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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

More on Moving Away From Winner-Take-All Electoral Vote Distribution

The NYT has also come out against the proposed reform to change how California distributes its electoral votes.  The chorus is loud, as I discussed here.  What I like about the Editorial at the NYT, however, is that it is self-consciously partisan.  Its argument is simple: this is a power grab by Republicans and that is why we should all oppose it.  Consider these choice quotes:  "A prominent Republican lawyer in California is doing it the wrong way, promoting a sneaky initiative that, in the name of Electoral College reform, would rig elections in a way that would make it difficult for a Democrat to be elected president . . ."  "If California abandons its winner-take-all rule while red states like Texas do not, it will be hard for a Democratic nominee to assemble an Electoral College majority, even if he or she wins a sizable majority of the popular vote. "  "It is actually a power grab on behalf of Republicans."  "If voters understand that the initiative is essentially an elaborate dirty trick posing as reform, they are likely to vote against it." 

A few things about the Editorial that strike me as wrong, though:  The editorial proclaims, "This bad-faith initiative is yet another example of the ways in which referenda can be used for mischief and a reminder of why they are a bad way to resolve complex public-policy issues."  Put to one side the fact that initiatives and referenda are actually different processes.  Is that right?  The NYT has a preferred answer to how to attack the Electoral College:   "Opponents of the initiative announced yesterday that they are sponsoring their own, rival initiative, which would commit California to a national plan that aims to ensure that the winner of the national popular vote becomes president. That idea makes much more sense."  Wait, so a competing initiative might have the right answer to Electoral College reform?  So referenda are good if you approve of their proposals?  Yes.

Of course, given my views about how to discuss this issue,  I commend the NYT for its openly partisan Editorial.  Still, the page just can't resist appealing to principle: "No principled elected official, or voter, of either party should support [the initiative]."  But what is the principle?  That's what I'm seeking in all these articles and failing to hear.  Saying, as the Editorial does, "It is about whether to twist the nation’s system of electing presidents to give one party an unfair advantage" doesn't answer the question because most reforms at some point in time (indeed, even at their adoption) can very easily give one party a seeming "unfair" advantage.  Perhaps the principle is just that when parties act for their self-interest, they should be repudiated?  That can't be it; we'd be doing a lot of repudiating as voters.   

To the extent there is a principle embedded in these discussions, it is that the popular vote nationwide should be electing the President.  But no one reliably shows (so far as I've seen) that the plan Republicans are proposing will, over the long term, take us any further from the ideal state of affairs than the current alternative, which is the winner-take-all system.  More importantly, the proposal seemingly favored by the Republicans' opponents -- the contingent interstate compact -- changes NOTHING and may itself be unconstitutional for its effort to devise an end-run around Article V, the obvious way to abolish the Electoral College.  Voting for the compact proposal is a vote for the status quo.  It is like a non-binding resolution admonishing the President for his handling of the Iraq war.  It is merely symbolic.

Now I'm not saying we shouldn't oppose Republicans.  I think we should.  But I think so for partisan reasons; my deep principles don't tell me clearly why their proposal is really less "democratic" than preserving the current system, whose "democratic" credentials are certainly questionable.

Posted by Ethan Leib on August 22, 2007 at 12:22 PM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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"I think the federal government should take whatever steps it wants to to do away with the electoral college system, and go to a popular vote. This is the time to do it... State by state reforms are not the answer -- each state has a disincentive to do it, so you would presume that if one state did it, others would NOT quickly follow. Why aren't there more calls at the federal level on this?"

It seems Congress doesn't have the power to adopt a congressional-district or popular-vote rule. While they have the power under Article I section 4 paragraph 1 to adopt regulations as to the time, place, and manner of choosing Representatives and the time and manner of choosing Senators, under Article II section 1 paragrah 4 they only have the power to regulate the time of choosing presidential electors. That's why we had to adopt the Twelfth Amendment in order to change the manner of electing presidential electors after the 1800 fiasco.

