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The Nature of the Electoral College. How the EC Works in Practice. Instead of electing a President (and Vice President) in a single national election on Presidential election day, we have 51 separate state (+ DC) elections,

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how the ec works in practice
How the EC Works in Practice
  • Instead of electing a President (and Vice President) in a single national election on Presidential election day,
    • we have 51 separate state (+ DC) elections,
    • the plurality winner in each state wins all of the state’s electoralvotes (“winner-take-all”)
      • which are equal in number to the state’s total representation in Congress,
        • i.e., its House seats + 2
        • plus DC has 3 electoral votes, so
        • total EV = 538, and
    • these electoral votes are added up to determine the winner of the election,
      • with 270 required for election.
  • Thus in practice (say 95% of the time), the EC is merely a vote counting system that
    • takes the popular votes in each state,
    • automatically translates them into nationwide electoral votes, and
    • declares a winner.
implication of the ec in practice battleground states
Implication of the EC in Practice:Battleground States
  • The principal implication of the EC in practice is that it creates “battleground states,’ because
    • it matters only which party ticket carries a state,
    • and not what the margin of victory or defeat is.
  • Hence states that are expected to be close become “battlegrounds” and other are substantially ignored.
    • Today (frequent and relatively accurate) state polls make it easier to identify battleground states.
      • Until a decade or two ago, there were relatively few state (as opposed to national) polls.
  • Contemporary campaign resources (especially TV) ads can be both
      • focused on particular states, and
      • can moved from one state to another,
    • in contrast to
      • party organization rooted in states and localities in the 19th century, and
      • national TV advertising (mid- to later-20th century).
more esoteric ec details
More Esoteric EC Details
  • At the present time, ME and NE do not award electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis
    • (but rather on the basis of the Modified District Plan),
    • so their electoral votes may be split (though in fact this has never happened).
  • A variety of other methods (than winner-take-all) of selecting Presidential electoral have been used in the past.
  • Lurking beneath electoral votes are real people (elected officials) called Presidential electors,
    • who are actually elected on Presidential election day, and
    • who actually cast the electoral votes (about six weeks later).
  • Candidates may occasionally be deprived of electoral votes by “faithless electors,”
    • who cast electoral votes in a way that contradicts their “pledge,” and
    • in a way that does not reflect popular vote in the state.
esoteric details cont
Esoteric Details (cont.)
  • If no candidate wins 270 electoral votes, because either
    • a third candidate wins some electoral voter or
    • there is a (mathematically possible) 269-269 tie,

the election is “thrown into the House of Representatives” (which last happened in 1824),

