« Cameras and the Economy? | Main | 'Innovate as a last resort' »

Saturday, 04 October 2008


"except in Maine and Nevada"

Actually, it's Maine and Nebraska that have odd systems. Nevada is a winner-take-all state.

The Electoral system is about the balance of power. Without it, states like New York and California would rule the rest of us. We would no longer matter and politicans wouldn't listen to us or our re presentative. The Elector College was established and well thought out to prevent the supression of the less populated states. Be careful what you ask for my friends - the result may not be what you expect.

Why should the vote of one American in a small state matter more than the vote of one American in a large state? And in what way would a nationwide plurality vote be unfair to people in small states? One person, one vote. Plain and simple.

I'd argue that right now the situation is the opposite--sparsely populated states get more than their fair share of representation, primarily because of their two Senators. And that advantage carries over into the election for President. How is that a) fair or b) desirable? It's just as easy to argue that it distorts the "Will of the People."

Mike J.

I agree with the spirit of Barb's comment, the electoral college has some merits in that sense. But Mike is also right: instead of California and New York, we are now ruled by Ohio and Florida.

I think a national solution would be hard if not impossible to achieve. The fairest would probably be to reform things at the state level, with the goal of having states assign electors proportionally. It would have to be done in pairs or groups of states, as to keep the balance of red and blue and have legislators go for it. It's also unlikely to happen, but a bit more realistic to expect.

I agree the Electoral College makes it so that the vote does not represent the will of the majority of Americans at times, and I can see no reasonable justification for that. In a democracy, the majority of the people should decide who is elected. I also agree the current system of having two senators from each state already favors the "will" of the less populated states. Another thing that is unfair about our system is the effect that a third or fourth party (which I am for) may have on the outcome. For example, if Hilary were running as an independent and Obama as a democrat, McCain would win by a landslide, even though he may have lost to either Obama or Hilary were they running alone. There should be a run off to prevent what happened to Gore in 2000 or to the first Bush in 1992. This is especially true since it is the parties with the most popular platforms that are the most likely to be split.

In terms of the latest, and perhaps over-the-top, assimilation of polling data, the fivethirtyeight.com website provides as good of a statistical inference on the incoming polling data as I have seen it.

The comments are slanted towards Obama, but the math is not manipulated in that regard.

The Electoral College seems to be a good way to neutralize the fact that, arguably, most people in the US do not vote while being well informed, or on balancing a variety of issues. However, this is in conflict with the one person, one vote mantra. I think the latter is a very theoretical appealing aspect of democracy, but practically can have some problems -- as in the California/Texas/NY axis of power based on single interest that dominates those states: the battleground states will always be the same (those that take the majority of votes), since candidates cannot campaign in all 50 states within the span of a campaign.

Perhaps the one person, one vote system would be most effective if there were viable 3rd and 4th parties at play, and coalitions would have to be built for governing.

I agree with Barb. It would make no sense for presidential candidates to spend any time whatsoever in vast swaths of America if not for the electoral college. John McCain could win far more votes nationally by focusing advertising efforts in the LA basin, Manhattan, and Michigan --- areas he's sure to lose -- than by spending any time at all between the Mississippi and the coast ranges; the old south wouldn't see much of him either. Obama is going to win California no matter what happens; he's probably going to win by more than 60%, because California trends that way, and McCain's efforts there are muted because spending money is just wasting it. If McCain could just drop that to 55%, he'd win more pure votes than if he spent any time or money campaigning in the non-coastal west and plains states. Yet we have to hold the country together -- it's a big place.

The electoral college has been very successful in modeling the national vote, having failed only twice in more than two hundred years; and it guarantees that the whole country participates in the election. A good deal, I think.

When Gore lost in 2000 (he won the popular vote by 500,000 out of 100,000,000 cast) he still only had slightly more than 48% of the vote, to slightly less than 48% for Bush -- and the "lost" 4% of the vote that went to other people (mostly Buchanan) was conservative, for the most part, so the electoral college result more closely modeled the sentiment of the majority of the voters that would have had a Gore victory.

