The Electoral College: Is Democracy Overrated? . X. Michael Munger Raleigh Charter High School November 9, 2005. 5 Arguments for the Electoral College.
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Raleigh Charter High School
November 9, 2005
The Founders’ View, The Classical View….
"Democracy is precisely the constitution out of which tyranny comes; from extreme liberty, it seems, comes a slavery most complete and most cruel...When a democratic city gets worthless butlers presiding over its wine, and has drunk too deep of liberty's heady draught, then, I think, if the rulers are not very obliging and won't provide plenty of liberty, it calls them blackguards and oligarchs and chastises them...and any who obey the rulers they trample in the dust as willing slaves and not worth a jot." Plato, THE REPUBLIC, Book IV, 560A-564A
Why Do You Think There is a ‘We’?
Any voting system faces a problem: the way of choosing...
may determine what is chosen!
Can a group of people who disagree come to a consensus? Why would believe that “consensus” is any more than an imperfect choice? Are such choices, of necessity, arbitrary or imposed?
Do the choices of majorities tell us anything about “the right thing to do” in the face of disagreement?
Is there such a thing as “the majority,” which we just have to discover through voting or some political process?
I want…you want…what do we want?
What if we all wanted the same thing? Would government even be necessary?
It would. Because we do all want the same thing: more….
On disagreement, Charles IV:
“My cousin Francis and I are in perfect accord—he wants Milan and so do I.”
Men are not angels
Men are not ruled by angels
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition…”
Fundamental Human Problem: The design or maintenance of institutions that make self-interest human action not inconsistent with the common good
Is it true that the many are wiser than any one? Many people have argued this claim….
“For it is possible that the many, no one of whom taken singly is a sound man, may yet, taken all together, be better than the few, not individually, but collectively.” (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Chapter 11)
Some important analytical support, under some circumstances. Condorcet’s “Jury Theorem,” for example.
Now, majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But—like other precious, sacred things, such as the home and the family—it's not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diets and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And—since women are a majority of the population, we'd all be married to Mel Gibson. (Parliament of Whores, 1991, p. 5).
You’ve got to help me out here…play along!
Preferences and beliefs, on the little card. REALLY! Accept the premise, and act like those are your preferences. Three choices:
No war: N
Aggressive war: W
Police/political means: P
One possibility: isolationist variant of Powell doctrine
N > W > P
We should not get involved.
But, if we do, we should go in with overwhelming force.
Worst thing is to expose our troops/workers in a limited police action, depend on the U.N.
Another possibility: Rummy World
W > P > N
Iraq/Saddam is an imminent threat, will develop WMD.
If not war, then must vigorously pursue sanctions
Worst thing is to do nothing, relax sanctions and let Iraq become nuclear power
Final possibility: Prudent Dove
P > N > W
Let sanctions and inspections do their work, because Iraq is a potential danger to its neighbors and the world
We have no good claim to just war, so next best is to do nothing
Worst thing is to use war against a nation that has made no overt attack on the U.S.
So…we have disagreement
Let’s use “democracy,” the pure kind where the people make the choice directly.
First, let’s decide whether to use force, or do nothing….
Vote P vs. W to decide which activity is better, and then vote that against N. That way, we are comparing the best “do something” against “do nothing.”
Consider what just happened. Simply by changing the order in which we consider the alternatives, I could generate as the “winner” any one of the three alternatives.
Choosing the agenda, then, is tantamount to choosing the outcome.
Is this just a conjurer’s trick, or does it tell us something about democracy?
If there are three (or more) alternatives, and there is disagreement, then democracy may be radically indeterminate.
More simply, there is no correct answer to the question, “What do the people want?”
In fact, some majority opposes every alternative.
Here is the problem:
I/P Rummy Prud Dove
N W P Best
W P N Middle
P N W Worst
W > P > N > W
Endless, infinite cycling over alternatives. Not a tie, but a literal perpetual motion machine
That is what should terrify you: meetings end, and things get decided. The point is that we are rarely presented with three or more alternatives. We usually are presented with two. How are those two chosen?
The “Munger Revolution”: coalitions form, charismatic people take power. Not the will of the people, but the force of will of some demogogue or tyrant
If the rules matter to this extent, that means that procedures, not preferences, determine outcomes. And elites control procedures….
But if there is disagreement, and at least three alternatives, then a majority opposes every available choice. So, democracy fails us when we need it most!
Since some choice has to be made, we are left with an outcome that is either
In either case, “democratic choice” is chimerical
Dictatorship with the trappings of democracy
Democracy without constitutional liberalism…
1. Rule of law, protections of property and liberty
2. Limits on scope of issues within the jurisdiction of collective choice…
Democracy without these is the most terrifying kind of tyranny you can imagine. Americans, and the West, are confused about “good government.” The key is constitutional liberalism, not democracy.
Intensity of War Effort
Citizens of states don’t really vote for one of the tickets that have been campaigning during the months leading up to Election Day. Instead, each vote goes toward electing an Elector, or a person selected by the state party apparatus to represent the party in the Electoral College in the event that the party wins the vote. Importantly, the vote is truly indirect; it is perfectly possible for electors, who are already in most cases faceless (because their identities are secret), also to be faithless, voting for a different candidate from that party, or even for a candidate from another party. This is a fundamentally republican (small “r”) feature of the Electoral College--citizens are selecting electors who will represent their interests, not choosing presidential candidates directly.
