Inequalities

Why Splitting Electoral Votes Proportionally Is Not the Answer

In another post, we discussed the problems with dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district (in a word: gerrymandering).  Another proposed solution to the winner-take-all problem is allocating electors proportionally based on the votes of the state at large.  Simply put, if a candidate won 70%-30% in a state with 10 electoral votes, 7 votes would go to the winner and 3 to the runner-up. 

The upsides of this proposal are that more votes would matter, turnout would increase, and candidates would have incentives to go to more places. But proportional representation is unlikely to create a national campaign, nor would it make every vote truly equal.  Indeed, a proportional system may lead to an even more undemocratic result than is likely under our current system.

While there would be fewer wasted votes under a proportional system, it would not make every vote count. Absent a constitutional amendment, the votes would have to be rounded to the nearest whole elector.  So there would still be wasted surplus votes and votes for the runner up that do not count in the final tally.  In close elections, this could lead to the winner of the national popular vote still losing the presidency.

There is also a feasibility problem. Unless all or almost all states signed on, the campaigns would still not be truly national—and many states will be unwilling to split their votes for fear of losing political influence. 

Splitting up a state’s electoral votes makes sense for a few small states—like Maine and Nebraska—that are perpetually ignored.  But most states adopted a winner-take-all system in order to increase their political heft. They wanted candidates to campaign in their states in hopes of winning a large number of electoral votes at once.  Therefore, states will be unlikely to unilaterally split their votes for fear of losing that clout. 

Safe states would hesitate to give up any of their votes to the other party, and swing states would hesitate to lose their special status. And as long as just a few big swing states kept the winner-take-all system, candidates would have a strong incentive to focus their campaigns on those states alone rather than battling it out for the one or two swing electoral votes in most other states.

So in order for proportional representation to work, there would have to be an interstate agreement similar to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. But unlike the Compact, which only needs states with 270 total electoral votes to go into effect and guarantee a truly national campaign (and has 196 votes committed from 16 jurisdictions now), a proportional system would require nearly all the states to participate to be effective.



Youth must be served

As this article explains, voter turnout among youths can be decisive in elections.

But the electoral college system in this century is biased against young voters. Why? Swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, have some of the highest median ages in the country:

The key swing states Florida and Pennsylvania have the first and second highest percentage of residents over the age of 65. Voters in these older states decide the election and the young people everywhere else are taken for granted. 



It’s the system

The point is that the Electoral College system motivates the candidates from the major parties not to move to the center of the country. Instead, they should and must focus only on what drives turn out in a handful of states that are not necessarily representative of the rest of the nation.

Here a New York Times columnist plumps for anyone but the incumbent, but misses the point of what the system causes to happen:

“A majority of the American electorate — liberals, moderates and even some conservatives — want a greater government role in health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich and less punitive border policies. If Trump isn’t going to move to the center, then their only choice should be the party that, no matter its nominee, backs each item on that list.”



Who cares what most people want?

It never even crosses the mind of the CBS reporter or the Trump campaign manager that most people in the country disapprove of the president.

In America’s screwy system, that doesn’t matter. Donald Trump only needs to win Florida to be in the re-election catbird seat. That’s why he kicks off his campaign there. No one comments about that either.  It is taken for granted that the president should be reelected or not based on whether he gains a narrow plurality from people in Florida and a couple other swing states. 

Then his campaign manager talks about a “landslide” consisting of winning by a few votes a couple of very tiny states that Trump did not carry in 2016. This is a landslide composed of a couple of pebbles. 

Donald Trump currently holds the record for consistent disapproval. No matter. Unless a few states change the way the electors are picked, most Americans don’t matter in picking the president. This is the reason why it was dreadful that the governor of Nevada vetoed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. He could’ve been part of the most important reform in the political process. He could have been somebody. 



Electoral college reform matters more than ever

The Supreme Court’s decision to bar the federal judiciary from addressing partisan gerrymandering lets state legislatures deprive blocks of voters from congressional representation — subject only to review by state courts whose members are confirmed by the same legislatures or possibly elected through the same gerrymandering. 

Republicans in Maryland or African Americans in North Carolina are just two examples of the victimized groups. 

This ruling opens the door for states to adopt a district system for choosing electors that would gerrymander picking the president.  

