Are you smarter than John Lott?

The Christian Science Monitor reports on a plan to effectively do away with the electoral college:

Picture it: On election day in some future year, a presidential candidate ends up with the most popular votes but not enough electoral votes to win.

It’s a repeat of the 2000 election in which one contender, Democrat Al Gore, took the majority of the national popular vote, while the other, Republican George W. Bush, clinched the most electoral college votes and, hence, the presidency.

But this time there’s a twist: A bunch of states team up and give all their electoral college votes to the nationwide popular-vote winner, regardless of who won the most votes in their state. Then, the candidate who garners the most citizen votes in the country moves into the White House.


Legislative houses in Colorado and California have recently approved this plan, known as the National Popular Vote proposal, taking it partway to passage. Other states, too, are exploring the idea of a binding compact among states that would oblige each of them to throw its electoral votes behind the national popular-vote winner. …

The compact is designed to take effect only if states representing 270 electoral votes approve the compact legislation, giving those states majority control of the electoral college. The result: The “compact” group of states would be able to determine a presidential election.

John Lott says it won’t work:

Some states are moving to get rid of the electoral college. The idea is to have each state’s electoral votes determined by the winner of the national popular vote. Of the six states that are going to be voting on these initiatives California, New York and Illinois are Democratic states and Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana generally Republican in presidential elections. Obviously this represents more Democratic electoral votes than Republican ones. Democrats might think that this will encourage people to campaign in California and New York, but if you campaign in Florida, you get two returns: increase the probability of carrying Florida plus increasing the probability that you will get California’s and New York’s electoral votes. As more states adopt these rules, it will make it more similar to the popular vote determining the outcome of the election. But if only a few states adopt the rules, they will make those states largely irrelevant. Suppose that California was the only state to adopt the rule? There would then be clearly less of a reason to campaign in California than there is now.

It is my understanding that the states who are voting on this have a provision that it won’t go into effect until states with a majority of electoral votes have adopted this, but I have a feeling that even with a majority of the electoral votes this way, there would still be a bigger return to campaign in the states where you would get both electoral votes and popular votes.

Are you smarter than Lott? Answer in comments.

Comments

  1. #1 John Wilkins
    June 23, 2006

    I don’t know Lott from Lot, but popular voting works in a number of countries. It’s called democratic elections. America should try it sometime…

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    June 23, 2006

    Lott is so far off the mark it isn’t even funny. Effectively eliminating the electoral college would change everything. Right now, the money and the candidate get put where the electoral votes are up for grabs. Areas that have lots of voters, but which are safe for one or the other candidate, get ignored. Ohio gets visited a lot under the current situation, since the population is split almost right down the middle, but nobody wastes time doing serious campaigning in New York.

    Without the electoral college, that changes. Population centers become more important, and low-population states become much less important – particularly for the Republicans. If the next Republican presidential candidate gains half a million votes in New York, he’ll still lose the state, but it would go a hell of a long way toward improving a popular vote margin – that’s almost 0.5% of the total right there. Similarly, if the Democrats were to pump huge amounts of money into increasing voter registration and get out the vote efforts in NY, it wouldn’t do much for them. The state’s safe, and the money would be better spent elsewhere. More voters would increase the margin in NY, but gain not one more electoral vote. Without the college, those votes start to look a hell of a lot more important.

  3. #3 Ian Gould
    June 23, 2006

    The problem with Lott’s reasoning is that without at least some of the six states listed it’d be next to impossible to get a popular majority.

  4. #4 Meyrick Kirby
    June 23, 2006

    I am afraid I have to point out that there is no perfect voting system. Kenneth Arrow won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in 1972 for proving this rather depressing fact.

    Although that said, some system are probably better than others.

  5. #5 ben
    June 23, 2006

    I don’t know Lott from Lot, but popular voting works in a number of countries. It’s called democratic elections. America should try it sometime…

    No thank you. Our country’s founders were much smarter than you or I and they put the electoral college in place for a reason. The same reason every state gets two senators no matter their population. This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities, unlike what happens in my former home of Canada, where the ruling party does what they like, and the “opposition” is in name only, being reduced to a lot of griping.

    Unfortunately, we’ve managed to elect ourselves Republicans in both houses of congress and the presidency, so the system is still flawed, but then, so are both parties.

    In any event, I prefer the system we have where it is just that much harder for the know-it-alls in the cities to dictate to the unwashed in the rural areas. The rest of the world can have their democracies, we like our consitutional republic, or at least what’s left of it.

  6. #6 Paul Crowley
    June 23, 2006

    but I have a feeling that even with a majority of the electoral votes this way, there would still be a bigger return to campaign in the states where you would get both electoral votes and popular votes

    The scheme goes into effect when the signers have a majority of electoral votes. If it does not go into effect, everything is the same as before in every state. If it goes into effect, you will win the Presidency if and only if you get a plurality of the national vote. In one case you campaign as before; in the other you campaign for the national vote. In neither case does campaigning especially in the non-compact states give you any advantage.

  7. #7 Carl Christensen
    June 23, 2006

    well the Electoral College does seem to be a bit of an archaic relic in this day & age, and screeches by Repubs of “freedom & liberty & democracy” fall a bit flat considering the US is a republic held hostage by low-populated “red states!” ;-)

  8. #8 Tim Lambert
    June 23, 2006

    Paul: Correct.