    • where voting by state delegation (one delegation — one vote).
  • A number of elections have other displayed electoral vote oddities --- for example
    • President Truman received no votes in AL in 1948,
    • President Johnson received no votes in AL in 1964,
    • “unpledged electors” were elected in AL and MS in 1960.
  • Even presumptive experts (e.g., textbook authors) often mischaracterize features of the Electoral College.
    • Adkinson and Elliot, “The Electoral College: A Misunderstood Institution,” PS, March 1997
evaluating the electoral college
Evaluating the Electoral College
  • Alexander Hamilton, Federalist 68:
    • The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. . . . I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.
  • Many subsequent evaluations (and the many proposed constitutional amendments) suggest a less favorable assessment of the “mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate,” i.e., the “Electoral College”:
    • part of a generally elitist and anti-democratic constitution; or
    • a last-minute jerry-built compromise; or perhaps
    • a well designed compromise among diverse considerations, or possibly
    • the embodiment of well-thought-out selection criteria.
evaluating the electoral college cont
Evaluating the Electoral College (cont.)
  • Today, as a rough generalization,
    • “liberals” mostly criticize the Electoral College and advocate its replacement by a national popular vote, e.g.,
      • George Edwards, Why the Electoral College is Bad for America, and
      • Neal R. Peirce, The People’s President,
    • while “conservatives” mostly oppose a national popular vote and defend the Electoral College, e.g.,
      • Judith Best, “The Right Winner: Not By Numbers Alone” and The Case Against Direct Election of the President, and
      • Tara Ross, Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College (with an Introduction by George Will).
evaluating the electoral college cont1
Evaluating the Electoral College (cont.)
  • However, 50 years ago “liberals” mostly defended the existing Electoral College system, which they viewed as having features that
    • enhanced the voting power of major constituencies of the New Deal, in particular,
      • urban dwellers,
      • racial and ethnic minorities, and
      • union members,
    • and which counterbalanced the rural and conservative advantage in the malapportioned
      • House of the that era, and
      • Senate of every era.
  • Proposals to modify the Electoral College (the Modified District and Proportional Plans) were supported mostly by conservatives.)
evaluating the electoral college cont2
Evaluating the Electoral College (cont.)
  • My own take on the Electoral College:
    • The original EC was a compromise among diverse considerations that was cleverly designed but had a fatal flaw that had to be (and was) corrected by constitutional amendment.
    • The original EC established a selection system
      • that was designed to operate in a non-partisan environment, but
      • did not operate satisfactorily once political parties formed to contest Presidential selection.
    • The EC was rapidly transformed into an institution quite different from its designers had intended.
      • So, even if you like the existing EC, you can’t really give credit to “the wisdom of the framers [of the Constitution].”
      • Likewise, even if you dislike the existing EC, you can’t really blame the framers.
    • The transformed EC has proved to be a serviceable institution but is problematic in a number of ways.
problems with the electoral college in practice
“Problems” with the Electoral College in Practice
  • Ittypically produces a disparity between popular and electoral vote proportions, which
    • almost always exaggerates the winner’s margin, for example
  • On the other hand, is this really a problem?
problems with the ec in practice cont
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • It is “unfair” to minor party candidates, who may win substantial popular votes but no electoral votes,
    • unless their support is geographically concentrated.
  • On the other hand, these candidates would not actually win in any event.

Pop. VoteElect. Vote

1948 Strom Thurmond (SR Dem) 2.4% 39

1948 Henry Wallace (Prog.) 2.4% 0

1968 George Wallace (AIP) 13.5% 45*

1992 Ross Perot (Ind.) 18.9% 0

*Plus one electoral vote from a faithless Republican elector in NC.

