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Pennsylvania and the Electoral College

A fight is brewing in Pennsylvania as some Republicans indicate that they wish to transform the way the state allocates its electoral votes for the presidency. The President of the United States is not elected by the national popular vote, but rather by the popular vote in each of the 50 states--if one candidate in Ohio gets 55% of the popular vote in Ohio, that candidate receives Ohio's electoral votes. To win the presidency, one needs to win at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes; these votes are divvied between the states based on congressional representation, plus three for the District of Columbia. The Electoral College is designed to support federalism by forcing candidates to campaign across a broad spectrum among the states and also maintains for us a relatively stable and fraud-free system, especially compared to other nations. Yes, there is occasionally a fluke when the popular vote and the electoral votes do not match up--the 2000 Election an example of this--but these are rare, and not a reason to discount the entire system.

Every state except for two operates on the winner-take-all system mentioned above. Maine and Nebraska use the Congressional District System, which apportions the votes by district rather than the entire state. In these states, elections are held within each congressional district and whoever wins in those districts gets the votes, and the winner of the popular vote in the state receives a bonus two electoral votes. Pennsylvania is considering adopting this method of voting instead. Some people seem to be decrying it as unconstitutional or an attack on the Electoral College; this is plainly wrong. The Constitution allows each state to decide how its electoral votes are split up. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 states: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors." So, there are no constitutional arguments to be made against this way of divvying up the Electoral Votes.

There are, however, some practical and political concerns with shifting over to the Congressional District System. While it is a bit more democratic and may comfort those seeking to abolish the Electoral College in favor of a national popular vote, it may have the adverse consequence of increasing gerrymandering, which is already a huge problem in the country; parties will have further incentive to strengthen districts for themselves in order to ensure electoral success. The fact that the GOP in Pennsylvania is trying to do this purely for partisan reasons rather than concerns of suffrage and whatnot is also disconcerting (and strengthens my concern about gerrymandering), and furthermore foolish as it would very well harm Republican candidates in the future as well as Democrats. It is also worth noting that, based on the various data and articles I've been looking over, if every single state operated on a Congressional District System for their electoral votes, it would not change the outcome of any single election in recent history.

So, while it is perfectly within the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania to apportion its electoral votes in whatever way it sees fit, it is foolish to do so for the perceived political gain of a party, and could have some bad consequences. I have also seen proposed that one divvies the electoral votes up by percentage (if someone wins 55% of Ohio, they get 55% of the Electors, and second place gets their percentage and so-on), but my chief concern with that is that it would give more success to third party candidates which may cause systemic problems by making it more difficult for anyone to receive 270 votes in the college, opening the way for Congress to vote on the matter. The winner-take-all system is not perfect, but it is better than any alternative yet put forth.
Categories > Elections

Discussions - 20 Comments

Your criticisms are well founded. California has decided to cast its vote according to how the national vote turns out.

Please get rid of the captcha with funny, oddball words and coloring. Switch to numbers, please. I tried 20 times to get through and am trying again!

The Electoral College is designed to support federalism by forcing candidates to campaign across a broad spectrum among the states and also maintains for us a relatively stable and fraud-free system, especially compared to other nations. Yes, there is occasionally a fluke when the popular vote and the electoral votes do not match up--the 2000 Election an example of this--but these are rare, and not a reason to discount the entire system.

It was 'designed' to do no such thing.

1. The origin of the Electoral College was a set of compromises from among an array of suggestions about how the President should be elected. It has not worked as intended in more than two hundred years.

2. The practice of extensive travel and speechmaking during campaigns was an innovation of William Jennings Bryan more than a century after the Constitution was adopted. (His opponent won that election, campaigning by issuing public statements to reporters from his front porch).

3. One could (theoretically) produce optimum results by distributing one's efforts such that the marginal benefit from the last dollar of expenditure was equal across all geographic units. Electoral voting changes how marginal benefit is calculated and that in turn will change the distribution of your efforts. A changed distribution is not necessarily a more even distribution. (Even if an even distribution was of much interest to anyone. Personally, I do not care if Rick Perry gives a canned speech at Hancock Airport or not).

