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“Most of the energy of political work is devoted to correcting the effects of mismanagement of government.”     Milton Friedman

August 27, 2007

How To Really Reform The Electoral College

by Doug Mataconis

Back in April, here and here, I wrote about the National Popular Vote, an effort by some states to change the way the Electoral College works by means of an agreement among participating states that it would give it’s electoral vote to the winner of the national popular vote, regardless of which candidates may have actually gotten the most votes in a given state.

As I stated back then, there are several problems with the NPV, not the least of them being that it is unconstitutional. But that doesn’t mean that the Electoral College can’t be reformed short of amending the Constitution. There is at least one alternative, and it’s being considered in California right now:

LOS ANGELES — California Republicans are floating a ballot initiative that would change how the state awards its 55 electoral votes, a whopping prize that Democrats have come over the past four presidential elections to regard as theirs.

Under the current format, the winner of the state’s popular vote takes all electoral votes. The initiative proposes to award one electoral vote for every congressional district a candidate wins, with the statewide winner getting two more electoral votes.

Had such a system been in place in 2004, President Bush would have come out of California with 22 electoral votes instead of zero. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would have gotten only 33.

“It has a gut-level appeal to it,” said Kevin Eckery, a GOP consultant supporting the initiative, which would be put before voters in June. “It sounds fair, and it is fair.”

Democrats emphatically disagree and are mounting their own campaign to derail the initiative, which strategists say could easily alter the outcome of the 2008 contest.

“You’re looking at between 19 and 22 votes that would shift to the Republican side,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist mobilizing against the proposal. “The electoral math becomes very challenging.”

Leaving aside the politics that underlies the debate in California, and would indisputably play a role in any state where this method for allocating electoral votes was considered, there is much about this proposal that is worthy of consideration.

First of all, it maintains the Electoral College’s purpose of balancing large states against small ones, and regions against regions while at the same time addressing one of the biggest criticisms of the way that we elect Presidents. By tying at least one electoral vote in each state to a Congressional District, the proposal would put nearly every state into play in a Presidential election. Yes, the proposal would benefit Republicans in California, but it would also benefit Democrats in states like Florida and Texas. In the end, the benefits would probably balance themselves out across the nation, and candidates would be forced to run a campaign that addresses the country as a whole, rather than one that merely focuses on a few big states.

Second, unlike the NPV, the Congressional district allocation method has been tried before, and works. Both Nebraska and Maine have had this system in effect for several years and it’s worked just fine.

Finally, unlike the NPV, the Congressional district allocation method is completely constitutional. The Constitution leaves to the individual states the method by which Electoral Votes are allocated.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that the Electoral College is as broken as some people think it is. In it’s 200 year history, there have been only three occasions where the Electoral College winner did not also win the popular vote, and only two where no candidate got a majority of Electoral College votes, requiring the House of Representatives to choose the President. In some sense, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, if reform is considered at all, the District Method seems to be the way to go.

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16 Comments

  1. Sounds like proportional representation to me… after thinking about the electoral college recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that this may have been the founders attempt at a parliamentary system.

    It seems rather antiquated now. Most of, if not all, the nations we have built (or are attempting to build) since, we’ve implemented parliamentary systems.

    Personally, I’d like to see a proper proportional representation system.

    Comment by js290 — August 27, 2007 @ 9:00 am
  2. The EC would make a lot more sense if the federal government weren’t as huge and involved in local matters as it is today. Remember when the states were supposed to be experiments in freedom?

    Comment by somebody — August 27, 2007 @ 9:57 am
  3. >In the end, the benefits would probably balance themselves out across the nation, and candidates would be forced to run a campaign that addresses the country as a whole, rather than one that merely focuses on a few big states.First of all, it maintains the Electoral College’s purpose of balancing large states against small ones, and regions against regions while at the same time addressing one of the biggest criticisms of the way that we elect Presidents.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — August 27, 2007 @ 11:24 am
  4. My use of

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — August 27, 2007 @ 11:25 am
  5. Just a note, the preview on the comments doesn’t take into account how certain symbols are read once the comment is submitted. Trying for the third time now . . .