When you want to see what happens to a large, sprawling country where the vote is 1-1, with nothing else to hold it together, look at Canada. It has virtually become a politically regionalist country, with different parties ruling different areas of the country, and the national government being increasingly weak and disorganized.

We need to preserve the sense of the US as a group of United States, where people in Wyoming and Kansas are as important as the people in New York and California. This isn't a baseball game, where 1 run is as good as a hundred...


We aren't ruled by Nebraska and Florida so much as GOP and DEM, or CNN and FOX. They control the candidates, they determine who gets fair time and who has a chance of winning an election. All this voting business, well, it's the only way they'd like the little people to have an impact, but it's not where the important decisions get made, or where influence is really being peddled.

I should add that as a Nebraskan, I'm used to being called odd for a variety of reasons, including that I'm not a Republican or an ideological conservative. But there's nothing particularly odd about not having a winner-takes-all electoral system when the interests of your state are very different from east to west as ours are.

Dear Mike,

I won't try speaking to desirable, but I will note that the Electoral College is entirely consistent with the overall structure and philosophy of the country. Remember that this is the United States of America, not "America." For good or for bad, the US government has two constituencies, the people and the individual states. In that long-running tension between federal authority versus state autonomy versus individual rights, the Electoral College makes just as much sense as the state-oriented Senate (vs the people-oriented House).

If it weren't a three-party dance like that, that would be a different matter. So long as it is, though, sparse states are not really getting more than their "fair share" anymore then your single vote in the election gives you more than your fair share of influence, when the millionaire who owns three houses across town also only gets one vote.

I'm not arguing for or against the College, I'm just pointing out that it is not inconsistent nor unfair in context.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com

Dear Juan,

I agree with you on one point, disagree on the other.

On the disagreement: Ohio and Florida do not rule. They are merely the ones being courted by the campaigns, because they haven't made up their minds. Do you seriously think any candidate or federal government dare ignore California? We are the 500 pound canary: when we say "CHOIP" we do get heard. And our votes and influence overwhelm the smaller states; it's just our intentions are already known.

We're also a major source of funds for any presidential candidate, and of course they curry favor. They just don't curry election votes. Frankly, I'm grateful we don't get the campaigning and being deluged with obnoxious ads.

If campaigning politicians were legally obliged to honor their campaign promises, then there might be some merit to your worries. But they're not... and they don't. And while the nature of the race (and the way it's played as a race in the news reports) may give the impression that they only care about the small states, nothing could be further from the truth.

On the point on which I agree with you: I would like to see Electoral delegates assigned in proportion to the voting results, state by state. I think the current system is a bad one because it discourages people from voting or even participating in the campaign process if they're in a state whose winner is a foregone conclusion.

I would note that this does not necessarily produce a change in outcome; in fact, usually it doesn't. None of the proposed schemes for "proportional" Electoral representation would have changed the results of the 2000 election, for example (I ran the numbers because I was curious and the data was available). But it's bad process and it's bad for politics, if people in a democracy think their votes don't matter.

Dear John,

Nope. In 2000, Bush got 47.9% of the popular vote, Gore got 48.4% of the popular vote, and Nader got 2.7% of the popular vote. All the other candidates combined got about 1%. (Numbers rounded off to 10ths of a percent)

So, if you are going to attempt to argue "will of the people", it was actually liberal, not conservative.

The moral? Always double-check your data [ grin ].

Regardless, this is describing a specific case of the Voters Paradox. It's mathematically provable that no voting system will always reflect the will of the people. In part that is because of how "will" is defined. For example, in your (erroneous) analysis, the will was not reflected if the question were which candidate do people prefer the most, but the will was reflected if the question were do people prefer a liberal or conservative candidate. This is the well-known "ticket-splitting" problem in a winner-take-all election. But there are equally pernicious problems with all possible voting systems.

