and the time that the Electors select the president. Some procedure like that would save the court battles we are going to see regarding the Missouri election for US Senate. But there are ways to get this benefit without having indirect election.
  3. Clumsiness of procedure The actual formal procedures reflect concerns and technologies 200 years out of date. They became out of date with the invention of the telegraph.

I will not be defending either indirectness or the clumsiness of the EC. I suggest that those two problems alone don't justify amending the Constitution. In practice the Indirectness is not really an a problem, and the Clumsiness we can just view as some quaint ritual, and even enjoy if we are so inclined. My focus is on Winner-Take-State.

The People or the States?

In modern times, it is hard to remember that the states (well the older ones) really were states, independent countries in their own right. These states formed a federation in which each state had a voice, irrespective of its population. Currently the European Union requires unanimity of the member countries or near unanimity for some decisions. Small countries in the Union have, for some questions, as much of a voice as big ones. The selection of the president of the European Commission is one of these. The United States of America is also a union of states, in which each state has a voice in national policy.

The clearest place that this happens is with the make up of the Senate. A voter in Wyoming has a far greater say in the composition of the US Senate then me, a voter in California. And the purpose is clear, the Senate is where the states have their voice, while the House of Representatives is where the population as a whole have their representatives.

Now should be President be selected by the states (as the Senate is) with each state having an equal voice (but each voter having an unequal voice), or should the President be selected like the House where each voter has an equal voice, but states are very unequal?

The "winner take state" system is a compromise between the two. It makes each states voice roughly proportional to its population, but it also means that big states can't take advantage of their large populations beyond that. The EC prevents a candidate from trying to win very big in a few big states (or population centers) while ignoring the rest of the country. While with the EC an election may depend on a few crucial states, you can never win by only winning in a few states. You can only with the EC by winning in a substantial number of states.

While there are alternatives to the EC which would do the same much more cleanly (such as using national popular vote, but adding on "bonus" votes for each state won were the bonus votes are on a "winner take state" basis), the EC is a remarkably clever compromise.

As the US becomes more homogeneous by region and state the the importance of state voices declines. But I do not think that that has occurred to the point where it would be wise to ditch the compromise the EC achieves.

Other voting system reform

I do support some radical changes in the voting system in the US, even though I defend the Electoral College. The current system is massivly unfair in that it forces people to vote for the "lesser of two evils". Democracy shouldn't be that way. Our ballots should reflect our sincere choices and not some calculations designed to stop someone we don't like.

In particular I support the idea of "Preference Voting" in which individual votes don't just mark there first choice, but actually rank the candidates on a ballot from first choice to last choice. If the system is designed properly it eliminates the situation where one might vote for the "lesser of two evils". (If it is designed improperly, like most instant run off systems, then it doesn't actually improve things). Let me just say that I support a tallying system for Preference Voting called Condorcet.

I will write more on this, probably in a second document with links to good resources, at some later date, but let me provide one source of technical information about voting methods.

And a note to Nader voters

I voted for Al Gore instead of any other candidate on the ballot because I agreed with him more on fundamental issues and philosophy. I will be disappointed if he loses this election. And despite the claim that Nader voters wouldn't have voted had Nader not been running, it is just not plausible that Nader support didn't draw enough in Florida from Gore to cost the election if Gore loses. But if you voted for Nader because he was your favored candidate, you did the right thing.

I think you were wrong to agree with Nader. I consider him very wrong on many extremely important things, but I passionately dislike the electoral system that tries to make people choose the lesser of two evils instead of voting for whom they support. People shouldn't have to hold their noses when the vote. And don't believe that it has to be that way. The Condorcet voting system would fix that.

So, Nader voters, although I disagree with your candidate and political outlook and may be very unhappy with the consequences of your votes, I support your decision to vote for a thrid party candidate in the face of an unfair voting system. You refused to let your vote be corrupted by an unfair voting system. Let's support electoral reform so that nobody has to let their vote be corrupted.

Most of this applies not just to Nader voters, but to all who voted for third parties. The only thing that makes Nader voters special is that they may have swung the election, and so are being presented as "spoilers". Yet, all they did was vote honestly. Is a system where voting honestly makes you a spoiler democratic? A democratic election should come to a collective decision based on the preferences of the electorate. Surely the electorate should state their preferences honestly.

Blowing smoke

There is no doubt in my mind that if a campaign to fix the voting system ever gets started in earnest, the two big parties will do everything in their power to discredit it. They will do this primarily by spreading half-truths and attempting to confuse voters. Let me anticipate some of the myths they will spread.

Over the next few days [From Noveber 8, 2000 when this was written], I will put in links to resources about these issues, but I am a bit tired from a sleepness night and have other things to do as well. [In June 2001, I still haven't done that. Maybe I still will.]

Version: $Revision: 1.12 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2003/01/15 06:29:56 $ GMT
First established November 8, 2000
Author: Jeffrey Goldberg