Electoral Votes
October 8, 2004 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Can someone please explain why a candidate gets all of the electoral votes in a given state if they have the majority of votes in that state?

Wouldn't it be more sensible and accurate to allow electoral votes to be distributed according to the percent of votes carried by each candidate in that state?

Am I missing something?
posted by fenriq to Law & Government (19 answers total)
 
Colorado has an initiative on the ballot that would implement exactly what you're suggesting. And New Hampshire gives one EV to the northern winner, one to the southern winner, and two to the overall winner.
posted by djacobs at 10:40 AM on October 8, 2004


The Electoral College divides the nation into districts, and it's mathematically proven that districting gives your vote more power than a non-districted contest. Discover Magazine had a great article on this eight years ago, but it costs $1 to read unless you're a subscriber. (I blogged some on it too, pardon the self-link, if you want a taste of it.)

The most evocative argument I remember from it is the baseball one: the winner of the World Series is not the team that scores the most total runs in seven games, but the team that can group them across the games to win four of the seven games themselves. There's value to forcing candidates to do well across the country instead of just in population centers, and I say that as a blue kind of guy in a red kind of place.
posted by mdeatherage at 10:51 AM on October 8, 2004


This should be a good place to start. Basically it boils down to having a system that negates mob rule and a pure popularity vote.
posted by mathowie at 10:55 AM on October 8, 2004


Some thoughts on the Colorado proposal from Politics Blog (was also linked on Volokh Conspiracy).
posted by whatzit at 10:55 AM on October 8, 2004


Jessamyn pointed out to me that I was wrong - it's Maine that splits up it's votes that way, not New Hampshire.
posted by djacobs at 11:09 AM on October 8, 2004


and Nebraska!
posted by jessamyn at 11:17 AM on October 8, 2004


mdeatherage: 1) That doesn't address fenriq's question. He's not asking why we have an electoral college instead of a popular vote; he's asking why we have an electoral college that (at least for 48 of 50 states) is winner-take-all, rather than proportionally by vote within a state. 2) I think this was the article you're looking for. 3) Rather than re-writing, I'll just point to my critiques from two earlier threads.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:20 AM on October 8, 2004


There are a couple of reasons I can think of, none of which have any particular moral force.

First, it makes states a bigger prize. Assume I'm a reasonably close state with 10 electors. If I divvy them up according to percentages, then I know that the Democratic candidate will get 4 or 5 with more-or-less certainty, the Republican will also get 4 or 5 with more-or-less certainty, and there will only be one or two electors that candidates are actually competing for. How hard will you campaign in my state to get that one or two electors? What promises will you make that benefit me to get my one or two electors? Not many. But if I go winner take all, then all of my electors are in play -- the prize for competing well and making good promises to my state isn't 1 or 2 electors, it's 10.

Second, in places that aren't close, the majority party probably doesn't want to do something that amounts to giving the other party some free electors. Why would Democrats in California or NY want to increase the number of Republican electors when they think Republicans aren't just the other team, they're *wrong* and have ideas and plans that will hurt America? Why would Republicans in TX want to give the Democrats some free electors?

AFAIK, the first is the bigger reason.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:46 AM on October 8, 2004


I always thought it was just the idea that it isn't one big election, but fifty smaller ones. The popular vote counts at the state level, and the electoral college takes over from there. But I dunno....
posted by spilon at 12:03 PM on October 8, 2004


I think it does address the question, because allocating a state's electors by popular vote essentially makes the contest a national majority vote, with small rounding errors. If Candidate A gets 60% of the vote nationally, he'll wind up with 60% of the electors. That eliminates the districting advantage.

(Mind you, given this math, I'm not opposed to allocating electoral votes by congressional district, or I wouldn't be if gerrymandering were not involved.)
posted by mdeatherage at 12:07 PM on October 8, 2004


why we have an electoral college that ... is winner-take-all, rather than proportionally by vote within a state

Because it's set up to be a two-party system for the efficiencies that provides (mainly, forcing compromises, which seemed to work for the period 1789-1990 or so, inclusive). The alternative is, effectively, a parliamentary system (not exactly, since we're only talking about two positions in the Executive Branch, but still).

Pardon the commas and disjointedness.
posted by yerfatma at 12:16 PM on October 8, 2004


I think it does address the question, because allocating a state's electors by popular vote essentially makes the contest a national majority vote, with small rounding errors.