While the Supreme Court continues to make its negative contributions to the survival of the American republic, it is even more important that every American voter counts and counts equally in electing the president of the United States. Then a future president, one who wins the national plurality, might appoint justices who are committed to promoting democracy. 

Politicians, donors, and voters really have to get on board the national popular vote train. The country is in a bad fix. 

It’s a shame that the Democratic legislatures just frustrated reform in Maine and the governor of Nevada vetoed the reform bill. Dems be woke please. 



Why Allocating Electoral Votes by Congressional District is Not The Answer

The problems with the way we choose our president are numerous and severe, including:

  • disproportionate attention to swing states (both during and after elections);

  • effective disenfranchisement of citizens who live in “safe” states for one party but prefer another party, leading to low turnout;

  • threats to our national security due the small number of states a foreign hacker can target to change the outcome of the election;

  • the fact that the winner of the election may not be the person who got the most votes—an outcome that we will see more and more.

Some people, recognizing the seriousness of the problems with our system, have suggested an alternative: allocating electoral votes by congressional districts instead of giving all of state’s votes to the plurality winner. 

Each state has a number of electors equal to its representation in Congress—two votes for the Senate, and a number that varies based on the state’s population for the House.  Under this proposed system, each state would allocate two votes at large for the overall winner of the state and the rest of the electors would go to the candidate that wins each of the congressional districts.  This is how Maine and Nebraska allocate their electoral votes.

Proponents of this system argue that it would be more fair, and that it would be less likely to result in a candidate winning the national popular vote while losing the Electoral College.  However, this is not true for one simple reason: gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a serious problem with our representative system. For example, in 2016 and 2018, Republican congressional candidates in North Carolina won about 50% of the congressional votes in that state, but claimed victory in 10 out of the states 13 districts (the Ninth District will have to vote again following election fraud in 2018).

Under this map, a Democratic candidate could get a plurality of votes in North Carolina (as Obama did in 2008) but still only be awarded only 5 out of the state’s 13 electoral votes (winning in 3 districts plus the 2 at-large votes). 

Because of gerrymandering, allocating electors by congressional district will actually be more likely to result in popular vote losers becoming president than the current system.  If the 2012 election had been decided based on congressional districts, Mitt Romney would have defeated Barack Obama in the Electoral College 274-264, despite losing the popular vote by nearly five million votes.  Donald Trump also would have won under this system in 2016 despite losing the popular vote. The incentive to gerrymander would increase exponentially if congressional districts determined control of the White House as well as control of the House, making the problem even worse than it is now.

As candidates adjusted their strategy to focus on the 16% of districts that are “swing” districts, a split between the popular vote and the electoral college will be even more likely.

The vast majority of voters would live in “safe” districts, meaning that most people still would have little incentive to turn out to vote and their concerns and issues will be ignored as they lose out on federal funding to swing districts. The swing districts will become the new target for election meddlers.

Proponents of district-based electoral allocation recognize that gerrymandering would have to be addressed before the system would be fair. However, the Supreme Court has refused to address partisan gerrymandering, no matter how egregious.

Accordingly, allocation of electors based on congressional districts would only make elections more unfair and would not solve the problems with our current system.



Electoral college doesn’t like health care

The electoral system is the reason why these red states get away with not expanding Medicare. Why? Because candidates in both parties don’t campaign there. The pluralities are foregone conclusions. Those who suffer don’t count because rural poor are outvoted by suburban voters, and they aren’t permitted by the system to vote with similarly affected people in other states.



Impossible

If the national popular vote chose the president, it would be impossible for a president seeking a second term to block the printing of the following:

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Such a move would cost too many votes. 

Under the current system, most of the aggrieved, those who are meant to be recognized by this image commissioned by the Obama Administration, are in states where they are outvoted by a majority of a different race, and so they have no weight in the calculus of winning the general election for president.



Think the Electoral College benefits small and rural states? Not so fast.

Conventional wisdom says that a national popular vote will harm the interests of small, rural states.  It is true that because a state’s electoral votes equal its representation in the House plus two votes for each Senator, small states do have a slightly higher share of Electoral College votes than they would have if the votes were distributed in accordance to population alone.