It's impossible to produce a voting system that is objectively fair and accurate.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ please excuse any word salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's online Gallery http://ctein.com
-- Digital restorations http://photo-repair.com

Whether you agree or disagree with the electoral college system, it is important for American voters to at least have a basic understanding of how it works. Mike has given that here. During the coverage of the fiasco in Florida after the 2000 election, it was discouraging to me to witness how many working journalists, people whom one would assume have some type of college degree, didn't seem to understand how the United States elects a president, or the basics of the electoral college system.

IF the president didnt have the power he has now but was merely a representative of the united states the electoral college would be fair.
but as the democratic leader he should have the majority of the population behind him. having the choice between two parties with every third choice being hopelessly overruled is even more ridiculous.
thats why other democracies have a president (elected NOT by the general public) to talk nicely and a prime minister or chancellor (from the leading party voted by the plebs) to do the business.

I think the intent of the Electoral College was/is to provide a safety measure in case the "masses" decide to give the popular vote to a decidedly bad candidate. Hopefully the relatively sane and responsible electors would/will vote their conscience rather than following what the people voted for. Given how stupid the people are, and how loosely voting privileges are given to people I don't think have business voting, I think it's a wise system.

I doubt that anyone since the founding fathers could have devised such a nearly perfect constitution. It makes me think that America was indeed blessed and special... at least until the two-party system took over.

Without proportional representation, does the electoral system really matter?

JC wrote:

"the "lost" 4% of the vote that went to other people (mostly Buchanan) was conservative, for the most part, so the electoral college result more closely modeled the sentiment of the majority of the voters that would have had a Gore victory."

Actually, most of those 4% went to Ralph Nader: Nader received almost 2.9 million votes, whereas Pat Buchanan received less than 500,000. So I disagree that the electoral college result modeled the sentiments of the country.

John Kamp wrote:

"When Gore lost in 2000, he still only had slightly more than 48% of the vote, to slightly less than 48% for Bush -- and the 'lost' 4% of the vote that went to other people (mostly Buchanan) was conservative, for the most part, so the electoral college result more closely modeled the sentiment of the majority of the voters that would have had a Gore victory."

Not so. Quite the contrary.

The percentages (rounded to 1/10th) in descending order were Gore 48.4%, Bush 47.9%, NADER 2.7%, Buchanan 0.4%, and [Libertarian candidate] 0.4 (For those following along, in 2000 each 1% corresponded to a little more than 1 million people.)

Most analysts would agree that most of the 2.9 million people who voted for Nader would have voted for Gore (not Bush!) if Nader had not been in the race, and Gore would have a much larger margin of victory than the half-million-plus margin that he actually had.

Mike: There is a BIG advantage to being in a state that is already decided. Far fewer inane political commercials. Of course, I record virtually everything I want to watch on TV these days to bypass the insulting ads.

I have written this before: it will never happen, but I wish we had a parliamentary system. Instead, we're locked into a two party system permanently.

We don't have a Green Party, nor a Labor Party. We also don't have 100% public financing, so campaign contributions are really bribes.

There's another important point that was made clear during the fight over the Florida recount in 2000.

Imagine if we had a statistical tie in the popular vote (which we effectively did) and the losing party cried foul. The chaos over the Florida recount would be nothing compared to the chaos of a nationwide recount.

The electoral system helps contain the damage in very tight elections. I'm sure that wasn't the intent, but it's worth keeping that in mind if/when we have another mess like 2000. It could be worse.

"Most analysts would agree that most of the 2.9 million people who voted for Nader would have voted for Gore (not Bush!) if Nader had not been in the race, and Gore would have a much larger margin of victory..."

True, and don't forget that this cuts both ways. Bill Clinton was handed victory by H. Ross Perot; but for Perot (who, I believe, still holds the modern record for votes received by a third-party candidate), George H.W. Bush would probably have won a second term.

Mike J.

Frank Petronio: ALL citizens have business voting, whether you like it or not.

It's dangerous to assume too much about which candidate is harmed the most by a third party.