problems with the ec in practice cont1
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • It “disenfranchises” voters in non-battleground states.
    • On the other hand, are all voters “disenfranchised” in lopsided elections?
  • It creates an incentive for disputes or fraud concerning vote counting in pivotal states,
      • e.g., Florida in 2000.
    • But with a direct popular vote, any such dispute would be nationwide.
problems with the ec in practice cont2
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • It produces a small state advantage resulting from the apportionment of electoral votes.
    • Regardless of population, every state
      • has two Senators, and
      • at least one House seat, and therefore
      • has at least three electoral votes.
  • It produces a large state advantage resulting from the (customary) winner-take-all system in casting electoral votes.
  • But can both of the problems be true?
    • Maybe, in that middle-sized states are disadvantaged.
problems with the ec in practice cont3
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • It tolerates an absence of national standards for
      • voter qualifications,
      • voter registration,
      • voting technology,
      • ballot access, etc.
    • But imposing such standards might be controversial.
  • It is subject to spoiler effects, in that
    • the presence or absence of a third candidate who cannot win the election may tip the outcome between the two major candidates,
      • e.g., Nader (and possibly Buchanan) in 2000.
    • But in fact, every electoral system whatsoever is vulnerable in some degree to the spoiler effect.
problems with the ec in practice cont4
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • It can produce minority Presidents,
    • who win less than a majority of the popular vote, but
    • are elected on the basis of electoral votes, e.g.,
        • Bush in 2000,
        • Clinton in 1996 and 1992,
        • Nixon in 1968,
        • Kennedy in 1960,
        • Truman in 1948,
        • Wilson in 1916 and 1912.
    • But many electoral systems do the equivalent.
      • The British refer to such an effect as a manufactured majority.
      • Every British elections since WWII has produced a manufactured majority except the one (February 1974) that did produce any majority, i.e.,
        • the leading party held fewer than half the seats in House of Commons.
problems with the ec in practice cont5
“Problems” with the EC in Practice (cont.)
  • Most important, it can produce election reversals (or reversals of winners or wrong winners), in which
    • candidates who win less than a plurality of the popular vote
    • are elected on the basis of electoral votes, e.g.,
      • Bush in 2000
      • Harrison in 1888.
  • The election reversal problem is usually regarded as the most serious flaw in the Electoral College.
    • But in fact, every districted electoral system is subject to election reversals, and
      • election reversals occur more frequently in many parliamentary systems than in U.S. Presidential elections.
problems with details of the ec
Problems with Details of the EC
  • Faithless (or unpledged) electors may cast electoral votes not in accordance with the popular vote in their states, and
    • their electoral votes might even determine the outcome of an election.
  • State legislatures can manipulate the manner of selecting electors.
    • Moreover, if a state (e.g., MN and NE) decides to selecting electors by district, the districts may be gerrymandered.
  • A state legislature might decide to appoint electors itself,
    • in effect cancelling the Presidential election in the state.
    • There is “no constitutional right to vote for President.”
problems with details of the ec1
Problems with Details of the EC
  • The most problematic feature of the Electoral College is House contingent procedure.
    • We have little understanding of how this would work in practice.
    • State equality regardless of population appears to be increasingly unsupportable.
    • A President would not be selected until about two weeks before Inauguration Day (if not later).
alternatives to the existing electoral college system
Alternatives to the Existing Electoral College System
  • The Automatic Plan. Regularize the existing system by abolishing the position of elector while retaining electoral votes to be automatically awarded as a block to the plurality winner in each state.
    • This requires a U.S. constitutional amendment, which
      • probably should abolish or revise the contingent procedure as well.
  • The National Bonus Plan. Retain the existing system (or use the Automatic Plan) but award an additional bonus of [perhaps 100] electoral votes to the national popular vote plurality winner.
    • This requires a U.S. constitutional amendment.
    • Its obvious rationale is to preclude election reversals,” and
      • it would effectively bypass the contingent procedure as well.
alternatives to the existing ec system cont
Alternatives to the Existing EC System (cont.)
  • The (Pure) District Plan. Select electors (or award electoral votes) by plurality vote in single-member districts within states.
    • This can be implemented on a state-by-state basis.
    • But if it is effected by a constitutional amendment, it should probably revise the contingent procedure as well,
      • as minor candidates would be more likely to electoral votes.
  • The (Modified) District Plan. Select electors (or award electoral votes) by plurality in the existing single-member Congressional Districts, with the two remaining electors (or electoral votes) awarded to the state-wide plurality winner.
    • This can be implemented on a state-by-state basis (as ME and NE have done).
    • But if it is effected by a constitutional amendment, it should probably abolish or revise the contingent procedure as well.
      • as minor candidates would be more likely to electoral votes.
alternatives to the existing ec system cont1
Alternatives to the Existing EC System (cont.)