But how much does that really matter? The fact that Idaho has four electoral votes instead of two does not mean that candidates try to win any votes in Idaho.  No candidate visited the state in 2016, nor did candidates flood the airwaves with ads, nor did they discuss policy issues of particular concern to Idaho, nor did they set up extensive get-out-the-vote operations.  As a result, only 59.2% of eligible voters in Idaho voted for president in 2016.  Rhode Island, which also has four electoral votes, was similarly ignored completely by candidates and, not surprisingly, had correspondingly low turnout of 59.1%.

On the other hand, New Hampshire, which has the same number of electoral votes as Idaho and Rhode Island, got 21 visits from candidates in 2016, plus countless ads and a serious get-out-the vote effort. Not surprisingly, turnout for the presidential election in New Hampshire was 71.4%—the second highest in the nation. 

The differing treatment of New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Idaho is explained by the fact that New Hampshire is a swing state while Rhode Island and Idaho are not.

New Hampshire gets attention in spite of the fact that it is small, not because it is small. 

In a piece in Bloomberg, Justin Fox explains that in the 1960s and 1970s, people criticized the Electoral College because it unfairly gave an advantage to big states and big cities, at the expense of small states. That’s because back then, the five biggest states—New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio—were all swing states. As Fox notes, any advantages conferred by the system to big states, to Republicans, or to Democrats, are transient:  

It’s easy enough to look back at a presidential election and determine how the Electoral College hurt or helped your side. It’s a little harder, but far from impossible, to come up with reasonable suppositions about which states will play a more or less decisive role in an impending election. Determining who the Electoral College helps or hurts over the long run, though, may be too tough a puzzle for anyone to solve.

... 

The best way to think of the Electoral College may be as a wrench that occasionally gets thrown into the works of American presidential elections, delivering a result that is at odds with the popular vote. I would beware of becoming too confident that said wrench is on your side. 

In other words, the only constant of the Electoral College is that it benefits swing states.  Most small states, like most big states, get ignored. 

And if you don’t live in a swing state, the consequences go far beyond how many ads you are likely to see in an election year. Your industries  get ignored, your funding gets cut, and you are less likely to get disaster relief funding than people who live in the handful of states that decide elections.



Oregon Officially Joins National Popular Vote Interstate Compact

Oregon governor Kate Brown has signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact into law, making Oregon the 16th jurisdiction to join the agreement that will guarantee that the winner of the popular vote will also win the electoral college.

The Constitution gives each state the power to award its electoral college votes as it sees fit.  Right now, all states give their electoral votes to the plurality winner of that state (except Nebraska and Maine).  However, under the Compact, each member state will give its votes to the winner of the national popular vote. 

The Compact will not go into effect until states with 270 total electoral votes join—the number needed to secure a majority of electoral college votes.  Accordingly, the states will not award their electoral college votes to the winner of the national popular vote until there are enough electoral votes pledged to guarantee the winner of the national popular vote becomes president.

Right now, the Compact has 196 votes committed, including Oregon.  In order to reach 270, there will have to be a massive public education campaign to show voters that this issue is bigger than partisan politics.  The fact that almost every state gives its votes to the plurality winner has serious consequences, including:

The electoral college will sometimes favor Democrats and sometimes Republicans, but in the long run, everyone will be better off if Americans can choose their leader directly, and every person’s vote counts equally.



Why the Electoral College is biased against women

This is well known: from David Leonhardt in NYT

“As Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes, a large majority of Americans support both ‘protecting abortion rights when pregnancy endangers a woman’s life’ and ‘keeping abortion legal when pregnancy is caused by rape or incest.’”

No president could oppose this majority view and still win the national popular vote. 

But the national vote and views widely held in the nation do not matter in selecting the president. We are not one country when it comes to electing the president. In that activity only a few impassioned factions of voters in a handful of states matter. 

Opposition to abortion even in the direst circumstances is found principally among evangelicals. For stochastic reasons evangelicals compose a large percentage of the population in the four critical swing states that now determine the choice of the president (Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin). Evangelicals also have an exceptionally high turnout rate, making them an estimated 20-40% of voters in these key states. They vote overwhelmingly for the candidate who inveighs against abortion. That is the incumbent, as it was George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. 

The impact is seen in two respects: who gets elected president in close elections like 2000 and 2016 and who gets appointed by Republican presidents to the Supreme Court.  