    “In the end, the benefits would probably balance themselves out across the nation, and candidates would be forced to run a campaign that addresses the country as a whole, rather than one that merely focuses on a few big states.”

    I haven’t looked into this post-2000 redistricting, but overall the system would have strongly favored the Republicans in 2000. The narrow Electoral College result would have been a much bigger Bush defeat of Gore, despite how close the popular vote was. House districts are horribly gerrymandered.

    “First of all, it maintains the Electoral College’s purpose of balancing large states against small ones, and regions against regions while at the same time addressing one of the biggest criticisms of the way that we elect Presidents.”

    I’m critical of implying that the Electoral College is a “balanced” or well designed system to ensure that big states and small states are both given consideration. The creation of the Senate and its foundation in how the Electoral College is allocated was really a result of small state blackmailing during the Constitutional Convention, they either wanted a system that unfairly a leg up or else they would bolt. It’s no more “balanced” than the three-fifths compromise; simply a creation of politics.

    Also, on the question of constitutionality, I don’t think it is as clear cut as you claim it is. Some interstate compacts have been allowed without federal approval. Modern interpretation is that it limits the ability of the states to enter into compacts and agreements if they encroach on the powers of the federal government. Given that the states have the ability to allocate their electors anyway they like, I think there’s a case that it is constitutional.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — August 27, 2007 @ 11:26 am
  6. Tinkering with the EC is a way to pretend at electoral reform. But it does nothing to allow 3rd parties to challenge our current duopoly.

    Time would be much better spent working on IRV or ranked choice voting to get a truer snap-shot of the electorates intentions.

    Comment by Norm Nelson — August 27, 2007 @ 12:06 pm
  7. The system will benefit whichever party controls the gerrymandering. It doesn’t take much thinking to see what a dreadful problem this would create, in California and elsewhere.

    Also, Norm is right — this system is just another way to keep 3rd parties from being relevant, except as spoilers.

    Comment by michael — August 27, 2007 @ 2:36 pm
  8. Norm and Michael,

    What makes you think that eliminating the EC will benefit minority party candidates at all ?

    And to you really think ranked voting can work in a country as large as the United States ?

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — August 27, 2007 @ 2:39 pm
  9. Freedom Democrat,

    I’m critical of implying that the Electoral College is a “balanced” or well designed system to ensure that big states and small states are both given consideration. The creation of the Senate and its foundation in how the Electoral College is allocated was really a result of small state blackmailing during the Constitutional Convention, they either wanted a system that unfairly a leg up or else they would bolt. It’s no more “balanced” than the three-fifths compromise; simply a creation of politics.

    The Electoral College, along with the Senate as originally conceieved, was designed to make sure that the states retained their sovereignty and that the Federal Government was kept in check. I don’t see how eliminating the EC is going to benefit liberty.

    Granted, much of the Constitution’s limitation on Federal authority was made meaningless after the New Deal, and the (ill-advised) passage of the 17th Amendment turned the Senate into just another popularly elected body.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — August 27, 2007 @ 2:41 pm
  10. Yes, the gerrymandering problem would still render the system unfair, but perhaps it would be less unfair than the current system. Even better, I think, would be a system in which the electoral votes are assigned in strict proportion to the total popular vote statewide. This would render gerrymandering of congressional districts irrelevant to presidential elections.

    Of course, the real solution would be to adapt the proposal AND get rid of gerrymandering.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — August 27, 2007 @ 2:52 pm
  11. “The Electoral College, along with the Senate as originally conceieved, was designed to make sure that the states retained their sovereignty and that the Federal Government was kept in check. I don’t see how eliminating the EC is going to benefit liberty.”

    No, this is revisionist history and attempting to rationalize a political institution that was the product of nothing more than the small states refusing to join into any constitutional system that didn’t allow them equal representation in at least one branch. It ranks up there with the three-fifth compromise, or kicking the ban of the slave trade down the line until 1800. A political compromise, not some product of a desire to carefully balance state and federal power.