No, because electoral votes are not directly proportional to population. The number of electoral votes a state has is equal to the number of representatives it has (which are proportional to population, with rounding errors), plus two. So an system where the electoral votes of each state are split proportionally to population would still give a voter in a small (in population) state more power than a voter in a large state. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your outlook, but doesn't amount to just a popular vote with rounding errors.

(Mind you, given this math, I'm not opposed to allocating electoral votes by congressional district, or I wouldn't be if gerrymandering were not involved.)

I'd find such a system preferable to a winner-take-all-by-state system.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:45 PM on October 8, 2004


The Colorado proposal makes it possible for third parties to get electoral votes, which sounds good in theory but would be disasterous in practice. Because you need 270 votes to win, regardless of how many candidates are in the race, close elections mean that nobody gets a majority. Then you have a presidential election administered by Tom Delay. That's bad.

The congressional district system is a good compromise, and I think it would be a boon to see this implemented in the other 48 states. You would avoid the kind of disasters that result from proportional electoral votes, but if there was a really strong third party, you would assure that person some representation in the electoral college. Ross Perot would have picked up a few in '92.

I asked about the math side of things previously, here.
posted by PrinceValium at 2:05 PM on October 8, 2004


Good points from everyone, thanks for the explanations.

I wonder what the electoral-vote.com map would like if it were broken down like how I'm suggesting?

It just bothers me that a candidate can "win" a state by a single vote and all those votes for the other candidate count for, well, nothing.
posted by fenriq at 2:25 PM on October 8, 2004


I wonder what the electoral-vote.com map would like if it were broken down like how I'm suggesting?

Basically, it wouldn't. You'd need ~1000 people in each district for it to make much sense, and a survey that big would be outlandishly expensive, and most districts won't have many (if any) proper surveys done.

You can get the information for past elections, though, by looking at presidential votes within congressional districts. I think Scott Adler at Colorado has it for some years. Once you had the source data, you could whip up the answer quickly enough in a spreadsheet.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:06 PM on October 8, 2004


ROU, thanks, I should have realized that the survey process for doing it the granular way would be beyond expensive (seeing as how I work in research on surveys and all). But thanks for the gentle whack to the side of my head.
posted by fenriq at 3:37 PM on October 8, 2004


But the data from past elections are out there, though. polidata.org has some maps up for the 1996 election (that doesn't include the two-per-state electors), and you can find it online in other places.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:14 PM on October 8, 2004


Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections has some historical what-if scenarios that show how a few votes one way or the other could have made differences in a presidential election's outcome.
posted by gimonca at 2:54 PM on October 9, 2004


(This will recap some previous comments, but anyway...)

If just one state--Colorado here--goes to proportional electoral votes, and no other state does, they pretty much eliminate themselves from importance in any close race. If Colorado were proportional this year, Bush gets four, Kerry gets four, and the two sides would be effectively battling for one lonely electoral vote, which probably wouldn't be worth either side's time.

If you support a party with a sizable minority in your state (the Democrats in Colorado might have been viewing themselves this way), going proportional might seem to be a way to get electoral votes that would otherwise go to the other side under winner-takes-all. But: as soon as your party gets a majority, which you'd assume any political party would want to do, the proportional system that used to help you is now working against you.

If many or all states were to go to proportional electoral voting, campaigning would just gravitate to large population centers, and avoid less-populated areas. You'd probably never see campaigning in West Virginia or New Hampshire again like we've seen this year.

About third parties: there's generally no legal requirement that electors vote for the candidate that they've been nominated by their party to support. This year, there's already one West Virginia Republican elector who says he won't vote for Bush if the Republicans carry WV and he gets a chance to vote. Now, if every state were proportional, you could have a situation where a Nader-like candidate might pick up a few electoral votes in California, New York, etc., but that candidate's electors could vote for the Democratic candidate in the Electoral College in December. The upside is that third party votes wouldn't be "wasted". The downside is that Nader, Green, Libertarian, Perot, Reform, whoever electors might be very heavily lobbied to change their votes one way or the other in the six or so weeks between the general election and the electoral college, which could look really disgusting.

As other people have just said, we have a big problem with gerrymandering in congressional districts--that would absolutely have to be addressed before we could consider awarding electoral votes by congressional district.
posted by gimonca at 3:18 PM on October 9, 2004


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