Monday, September 13, 2004

High Colorado

Colorado is considering changing over to a proportional system for its Electoral College votes. (Did you know that the CO state song is "Where the Columbines Grow"? Now you do.)

There are lots of ways to reform. Proportional is a nice compromise, because it retains the essential character of the EC system, but eliminates a huge flaw.

My own thoughts, more generally:

Should we get rid of the anachronistic Electoral College? Absolutely not. But we should change it from winner-take-all to a proportional system. Colorado's contemplation of a proportional system is an important first step.

The Electoral College served three functions, in the minds of the framers of the U.S. Constitution:

· First, the Electoral College keeps the electorate from acting on wild impulses, and voting for demagogues. At first, many states used the state legislatures to choose electors, so there was no pretense, or even argument for, the popular selection of the president.

· Second, the Electoral College ensures that the small states get a voice in the presidential election. Votes from citizens in small states such as Montana or Maine count twice as much, or more, than votes from citizens in states like California or New York. Consequently, candidates have good reasons to pay attention to small states, instead of just campaigning in a few large states.

· Third, the Electoral College prevents large majorities in just a few states from determining the outcome of the election. Consequently, candidates must seek broad support from many states, rather than deep support from just a few heavily populated areas.

The three examples of past 'anomalies' in the Electoral College, in 1824 (Jackson-Adams), 1876 (Tilden-Hayes), and 1888 (Cleveland-Harrison), are each actually strong evidence for how well it works.

The 2000 election was a different matter. The system is not well suited for handling ties. The real problem is the 'winner take all' nature of the Electoral College votes, for most states (Nebraska switched in 1996, and Maine in 1972, to a more proportional system based on Congressional districts). Colorado would be the first state to go to a purely proportional system, but other states should follow their lead as soon as possible, for the health of our electoral system.

Right now, there are four states that are virtual ties, according to the polls: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Maine. Except for Florida, these are relatively small states, and the Electoral College system serves them well by giving them disproportionate power, compared to their population. The problem is that the winner-take-all system distorts this closeness.

Disadvantages of the winner-take-all system:
1. Too much rides on a few votes. Alternative systems, including the congressional district system of Nebraska and Maine, or a truly proportional system such as that contemplated by Colorado, would eliminate the incentives for recounting close votes. In 2000, each candidate would have gotten half the Electoral College votes in Florida (13 or 14), instead of one candidate getting all 27.

2. In practical terms, makes the small states less relevant, even with the weighting scheme that makes them count more than they otherwise would. If candidates only got half the Electoral College votes in the close, large states, they would have to campaign in other states also.

3. Raises questions of fraud, and the integrity of the electoral system. If just a few thousand votes can swing an entire state's Electoral College votes, then this sensitivity makes people suspicious about every county and even every precinct.


In short, the vote weighting procedures and the majority provisions of the Electoral College are working well. The problem is the winner-take-all aspect. Reform the EC, rather than getting rid of it.

(Best academic article on this: Rabinowitz and MacDonald. You'll need a JSTOR connection....also in hardcopy at library, of course: "The Power of the States in U.S. Presidential Elections" George Rabinowitz; Stuart Elaine MacDonald, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 80, No. 1. (Mar., 1986), pp. 65-87.)

Best example of non-political scientist reinventing the wheel, though with some flat spots and imperfections: Alan Natapoff (no web site!), of MIT. Article. For the obvious problem with Natapoff's view, see here, for example.