Most ballots now obscure the fact that votes are for electors, not candidates, but this was not always the case. For a century (or longer in some states) after the 12th Amendment in 1804 modified the Electoral College to its current format, the actual names of electors were listed on ballots. This led to some strange results. In addition to the problem of faithless electors, some states formally split their Electoral College delegations, most recently in West Virginia in 1916, which elected seven Republican electors and one Democrat (Kimberling n.d., p. 6).
The highest function of the citizen is to serve the state – but the first assumption that meets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonor. Is that assumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows more glorious…. Is [democracy] extraordinarily wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to decent men…. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is an ineradicable necessity to human government, and even to civilization itself – that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know. I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with [common citizens], and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat? (Mencken 1926, p. 167-8)
Electoral College Votes = 2 + Integer(State Population/600,000) (1)
But…this is only an average! Some states MUCH more!
Consider the two states of Wyoming and California as an extreme example. Wyoming has a population of about 500,000, and so gets
2 + Integer(500,000/600,000) = 3 Electoral College votes.
(The “integer” operator generally rounds up; it always does so for a state’s first US Representative, since all states get at least one, regardless of the state’s population.)
California has a population of 35.5 m, and if equation (1) were perfectly accurate would have 60 votes. But because so many other states are smaller than the 600,000 quota determined by House membership, the relationship is only approximate: California's actual Electoral College allocation is 55 votes.
What this means is that the ratio of California to Wyoming Electoral College votes is
55/3 = 18.33
But the California-Wyoming population ratio is 35.5/0.5 = 71. But then the conclusion is inescapable: each vote cast in Wyoming “counts” nearly 4 times as much (71/18.33 = 3.88) as any one vote in California. True, California is still the great prize of the Electoral College, representing 10% of the total electoral vote for the presidency. But California counts much less under the Electoral College than it would under a pure “one person, one vote” scheme.
The key feature of the Electoral College, in terms of most current efforts at reform, is its winner- takes-all aspect. The reason that Florida was so important in 2000 was that all 25 of the state’s electoral votes hinged on the few hundred ballots whose “chads” were in question. If Florida’s electoral vote were proportional, instead of winner takes all, the split would have been 12 for Bush, 12 for Gore, and one electoral vote in contest. But it would not have mattered much, because Gore would have had 278 electoral votes overall, and Bush would have had 258 votes. The awarding of the last remaining Florida Electoral College vote would have been of no consequence, as 12 of the 25 Florida votes would have put Gore over the required 270 electoral vote majority.
The impact, and value, of the winner-takes-all provision is hard to analyze. On one hand, in close races (such as Florida in 2000, or Ohio, Pennsylvania, or New Mexico in 2004), the value of each vote is magnified, possibly spurring higher turnout. On the other hand, in electorally “secure” states such as Texas, North Carolina, California, Massachusetts, or New York, there is little question what the outcome will be, and so turnout may be attenuated.
There have been a variety of attempts to change the winner-takes-all provision recently. This may be because this is the only aspect of the Electoral College system that requires no constitutional changes at the federal level. Since states are fully in charge of how they choose electors, they can also decide if they want to diverge from the winner-takes-all norm. California has recently considered legislation that would implement a proportional system; Colorado recently rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment (Amendment #36), which would have made that state’s Electoral Vote allocation proportional; and several other states have decided to study the issue.
Maine and Nebraska have moved to a proportional system, awarding the two electoral votes associated with their US Senate delegations “at large”, and then dividing the remaining Electoral College votes according to which presidential candidate wins the popular vote in each congressional district. This latter approach is, frankly, a terrible idea. Congressional districts are so gerrymandered in the United States that House races in well over 90% of these districts are not competitive.
Example: In California, the vote totals are always in the 55%–44%, or 53%–45%, range. If California went to a proportional system, that would mean that, in a typical election, 30 Electoral College votes would go to the winning presidential candidate and 25 votes would go to the loser. But this is an election, so only net votes matter. What that means is that California transforms itself from the 800-pound gorilla of the Electoral College, with 55 votes, to a 5-net-vote (30–25) weakling.
A different proposal would be to change the allocation of Electoral College votes for entire nation, but that would require a constitutional amendment. And the net effects are hard to estimate, either for voter participation or for the perceived legitimacy of elections. On the plus side, it would be practically impossible for the popular vote and the Electoral College vote to differ. On the downside, it would be possible to win the election with large majorities in just a few large states, since both candidates would pick up at least some votes from every states, rather than being shut out.
The point is this: for all its flaws, and complexities, the Electoral College withstands scrutiny remarkably well. Its amended form, dating from the 19th century, answers a number of needs of the 21st century far better than any alternative system that has been proposed. The reason is that the Electoral College is explicitly designed to require a winning candidate to appeal to large geographic areas, rather than just to voters in the population centers. The criticisms of the institutions of the EC, based on an assumption that there is a mystical “will of the people” that can be divined through elections, are misguided. There is no better system for controlling political excesses, and forcing presidential candidates to represent the entire nation, than that created out of the original wisdom and compromises of the early 19th century
BOTH CITIZENS. The gods give you joy, sir, heartily! (Exeunt citizens)
CORIOLANUS. Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to't.
What custom wills, in all things should we do't,
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heap'd
For truth to o'erpeer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honour go
To one that would do thus. I am half through:
The one part suffered, the other will I do.
[Aristides] being surprised and asking if Aristides had ever done him any injury, "None at all," said he, "neither know I the man; but I am tired of hearing him everywhere called the just." Aristides, hearing this, is said to have made no reply, but returned the sherd with his own name inscribed. At his departure from the city, lifting up his hands to heaven, he made a prayer (the reverse, it would seem, of that of Achilles), that the Athenians might never have any occasion which should constrain them to remember Aristides.