Monday, March 27, 2006

Electoral College redux....

An interesting issue is raised by David Broder of the Washington Post, in a recent editorial titled: "Electoral College foes devise plan for popular vote."

"The question of how we elect a president is up for debate again, with advocates of a majoritarian philosophy having invented a new device for moving to a direct popular vote for the chief executive. 

. . Rather than going through the labors of amending the Constitution to replace the Electoral College system with a national tally for president, which has failed every time it has been attempted, they have come up with a plan for bypassing the required two-thirds vote in the House and Senate and the ratification by three-fourths of the states.

. . Instead, the advocates propose that states with sufficient electoral votes -- 270 of the 538 -- to comprise an electoral majority enter into an interstate compact, pledging to give their votes to the candidate receiving the largest number of popular votes. That action could allow the legislatures of as few as 11 states to change the whole system of electing a president."

Sponsored by former independent presidential nominee John Anderson and former Senator Birch Bayh, it has been endorsed by Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker and, earlier this month, by the editorial page of The New York Times, which called the Electoral College ''an antidemocratic relic."

Broder opposes this endeavor, for reasons that I do not dispute.

Yes, had this system been in place, the national tragicomic farce that began unrolling in 2000 would not have happened. We would have been spared the spectacle of a divisively partisan president claiming "mandate" when his opponent actually got more votes.

Still, I am unimpressed with the argument that a plurality winner who has surpassed his rival by only a few hundred votes - or a few thousand - is thus profoundly and qualitatively endowed with special mandatory grace, especially when "plurality" still means that more people voted against him than voted for him.

It is worth remembering that "majority rule" is not the core element of democracy. Rather it is democracy’s most crass and simpleminded aspect, emphasizing the raw power of larger numbers to impose their will upon smaller numbers. An improvement over rule by bullying minorities of gentry and oligarchs, but not a perfect one.

Indeed, majority rule was held in low esteem - considered a necessary evil - by everyone from Pericles to the American Founders, who went out of their way to emphasize other, more important democratic traits, like balance of power, reciprocal accountability, openness, individual rights and the need for relentless and ongoing negotiation. -- especially with aggrieved minorities. The Electoral College was itself set up in order to add complexity and to modify the crude passions of majority rule.

See: The Myth of Majority Rule.

The Anderson-Bayh proposal coarsely attempts to impose the will of just a dozen states upon the whole nation - not in picking a president, per se (since the plurality-winner is at least as righteous a pick as anybody else), but by imposing a principle of pure majoritarianism... nay pluralitarianism... upon the nation without sufficient discussion or deliberation.

In order to see how foolish this is, try on this thought experiment.

Imagine that a truly powerful run by a couple of third-party candidates were to divide the electorate into tiny fragments, as happened in 1912 and even more so in 1860. Should the winner of as few as 26% of the popular votes automatically become president, without even a chance for the nation to take a breath and think things over? In theory, that candidate might be the hated bottom-choice of the divided 74%. Yet, under pluralitarianism, she or he would become chief executive.

Other countries solve this problem by holding run-offs among the top two vote-getters, something that seemed impossibly onerous and time-consuming in George Washington’s time. But why not today? Or let’s get even more modern. Ideally, in an age of computers, we should be smart enough to use preferential ballots, as they do in Australia, a sophisticated and just system under which Americans would get to rank-order their choices and be guaranteed never, ever to get a president who is hated by a majority. (More on this elsewhere.)

Ah, but as has been widely pointed out, these solutions require Constitutional tinkering that is nearly impossible to achieve, when powerful forces benefit from the status quo. Are we thus doomed forever to worry about rule by some dismal crackpot, put into office by some minority electoral quirk?

What is weird is that the Founders actually thought about this problem. We generally think of the Electoral College as a reflex and automatic vote-allocation system that works according to strict allocation by winner-takes-all in every state. But, in fact, the electors themselves are not required, by the Constitution, to act as complete robots. The word "college" implies some level of collegial deliberation is possible, and might even have been expected, by the Framers. Indeed, within living memory, a few electors have broken from strict partisan discipline and cast their votes in unexpected ways.