4. The advent of broadcasting technology and the decline of street campaigns dramatically reduced the geographical variation in a campaign's presence.

5. It is useful to have the administration of elections distributed among provincial authorities, not because it renders elections 'fraud free', but because it renders systemic and co-ordinated fraud quite difficult. We actually had exuberant fraud during the post-bellum Presidential elections, Electoral College or no and Britain manages clean elections with national administration.

6. The Electoral College is irrelevant to political 'stability'.

7. Legislatures already have ample incentive to Gerrymander. This would alter that calculus hardly at all.

8. The net effect of this would be to render the distribution of electoral votes somewhat more resemblant to the popular balloting by doing so over geographic units with a mean population of 700,000 rather than with a mean population of 6,000,000. That ain't gonna hurt you. Unless California were to do this and no other state follow, the effect on the partisan balance in the Electoral College over time would likely be near a wash.


9. Unless you are an accomplished student of statistics, I would refrain from making to many declarative statements about what electoral voting promotes or inhibits.

It is true, Deco, that the electoral college has not functioned in the way it was designed. It is also true that it has developed in ways that are consistent with the founders' intentions. We have no independent electors, as the relevant state parties cast, except in Maine and Nebraska, unanimous votes for the candidate with the most popular votes. It is small point but they may, if they desire, vote their preferences, as a few have in our history.

Our political system has become more democratic but the moderating influence of the electoral college continues. Instead of a small body of respected citizens, it is the complicated workings of our voting system. Maybe these changes demonstrate, at least as far as you're concerned, that the electoral college is not sacred, but it also reveals that there are great advantages with how the electoral college works that ought not to be cast aside. We know that the winner of a majority of the electoral college vote becomes the president; we also know that he is the one who wins a popular plurality in enough states to produce that electoral majority. The practical effect is to require the winner to have support in two or more sections of the country. All in all, the country accepts the results as final.

One cannot fiddle with a few questionable things in the current electoral system without affecting others that we wisely value. For example, choosing electors by congressional districts will make it less likely that a clear winner will emerge in a close election. There are others as well. It is not clear that the existing system is broken. The rare electoral vote/electoral vote discrepancies are adequately compensated for by the larger than sectional appeal of the winning candidate. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Whoops. Last paragraph: popular vote/electoral vote discrepancies

It is also true that it has developed in ways that are consistent with the founders' intentions.

1. The last development in the form and behavior of the Electoral College occurred during the period running from 1820 to 1828, when popular balloting for electors replaced selection by state legislatures in all but two states.

2. How this development is 'consistent with the founders' intentions is unclear (to say the least).

3. Why 'the founders intentions' should be controlling in this matter is also unclear.

4. Distributed elections administration has its uses. You are free to imagine it has some other salutary effects, but absent any explanation of methods (and you do not provide one) it remains a product of your imagination.

Following are relevant quotations from "Federalist No. 68" on the Electoral College. I believe they make clear the intentions shared by many of the framers, which remain relevant, as my comments seek to demonstrate.

("It was desirable that the sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided. This end will be answered by committing the right of making it, not to any preestablished body, but to men chosen by the people for the special purpose, and at the particular conjuncture.")

The "sense of the people" is expressed today through a system of committed electors, by virtue of their designation via popular vote in each state, no less than in the expected choice of independent ones. Of course, party politics in the 1790s determined which electors would be chosen a full generation prior to the rise of Jacksonian democracy. Deadlocks were resolved twice (1800, 1824) by the House of Representatives, which induced a caucus method of nomination in the House. The two-party system of nomination which replaced "king caucus" has proved indispensable to the effective operation of the electoral college.