The local Republican spokespersons like to grouse about Libertarian voters who (paraphrasing) "clearly wouldn't have voted for the Democratic candidate." I want to throw something about my television set every time I hear that, because I typically vote Democrat/Libertarian. My fiscal conservatism often takes a back seat to my social liberalism.

Did Ross Perot really hand victory to Clinton, or is that just conventional wisdom? Would those voters have turned out at all, and in what proportion would they have voted for each major party candidate?

As an American living in Toronto, the biggest difference in elections is the length. Here in Canada, they'll be done in about 5 weeks. Back in the States, however, the election has gone on for the entire year. Many of the candidates opened their campaigns in early 2007, and some of them did so in 2006.

And we have another month to go.

On changing the constitution -- there are several ways of doing it, but the option of calling a constitutional convention is basically permanently out. The convention's authority couldn't be limited to a single issue, like abolishing the electoral college in favor of the popular vote. Of course one can go through Congress, and we know how wonderfully that institution is working at present. We'd probably end up with a system involving popular votes multiplied by personal income tax figures and divided by the number of moose one has shot.

Forgot about Nader (mea culpa.) I'm not sure I'd call him a liberal, though, especially since he proclaimed loudly, and to any one who would listen, that the Bush-Gore choice was no real choice at all. Most people who voted for him, in my opinion, were protesting the choices we were faced with, and could have gone either way, were it not for the realities of Bush/Gore.

As for people who want a multi-party system, look at Israel. In Israel, the smallest, most extreme parties always hold the balance of power, and as a result, the extremists are unduly powerful. Imagine what would happen here if we had a multi-party system in which the Dems got 45%, the Republicans got 45%, and the remainder was held by a religious party (as in Israel, for example) and that party's platform called for required Christian prayer in public schools, the abolition of abortion, etc. Most Americans oppose those things, but we would soon find (as Israel has) that few politicians can resist the temptation to power, if it only means a "little" compromise...

The American political system of balances really is the product of genius, and shouldn't be tampered with lightly.


Two thoughts come to mind here. First when it comes to the presidential election it's a shame someone in say Massachusetts can't vote Republican and someone here in Texas can't vote Democrat. You can try but the system in place renders it all in vain.

#2 On a personal note I think it's a shame how divided the country is along party lines and as time goes on it only seems to get worse. No matter who wins this election they have my support. I wish more folks felt this way.

Dear John,

Actually, it's worse than you imagine. Paper ballot systems have been studied VERY extensively-- they're only around 1% or so accurate. That's inherent error rate, not fraud.

So, any time an issue or candidate gets decided by a 49%/51% vote, you have a statistical tie. It's really being decided by the equivalent of a flip of a coin. The "will'o'da'people" is simply not knowable with greater precision.**

Fortunately, for the sake of civil order, most people don't know this [machiavellian smile].

pax / Ctein

P.S. An appendation to an earlier post of mine-- I forgot to mention that strict two-choice votes are not subject to the Voters' Paradox problem. It's when you have more than two choices that it becomes impossible to create a system that perfectly reflects the electorate's will.

(** people might want to recontemplate the 2000 election in light of this.)

In all of the grand study of elections, one thing has become clear, and that is that the USA has the single worst system. It guarantees that minority viewpoints get no representation, and that if you do vote for a party that actually represents your views you are effectively voting for the winner. That's why we have no effective Green Party, or National Front, for that matter. The problems of the Electoral College pale in comparison to the problem of first-past-the-post/winner-take-all elections.

"As for people who want a multi-party system, look at Israel. In Israel, the smallest, most extreme parties always hold the balance of power, and as a result, the extremists are unduly powerful."

I think the problem in Israel, is that they do not have separation of church and state. That's why the NLP (National Religious Party) has such sway. I remember a cartoon some time ago in the "Jerusalem Post." It showed everyone in a boxing ring on the floor, with the referee proclaiming Joseph Berg the winner. A tiny, vocal minority was needed by a major party to get anything done in the Knesset (Parilament in Hebrew).

I don't think they have such a problem in Canada, or England or any other place with a parliamentary system - that is extremists rule in the end.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007