Consider the 2000 election, in which the Bush-Cheney team entered office by the margin of just ONE electoral vote, over-riding the pluralitarian will of the people. The mind is tempted to ponder some parallel world in which just one of the Bush-Cheney electors might have taken a notion to help heal a divided nation with a gesture, offering something to the disgruntled majority of Americans who had clearly voted against George W. Bush...

... that imaginative and public-spirited elector might have done this by casting a deciding VICE presidential vote for Joe Lieberman. With a stroke, this delegate to a sovereign constitutional institution might have forced a different, possibly more accommodating tone upon an administration that has made "culture war" its guiding principle. Is that parallel America happier than this one, less divided, less bitter? Would that one elector’s gesture have made any real difference? No one can say. But one thing is for certain. The Electoral College would have never again been viewed the same way.

I have taken too long on this. But let me conclude by saying that Anderson-Bayh almost certainly mean well. They just haven’t thought things out. There are some other possible ways to tweak and improve the Electoral College system, WITHOUT either tinkering with the Constitution or imposing an end-run trick, that out gerrymanders the gerrymanderers.

electoralcollegeI discuss this one such proposal at:

The kernel idea: we tend to assume that all states are required to divvy their electors according to a rule of "winner-takes-all." But familiar process this is, in fact, just another example of state-based gerrymandering. Two states use a different approach, more closely representing the will of their voters.

Is it possible that a simple lawsuit, demanding "one-person-one-vote"- if cogently presented, might persuade even this Supreme Court to banish winner-takes-all across the board? In a stroke, this would force the distribution of Electoral College votes to more closely reflect the popular vote. Imperfectly, but a step in the right direction. That is, if this Supreme Court actually values "one person, one vote."

gerrymanderingFor a more general look at gerrymandering, see: )

Alas, in the near term, none of these matters will make much difference. We are in a situation that few of us would have imagined, only a decade ago. In a 21st Century that was supposed to be sophisticated and subtle, with educated citizens engaged in even-tempered, complicated, problem-solving discourse, we find ourselves instead waging Culture War across ideological battle lines that would have looked simpleminded even to Huey Long.


For more on politics, see: Politics for the 21st Century

David Brin
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Xactiphyn said...

I love the idea of the Australian style, instant-runoff election, but most of the other ideas don't seem like they would change much. Sure, in cases like 2000 the result would differ, but just because "different" == "better" in this case doesn't mean it always will.

Anonymous said...

Completely off-topic. Sorry.

A couple of web sites indicate that that Stanislaw Lem died today.

I haven't seen a news story or an obituary yet.

Tony Fisk said...

The Australian preferential system may lower the perception of a mandate (and certainly seems to even out the senate, which is where the minorities tend to get a look-in), but it doesn't prevent the 'majority rules' syndrome.

What does give the ruling party pause to reflect is the occasional by-election. I've raised the notion before of having a series of rolling polls, say one per month so that each seat is voted for every 3 years. (More feasible these days, but unlikely to go anywhere)

Off topic: but relevant to initiatives like project Witness (to say nothing of the participatory society and transparent panopticon):

The US image rights bill
"[Paul] Newman is among a group of actors backing a bill banning the use of a person's image or voice without consent for up to 70 years after their death."

While I can see that an actor may wish to preserve image rights, what about the guy running the local sweatshop?

More off-topic (but good news)
The dawn mission to Ceres has been reinstated!

Rob Perkins said...

Proportional allocation of electoral votes seems more fair than winner-take-all, to be sure. And, I think two states do it.

But, how do you trade proportional elector assignment to get closer to the "ideal" (har har) of a directly elected executive, if you know that doing so will throw the game in favor of the dominant small-state party? (In our day and age, this would mean no Democratic president for quite a while)

David knows this of course, but don't forget that the Electoral College was designed *specifically* to allow the occasional election of a popular minority candidate to the Presidency. It's why the electoral college is set up the way it is, to give *slight* primacy to the small states.

reason said...