    Comment by FreedomDemocrat — August 27, 2007 @ 5:35 pm
  12. Doug, The EC has little or no effect on 3rd parties. The wasted vote syndrome is the primary inhibitor for 3rd parties followed by ballot access laws. Until IRV or another ranked choice method is implemented no 3rd pary will ever get a single EC vote. So fiddlin with the EC will never effect 3rd party.

    Maybe with the current EC the tipping point isn’t in the right place for cordnation with the popular vote, but third parties will never even get close to the tipping point with 1st past the post elections.

    Comment by Norm Nelson — August 27, 2007 @ 5:52 pm
  13. Doug, The EC has little or no effect on 3rd parties. The wasted vote syndrome is the primary inhibitor for 3rd parties followed by ballot access laws.

    Exactly. Everyone read that again.

    Time would be much better spent working on IRV or ranked choice voting…

    Until IRV or another ranked choice method is implemented…

    I’m in the “anything but plurality” camp, so I don’t want to badmouth any of the ranked choice methods, but I have to raise awareness by pointing out that there’s a much simpler option.

    Approval Voting.

    It’s plurality voting except you can vote for multiple candidates. That’s all it takes to eliminate most of plurality’s problems. No more spoiler effect, hello nursery effect, and it’s such a simple change that you don’t even need to alter the ballot.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — August 27, 2007 @ 7:03 pm
  14. If I’m not mistaken, such a revision of the Electoral College would bring it closer to the Founders’ original intent. When the Founders wrote the Constitution (before political parties disrupted things), they envisioned a system in which the People elect people whom they thought capable of choosing the President. Therefore, it seems the Founders intended for a wide variety of people to be chosen. I think this proposed revision could help bring that kind of variety back. If members of the Electoral College were chosen by district, then Third Parties would even have a chance at getting someone into the Electoral College. Just a thought.

    Comment by Jonathan Wright — August 27, 2007 @ 7:43 pm
  15. And to you really think ranked voting can work in a country as large as the United States ?

    I believe that in the US we spend less on our election system than we do on pop-corn. With that in mind I think it is very do-able. Election law now limits recognized parties to less than 10. Most folks wouldn’t want to rank 10 candidates but they sure would want to rank more than one as we currently do.

    You must realize too that the Constitution leaves the running of elections to the States. That means that a state could switch to ranked choice that is compatible with the EC.

    Comment by Norm Nelson — August 27, 2007 @ 11:23 pm
  16. As the proponent of Initiatve 07-0016 Electoral Reform California I find it laughable that the Demorats are shaking in their boots.

    They love to reform the other guy but when its their turn to get screwed they scream bloody murder.
    The opposition to the Reform of the Electoral College is becoming hysterical. A special interest organization, all demorats has put aside $40 million to defeat this reform initiative.
    Whazzz Up!! Is it that
    the democrats smell defeat in Nov. 2008 if it passes on June 3, 2008 and it will!

    The reform of the Electoral College in California has caught the attention of the presidential candidates, the Republican and Democrat parties, and the major media.
    Numerous articles have been reported in New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, and many more. Michael R. Blood of the Associated Press has filed two definitive reports on the effort to Reform the Electoral College in California.

    Why the Reform is a really good idea!

    $100,000,000! Thats right, one hundred million will be spent in California in media purchases.
    Returns the power of the vote back to the people
    It reinforces our founding fathers concept of representative government.
    Presidential candidates will not ignore California like they did in 2000 and 2004.

    California will become a competitive market in the Presidential race forcing candidates to campaign in this great state.

    Grass roots political issues energy/environment will become involved in the election.
    Independents votes will matter.
    Rural voters will have a voice.
    California will reflect its political demography.
    It enhances the importance of swing voters and competitive districts.
    It fairest system possible

    Comment by Tony Andrade — August 29, 2007 @ 12:05 am

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