A major reason Hillary Clinton did not carry the crucial swing states is that she has been a lifelong advocate of choice. (The million words written about her personality as the explanation for her loss of the plurality by narrow margins in these four states are a different example of bias against women.) 

The result is that the view of a large majority of women and men on the issue of abortion have had very little impact on Republican presidents since 1980. 

To be reelected, the current president for purely political reasons feels he must appoint people to the Supreme Court who do not necessarily honor the constitutional right of women to control their bodies even when raped or at risk of dying. 

Because he wants to be reelected, the current president is unlikely to oppose the draconian anti-abortion laws just passed on this issue in a few states. These states are taken for granted in the general election already, but he will be motivated to seek the votes of evangelicals in the swing states. That is the reason he is not likely to have the Solicitor General oppose these laws. That is the reason he will not speak against these laws even though the large majority of Americans oppose them. 

This bias against abortion even in dire situations stems from the electoral system. 



Thanks to Electoral College, Trump is sitting pretty

See the poll below. The incumbent has 230 electors in his pocket. With Florida he picks up 29 more. It’s one jump to 270— Pennsylvania does it; so does Michigan; so does the combination of the swing district in Omaha, Nebraska and Wisconsin in a combo. 

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What a system! Trump will surely lose the national popular vote based on current polls, while likely winning the E C. 


Future Elections will be Close. That Means that We’re Going to See More Popular Vote Winners Lose.

Some defenders of the way we chose our president insist that a “wrong winner” election—when the person who gets the most votes does not become the president—is a “rare divergence” that is unlikely to happen again (despite the fact that it has happened in two out of the last five elections).

But according to our statistical analysis, the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College 32-40% of the time in close elections.  And as Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight has explained, the current trend of very close elections—within single-digits percentage points—is likely to continue.  The closer the election, the more likely a split between the national popular vote and the Electoral College.  In addition, in recent elections, there have been fewer swing states than in the past, and more states where the margin of victory was very large. The result: more and more elections where the winner of the national popular vote will lose the Electoral College.  

Nor does the current system give a long-term advantage to either party.  In modern elections, the Electoral College has appeared to be skewed against Democrats.  But, as Democrats and Republicans agree, this trend won’t last forever.  Swing states stop swinging, and safe states for one party shift to become safe states for the other.  The next “wrong winner” could just as easily be a Democrat who wins the Electoral College and loses the national popular vote.  In addition, as many, including Donald Trump, have rightly noted, no candidate has ever actually campaigned to win the national popular vote.  There is no telling which party would have an advantage if they did.

But one thing remains certain: so long as we stick with our current system, candidates will exclusively campaign in the current crop of swing states.  Most of America will be ignored, and their voices silenced. 



Electoral College On Track to Reward National Loser With Landslide Victory

According to this model the incumbent is on track to win by a margin of 294 electoral votes. That means 416 electors to 122 electors. This astounding landslide would be won by the most unpopular president ever re-elected, based on the fact that the president's disapproval rating typically runs more than 10 percentage points ahead of his approval rating. His broad and deep unpopularity is manifested in the extremely unusual fact that nearly half of voters say they will never vote for him. That is a much higher number than were dead set against Obama in 2011, when he was still battling the Great Crash and had only just passed the not particularly well-received Affordable Care Act. 

It is not necessary for the United States to have a method of choosing the president that re-elects such an unpopular president. The populist movement that seems to animate people on both the left and right should include as a core tenet agreement on the choice of an election method that guarantees the defeat of a president much less popular than his or her rival from an opposing party.

Of course the Democrats do have to nominate someone more popular than the incumbent. The odds of that happening are much better than the odds of that person defeating the president.  

Head-scratching does not produce any good reason why an extremely unpopular president should be able to get re-elected against a popular opponent.

  • Does the incumbent's unpopularity stem from the failure of voters to understand what he is really like and what he is really doing, which if they understood they would endorse? That doesn't seem likely given the enormous attention the president attracts to his own utterances and deeds.

  • Is the unpopularity merely transitory? The polls show remarkable steadiness in perception and over time views have hardened in place rather than changed.