Tony Fisk,
I like to explain the Australian system like this - "as Australians don't trust pollies much, instead of electing the most popular, we elect the least unpopular." This does has the advantage of making disaffection visible (primary votes for small parties) and discouraging extremism (as does compulsory voting - very successful in practice but in "freedom" obsessed USA probably a no no).

I can see one practical limit on rolling local elections - how do you stop tactical registration?

And the whole issue of registration in a locality has its problems. As an ex-pat Aussie, living in Germany, I am totally disenfranchised. The closest I get to voting is discussing with my wife how she will vote. Still, even when I did have a vote, I never voted for anybody who won.

Interesting issue with democracy isn't it: being able to vote is crucial, but usually your individual vote isn't.-)

Anonymous said...

For another angle on the electoral college, read "The Librarian" by Larry Beinhart.

CJ-in-Weld said...

I don't think the Supreme Court has authority to say much about how the states apportion their electors, at least on a "one man, one vote" theory. The Constitution merely says: "Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors..." In other words, no "vote" is required at all. (I guess if Bush v. Gore stands for anything, it stands for the proposition that you can't change the rules mid-game. But the Court there didn't presume to dictate how the Florida legislature must designate the electors in the first place.)

Tony Fisk said...

wrt trusting pollies, the Australian tradition remains strong!
If, by tactical registration, you mean changing your residential address every month in order to vote often, I doubt that could be achieved in significant numbers without significant cost to the organisers, and without being noticed. It could be countered by specifying a minimum period (eg three months) between changes to your registration.

David has suggested a practical solution for the seemingly disenfranchised republicans of Massachussetts (see Gerrymandering Part 8*): hold their noses, register as democrats, vote for the least unsavoury nominee (to follwo the Australian tradition). Ditto the democrats of Alabama.

* David, the link to the start of this article that appears on the front page of your website should be ''

rev. billy bob gisher ©2008 said...

does not matter how you arrange it. if the people still throw a lever and then just walk out of the booth and disengage until the next election cycle, if they stay evenly (or close to) divided, control will be left in the hands of fundraisers and the few power crazed extremists that currently control each major party, the problem is not the system, it is the failure of the masses to understand how it must be used that is the problem.

just in case you did not guess, i do not consider engagement to be calling in on talk radio, writing blogs, or watching cable news.

reason said...

That is what happens in Australia but the other way around. If you don't vote they fine you some (fairly) trivial amount like a parking fine. Once I got sent a fine, but wrote back - "but I did vote". They then said "oh - that's OK then", so I think it is not so rigorously enforced. More of a token incentive.

Anonymous said...

Rob Perkins said...
Proportional allocation of electoral votes seems more fair than winner-take-all, to be sure. And, I think two states do it.

No states have proportional allocation of electoral votes. Two states can split their votes, but they merely do winner-take-all at the level of congressional districts, rather than the whole state.

If proportional allocation is too scary, a smaller step would be to at least do it when there is no majority.

Judy Wright said...

suppose a large number of voters could vote/veto, define issue importance, everything put before Congress (and possibly common State issues)? The law would be categorized and described by a number of 'experts', assisting their judgement.
Each Congressperson could be rated on how they voted compared to the average voter, or on how they voted related to that voters' level of importance.
I think people would cross party lines or vote for Independents, putting Congress in fear that their gerrymandered districts won't support them.
Finally, 'From The People' - a good editing system so people can write their own laws/amendments and evolve a consensus.
For example, the UU 7th principle is: To Respect the Interdependent Web of Life, of which we are a part'.

Judy Wright said...

Oops one important feature; A voter can vote on some bills / issues, but name an 'expert' - a general comment that automatically defines the rest of that voters' votes OR a person whose votes would be weighted by their 'extra' votes.