Posted by: Chris | Aug 23, 2007 3:53:45 PM

There are two non-partisan principles which lead us to reject the CA initiative and prefer the status quo (each briefly evoked by Hertzberg):

1. The candidate with the most people's votes should win the election. Of course the national popular vote isn't happening any time soon, but despite that, we should choose a system which most closely approximates it. If we accept this as a general principle, California's obligation is not to make sure that its electors are distributed proportionally as a superficial matter, but that the national vote proportionally represents the views of all voters.

The electoral college with winner-takes-all in each state accomplishes this, albeit in a flawed way. A minority viewpoint in one state will receive no votes at all, that same viewpoint may be a majority (or at least politically relevant) in another state. The end result is that neither party is on average cheated out of votes in the national count -- the only count that matters. Were it not for the bonus-two-per-state, the electoral college would be a crude but reasonable approach to representation.

To see that CA's initiative is much worse, consider what would happen if all red states decide to split their votes, and all blue states keep a winner-take-all system. We can see that this would clearly give the blue party a systematic boost. What if a random selection of states decided to split their votes? In this case, there's still a significant chance that the preponderance of them are either blue or red; the opposite party will get a boost. Introducing winner-takes-all systems anywhere in the process introduces noise that obscures the will of the people; differences in state rules with respect to granularity would introduce a second, additional level of noise.

Many presume that states should not concern themselves with fairness on the national level but instead pursue whatever legal measures they can to increase their own influence. My intepretation of democracy leads me to consider that a moral failure. In any case, CA's hunger for influence must not trump proportionally representing its own voters' viewpoints in the national count. CA's initiative, as long as it is one of few significant states to abandon winner-takes-all, would over-franchise its minority party when the votes are counted -- at the expense of its own majority party.

Let me emphasize that this reasoning depends on differing state rules. Would the initiative be principled if all states agreed to an equivalent measure (e.g. via state compact)? Still no, for a different reason:

2. Elections should be direct when feasible. In particular, we need to avoid the agency problems that are introduced when legislators have the ability to alter election outcomes. States' borders do not change, whereas congressional districts are frequently redrawn for tactical ends. As polling, demographics, and statistics improve, state officials will have ever more ability to identify and draw "safe" districts. Presidents can, perhaps even better than House members, reward their gerrymandering benefactors with influence, better jobs, endorsements, etc.

The end result is essentially a return to the days of state legislators picking electors, mitigated somewhat by elections in a very small number of battleground districts. This time, however, the power of the state legislature is buried under a layer of obscurity which greatly increases the possibility of corruption as well as popular distrust of the government.

Posted by: Anshul Amar | Aug 22, 2007 10:54:36 PM

It's just that it is far too easy to read a partisan motive into the Republicans (by assuring themselves of a split electoral vote in the nation's largest and most assuredly Democratic state), and thus it is objectionable on those grounds.

As it stands, whether or not the issue is intended to achieve greater more meaningful electoral reform, its immediate, real, and actual impact is that it awards Republicans about 20 more electoral votes each election and little else.

Posted by: Ed | Aug 22, 2007 6:53:55 PM

It would appear to me the principle is simply that any proportionality reform undertaken by any particular state will hurt the party the state usually votes for. So the only way to implement this fairly is to have all the states do it at once.

But I do see the infinite regress problem: to do it all-at-once will (probabilistically) disadvantage whichever party gains most from winner-take-all.

So yes, perhaps there is no non-substantive way to assess electoral procedure. Pure procedural justice is only for cake-splitting.

Posted by: FrankP | Aug 22, 2007 5:16:26 PM

I think the federal government should take whatever steps it wants to to do away with the electoral college system, and go to a popular vote. This is the time to do it, when we don't really know which side it would benefit -- the popular vote method would have helped dems in 2000. In 2004, if Kerry had gotten 50,000 more votes in Ohio in 2004, the popular vote would have helped Repubs. State by state reforms are not the answer -- each state has a disincentive to do it, so you would presume that if one state did it, others would NOT quickly follow. Why aren't there more calls at the federal level on this?

Posted by: Frank | Aug 22, 2007 2:21:31 PM

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