("It was equally desirable, that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. ")

Of course, this has ceased to occur since 1828, when the two-party system reemerged. But the same effect is obtained by parties, chosen by the voters, casting a unanimous vote for their electors. The federal distribution of electors allows small states to factor into the result as well as large states, giving the latter no incentive to ride roughshod over the former in the deliberative process. This affects the nomination process as well. Candidates must have broad appeal to be elected.

("It was also peculiarly desirable to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder. . . As the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.")

The "detached and divided situation" of the original electors operates as well in the winner-take-all variation. There has never been a demand for a nationwide recount for that very reason, despite numerous and recurring "heats and ferments."

("Nothing was more to be desired than that every practicable obstacle should be opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption. These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.")

The existence of so many separate and distinct jurisdictions today no less than 220+ years ago frustrates "cabal, intrigue, and corruption." When it does happen, it is local, not national, domestic, not foreign.

Any change, whether within the current arrangements or through constitutional amendment, should be judged by whether it meets these prudent criteria. We are not trying to establish the perfect system; we should favor election systems which mitigate evils or follies that invariably arise from human depravity or utopianism.

that the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station

The electors are party wheelhorses who have exercised no discretion in more than 200 years. It would matter not a whit if you eliminated the office of elector and made use of electoral votes as a tabulation convention.


The federal distribution of electors allows small states to factor into the result as well as large states,

The current distribution exaggerates the weight of Vermont and a half dozen other states to an arbitrary degree for scant purpose.

---

It matters very little in this context what Hamilton, Madison, and Jay elected to offer as prospective arguments at that time. You have had two hundred years to make a configurative assessment of the system's operation and you have a hundred or so sovereign countries with electoral politics to which to make comparative assessments. And if you are going to make a discursive argument, statistics is essential (but something in which very few political theoreticians are schooled).

There is so little we can do against the foolishness and perfidy of our fellow humans; we take what protections we can get.

The Electoral College may become more important with the development of computerized election polling. A little time to let states figure out what is real and what isn't in their election results is no bad thing. The EC may just be a nod to the idea of sovereign states, and to those standing as opposed to the rights of individuals in a mass of democratic feeling to express their will. It does provide the citizens of Wyoming or Vermont (or any state)standing against California which has 12% of the people in the US -- isn't that a good argument for it?

The question at hand is not the elimination of the Electoral College but the method by which states apportion their electoral votes.

It seemed to me your argument had slid into more general ground. But I meant my first sentence to apply to the post as much as to the comments.

Then back to one of Robinson's points; I don't see how anything could increase gerrymandering. If Ohio is any example, even when a political party has gerrymandered the state to its little heart's content (though I suppose political parties don't have hearts and I should refer to legislators and plural hearts) the demographics of any given area will shift and slide and general voter discontent across a state will still throw the bums out. I am thinking particularly of the last ten years, but the principle applies for as far back as I can remember.

If the pressure in the PA Republican Party is coming from Tea Party conservatives tired of trying to move that party's politics to the right and considering third-party options -- I can't help but have some sympathy there. Ohio, again: conservative friends in the Republican party express deep frustration. The party was willing to embrace conservative candidates and principles for the last election, but are now trying to figure out how play things safe. This, despite the 2010 gerrymandering of districts -- gee whiz -- the state's Republicans protected themselves for the next few years at least.

Why do you hate the Founders? Your pro-terrorist.

I do not hate them. I just do not confuse them with Isaac Asimov's Hari Seldon.

I've been waiting for the dispositive statistical barrage that is going to blow the Electoral College out of the water. Show us what you've got, Deco.

1. I am not a statistician.

2. It is you and O'Brien-Bours who have made all sorts of assertions about the value of winner-take-all distribution, not me. There are some things one can logically deduce absent a formal analysis, as discussed above. (Neither of you bothered much with that either).

3. The issue does not interest me much. Countries with an elected executive make use of a variety of means to make that happen. There may be some association between these methods and the quality of governance, but I would have to do a literature search on the subject. My personal concern is with developing methods of intelligently processing the participation of 3d party candidates, or how to integrate ordinal balloting with the practice of electoral voting. That is a here-and-now problem about which I suspect The Federalist is not so informative.