  • Should we prefer a system where an elite can keep political power in the face of opposition from the poorer, less influential, less educated, or simply less empowered but more numerous majority? In other words, is an authoritarian system better than democracy? That is the fundamental question faced by governments all over the world, now that democracy is under challenge more than at any time since the Second World War.



The electoral college hates choice for women

The majority of women believe that women should have the right to exercise some choice about whether to have children. But evangelicals vehemently disagree. President Trump sides publicly with evangelicals.

It is almost impossible to believe that he has always sincerely held this position. 

But the electoral college system practically compels him to be taking this stance while running for president. Why? Because a huge proportion of voters in swing states are evangelicals. 

The views of the majority of women would militate for a different policy in the Trump Presidency. If they mattered. Which they don’t. Because of the electoral college system.



The Electoral College Versus Religion

This map shows one of the many religious denominations that are regionally concentrated outside swing states. 

The percentage of Mormons by county:

A very quick scan at this map reveals that with the arguable exception of Nevada virtually all Mormons live in states that are taken for granted in the general presidential election. As a result, members of this denomination are effectively irrelevant in the general presidential election. 

Generally speaking, Mormons vote by a large majority for the same political party and share a common agenda. If the national popular vote picked the president this religious block would get attention from all major party candidates. But instead the winner-take-all electoral college system politically neutralizes members of the Church.



The Small State "Advantage" Under the Electoral College is Illusory

Some argue that because small states get more electors relative to their population than large states, the Electoral College is good for small states and protects their interests.  However, that minor advantage is far outweighed by the incentives to ignore people who live in small states entirely when almost every state awards all of its electors to the winner of the statewide popular vote.  From Ryan Cooper at The Week:

The 2016 candidates spent almost all their time in a handful of states, most of them medium or large. Two-thirds of campaign events happened in just six states — Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan. If we include Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Arizona, then those 12 states account for 96 percent of campaign events.

The nine smallest states (including D.C.), meanwhile, got precisely zero attention. Only the tenth-largest, New Hampshire, got any events at all. In total, 25 states (mostly small and medium-sized) got no events whatsoever. And while it's true the states that got huge attention are mostly on the big side, the very largest states were almost totally ignored as well — California and Texas got one event apiece, and New York none.

The reason for this is obvious. Almost every state gives all of its electoral votes to whoever wins the state — allowing candidates to take the votes of strongly partisan states for granted. Indeed, it's actively foolish to campaign where you are guaranteed to win or lose — only the swing states matter. It would be a waste of resources for a Democrat to campaign in California or Kentucky, or for a Republican to campaign in New York or D.C.



Swing States Stop Swinging

If you live in one of the few battleground states left, you may believe that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is against your interests as one of the few voters who actually has a say in the outcome of presidential elections.  But history has shown that states do not remain swing states forever, and voters in some of the most important swing states in past elections may soon find themselves joining most of the country in the Land of the Ignored Voters in the next election.

Take Ohio, the deciding state in the 2004 election. Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, criticized the popular vote movement as being against Ohioans’ interests because a national popular vote “would make Ohio not a player in the political game.” 

However, looking forward to the 2020 election, Ohio has already lost its coveted swing state status and moved into the into the column of states taken for granted by the Republican party.  The 2018 midterms, which generally provided significant gains for Democrats, demonstrated that Ohio has moved further into solidly-Republican territory “[s]o much so that the perpetual battleground seems less and less likely to be in play in 2020.”  A prominent Democratic super PAC has “significantly downgrade[d] Ohio’s targetability, listing it as a ‘GOP Watch’ state along with Texas and Iowa.”

 As a result, Republican commentator Scott Jennings predicts that “If you are one of the masochistic few who loves hearing your phone ring 48 times a day every fourth October, you are about to be sorely disappointed.”

On the other hand, Virginia, which had been a solidly-Republican state, then became a swing state, now looks more and more like a safely blue state.  The result: candidates may soon stop visiting Virginia, spending money in Virginia, and taking policy positions that serve the interests of Virginians. 

That former swing states should move to one column or another should not come as a surprise.  Indeed, even Democratic stronghold California used to be a swing state.  On the other side, Republican stronghold of Texas may become a swing state soon

As time goes on and demographics and party positions change, the key swing states that decide elections will inevitably shift.  A state with tremendous power and influence in one election may be completely ignored in the next.  But under the national popular vote, all votes will matter equally in every election.