  • The (Pure) Proportional Plan. Award the electoral votes of each state to candidates precisely (out to four or more decimal places) in proportion to their popular votes within each state.
    • Since fractional electoral votes would result, the office of elector would have to be abolished.
    • This therefore requires a constitutional amendment, which should probably abolish or revise the contingent procedure as well,
      • as minor candidates would be more likely to electoral votes.
  • The Whole-Number Proportional Plan. Award the electoral votes of each state to candidates in whole numbers that are proportional as possible to their popular votes within the states.
    • An established PR apportionment formula could be used.
    • Since electors could be retained, this can be implemented on a state-by-state basis,
      • e.g., Colorado, Proposition 36 in 2004.
    • But if it is effected by a constitutional amendment, it should probably abolish or revise the contingent procedure as well,
      • as minor candidates would be more likely to electoral votes (especially in large states).
ev alternatives change ev apportionment
EV Alternatives: Change EV Apportionment
  • Change the apportionment of electoral votes among the states.
  • Increase (or decrease) the size (now 435) of the House.
    • This is not fixed by the Constitution, except that “the number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one Representative.”
    • Each state has electoral votes equal to its total representation in Congress, i.e., number of House seats + 2, so
      • each state has a guaranteed a “floor” of 3 electoral votes,
      • which entails a systematic small-state advantage.
    • Increasing (decreasing) House size makes the apportionment of electoral votes more (less) proportional to population.
change ev apportionment cont
Change EV Apportionment (cont.)
  • Apportion electoral votes on the basis of House seats only.
    • This would eliminate the systematic small-state advantage in electoral votes, but
    • it would require a constitutional amendment.
  • Apportion electoral votes to be precisely proportional to population.
    • This implies that states would not have whole numbers of electoral votes.
    • It would require a constitutional amendment and the elimination of electors.
    • Note: this is quite different from the (Pure) Proportional Plan described earlier).
change ev apportionment cont1
Change EV Apportionment (cont.)
  • Here are three other (far-fetched but theoretically interesting plans) for apportioning electoral votes.
    • Apportion electoral votes equally among the states,
      • in the manner of the House contingent procedure.
    • Apportion electoral votes in proportion to the square root of state population.
      • This formula has a particular theoretical justification that will be discussed later.
    • Apportion electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote in each state.
      • Such apportionment would take place anew immediately after each Presidential election.
      • This formula has theoretical relevance in several ways that will be discussed later.
alternatives to the existing ec system cont2
Alternatives to the Existing EC System (cont.)
  • Revision of Contingent Procedure. Many options exist, but these have received the most attention:
    • abolish the electoral vote majority requirement for election entirely, or
    • reduce the majority requirement, and/or
    • change the nature of the contingent procedure, i.e.,
      • to election by a joint session of Congress,
        • voting one-member, one-vote.
alternatives to the existing ec system cont3
Alternatives to the Existing EC System (cont.)
  • The Popular Vote Plan. Abolish the Electoral college in its entirety and hold a national direct popular election for President (and Vice President),
    • with or without an runoff (instant [IRV] or otherwise), and
    • perhaps (if a runoff is used) using a 40% (rather than 50%) quota for election in the first round.
    • This would require a constitutional amendment.
  • Such a national popular vote would presumably entail nation administration of Presidential (and Congressional, while we’re at it?) elections, including
      • voter qualifications,
      • voter registration,
      • voting technology,
      • ballot access, etc.
national popular vote plan cont
National Popular Vote Plan (cont.)
  • This is a proposal to bring about what would in effect be a direct national popular election for President
    • without using a constitutional amendment,
      • which requires ratification by three-quarters of the states,
      • which would be very difficult to obtain.
  • Its starting point is the fact (previously noted) that, under the Constitution,
    • state legislature have sole power over how their Presidential electors are selected.
national popular vote plan cont1
National Popular Vote Plan (cont.)
  • NPVP proposes that states collectively controlling at least 270 electoral votes
    • enter into an interstate compact
    • that would commit them to select Presidential electors who would cast their electoral votes,
      • not for the candidate who carries their state, but
      • for the “national popular vote winner.”
  • Note that “national popular vote winner” means plurality winner, so
    • NPVP would also preclude the House contingent procedure
      • barring a a tie in the national popular vote.
problems with npvp cont
Problems with NPVP (cont.)
  • NPVP does not address the problems entailed by direct popular vote previously identified, in particular
    • national administration of elections, and
    • a runoff or related provisions.
  • There is no nationally certified “national popular vote winner.”
  • Would the compact hold in the event that there would otherwise be an election reversal (i.e., the only circumstance in which NPVP would make a difference?
    • In such an event,
      • electors some states would have to vote contrary to the popular vote in their state, and
      • thereby elect the popular vote loser in their state President.