Ditto Art Deco's original comment.

As a non-Democrat voter in PA, it would be refreshing, to say the least, to have a presidential election in which the state's votes in the electoral college were not effectively determined by the urban voters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. (In 2008, Obama got 29.5% of his PA votes in Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, out of the 67 counties in the Commonwealth.)

"One could (theoretically) produce optimum results by distributing one's efforts such that the marginal benefit from the last dollar of expenditure was equal across all geographic units. Electoral voting changes how marginal benefit is calculated and that in turn will change the distribution of your efforts. A changed distribution is not necessarily a more even distribution."

"Unless you are an accomplished student of statistics, I would refrain from making to[o] many declarative statements about what electoral voting promotes or inhibits."

Statisticus interruptus?

No.

The general principle, that an optimal distribution occurs when marginal benefits are equalized (i.e. your last dollar of expenditure in each market garners you the same number of votes), is a common one in fundamental microeconomics. I am too old to recall how to do the proofs anymore, but it involves multivariable calculus.

@ Kate. "It does provide the citizens of Wyoming or Vermont (or any state) standing against California which has 12% of the people in the US -- isn't that a good argument for it?"

It would seem to be so -- for the states smaller in population and, thus, number of EC votes.

But I don't think it goes the same for the larger states. I say, let the folks in Philadelphia and Allegheny County have their way in voting for president, and the rest of us have our way.

It does provide the citizens of Wyoming or Vermont (or any state)standing against California which has 12% of the people in the US -- isn't that a good argument for it?

It might be if...

1. You had a principle which justified the precise degree of exaggeration you get from the current apportionment scheme and

2. If you could identify a body of issues (contemporary or historical) which induced contention between populous states NOS and non-populous states NOS. I do not think you can.

The electoral college works well if you have slave states and free states. The slaves couldn't vote but were still counted as 3/5th of a person for the purpose of determining number of electors. I am pretty sure this is also Madison's view/justification.

I more or less agree with AD.

Also: "The general principle, that an optimal distribution occurs when marginal benefits are equalized (i.e. your last dollar of expenditure in each market garners you the same number of votes), is a common one in fundamental microeconomics."

True, but fundamental microeconomics is a load of horse shit if it ignores legal realism.

It is an interesting species of argument to argue that in the absense of legal realism (the existance of the electoral college) the general principle, that an optimal distribution occurs when MB=MC, and that therefore the electoral college causes a distortion.

It is true that the EC causes a distortion, since you aren't being elected by popular vote, every vote doesn't count as much... A republican spending extra money because votes are cheaper in Texas or Oklahoma vs. say Ohio is a fool.

Comming out of the RNC you start the game with Texas and Oklahoma, and Democrats more or less start with New York and California.

By default the EC (in a modern context) insures that spending is highly clumped based upon the electoral battlemap. Take a look at telivision advertising, and where the candidates travel to in the last weeks.

The fundamental microeconomics in other words can't be based upon votes, but rather has to be based upon probability and electoral votes.

A republican @ 99.9% for 7 in OK might be able to spend $500 for 500 votes for an MC of 1, while in Ohio $500 equals 25 votes for an MC of 20, but this obviously does not mean you equalize OK vis a vis Ohio.

Rather with the electoral college you can't really do an MC per capita/vote, rather the appropriate ration involves percentages of the electoral college total.

In the OK vs. OH example: 500k equals 500k Oklahoma votes, but 500k only equals 20k Ohio votes. But 20k Ohio votes is really say +.5% @ 18 which we know is greater than .1% @ 7. So with the electoral college it makes more sense for the republican to spend 500k in Ohio.

In 2000 Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes, he won California by 1,293,774. The EVV is 2409, but in truth California was so in the bag that Al Gore would have been better off spending more than 2409 times more per vote in Florida than in CA.

Democrats don't spend in CA and Republicans don't spend in OK.

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