  9. #9 FhnuZoag
    June 23, 2006

    Kenneth Arrow won the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in 1972 for proving this rather depressing fact.

    I disagree. All Arrow proved was that his definition of ‘a perfect voting system’ is internally inconsistent. Many people, myself included, would disagree with his set of criteria – in particular:

    “independence of irrelevant alternatives: if we restrict attention to a subset of options and apply the social welfare function only to those, then the result should be compatible with the outcome for the whole set of options. Changes in individuals’ rankings of irrelevant alternatives (ones outside the subset) should have no impact on the societal ranking of the relevant subset. This is a restriction on the sensitivity of the social welfare function.”

  10. #10 SkookumPlanet
    June 23, 2006

    Since no one else has pointed this out, allow me. There’s no chance the electoral college will be eliminated, for the same reason it was instituted. It gives small-population states power beyond their relative population size.

    30 years ago I lived in Alaska. I doubt it’s current population is greater now than then, 500,000. Yet the state gets a minimum 3 electoral vote. Roughly, 500,000 over 300,000,000 is 1/600. Per population Alaska would get less than one electoral vote. Get rid of the electoral college and small states would never see a general election presidential candidate again.

    The current system can only be changed nationally through a Constitutional amendment, and we can expect the small states, which outnumber the large ones considerably, to fight against such a restructuring vigorously, just as they fought vigorously for the current system when the U.S. was being formed.

    A national amendment campaign on this issue would lose all the small-population states, and so fail. Repubs have always advocated restructuring the Constitution, etc., to deal with specific political issues, but so far haven’t. Several election cycles ago at an RNC website I perused the official platform. It called for, if I remember correctly, nine constitutional amendments! It’s mostly a campaign tactic, one I’d hate to see the Dems take up. It’s only a sliver of the rightwing’s success.

    Many of these interior red states used to be in play electorally, some even more blue than red. Thirty years ago the radical right began remolding the psychology of these states to their favor. It worked. Beautifully. It didn’t succeed by the wingnuts sitting around complaining. I’ve kept my eyes open for some evidence the left is emulating this wildly successful approach to Presidential and general politics. I’ve seen none, which presages a long drought.

  11. #11 z
    June 23, 2006

    “Our country’s founders were much smarter than you or I and they put the electoral college in place for a reason. The same reason every state gets two senators no matter their population.”

    The electoral college is not the problem; the problem is the winner takes all nature of assigning the electors that most? all? states use. Imagine, for instance, FL in 2000, had the electoral votes been assigned proportional to the popular vote of the state; the foofraw over 200 votes here or there would have been meaningless, as the state’s electors would go 50/50, representing the state’s population’s obvious desires. This in no way affects the decision to allocate proportionally more electors to smaller states.

    “This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities, unlike what happens in my former home of Canada, where the ruling party does what they like, and the “opposition” is in name only, being reduced to a lot of griping.”

    On the other hand, Canada does have the vote of nonconfidence, something the US does not care to adopt.

  12. #12 z
    June 23, 2006

    “This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities, unlike what happens in my former home of Canada, where the ruling party does what they like, and the “opposition” is in name only, being reduced to a lot of griping.”

    PS: Alberta politics, to mention one province with which I am familiar, is similar to the electoral college, in that rural ridings tend to have 1/10 the population per elected representative that urban ridings do. If you suspect this tilts the province’s elected representatives to the right (even further!), you are correct.

  13. #13 Eric Wallace
    June 23, 2006

    z is right on about the electoral college. The biggest problem in FL in 2000, in my opinion, is that the “winner take all” system allowed a very small difference—smaller than the error inherent in the voting/tabulating process—to magnify into a large difference in EC votes. Proportional representation would fix most of the problems, if for some (silly) reason you can’t stomach getting rid of the EC.

  14. #14 Eli Rabett
    June 23, 2006

    Well, it is an interesting idea, but how to you control defectors?

  15. #15 Paul Crowley
    June 23, 2006

    OK. So… rather than using the national vote, how about a system where each state’s influence is exactly proportional to the number of votes cast in that state, and each candidate gets a share of that influence exactly proportional to their share of their vote in that state? And the presidential candidate with the most influence wins?

    That’d be just like the current system, but fairer, right? And better than using the national vote of course.

  16. #16 Ben
    June 24, 2006

    What we really need is a national “slap your legislator” day. On this day, every governing official (including appointed ones, actually they get two slaps) must draw a name out of a bucket of names of their constituents. The “winner” gets to slap their legislator in the face. For the president, we make a special exception and he/she gets kicked in the jimmy.

    I’d sure feel better about a “democracy” like that.

  17. #17 Sortition
    June 24, 2006

    As Aristotle, Montesquieu and Rousseau pointed out, elections of any kind are an oligarchic institution: You simply cannot win an election without being famous. The group of famous people is small and stable. QED.

    The ancient Athenians had a much better system – Sortition. In sortition the legislature is selected as a random sample of the population.

    More at sortition.blogspot.com.

  18. #18 Damien
    June 25, 2006

    On small states giving up their unfair advantage: I’d note that the state legislatures of the US passed an amendment moving the election of Senators from the legislatures to popular votes. And various male voters and politicians approved expanding the vote to women. It would seem that things do occasionally go against narrow self-interest.

    best electoral system: yeah, no agreement on that, but I think mathematicians do agree that our first-past-the-post or plurality system is the worst. We don’t even have runoff elections, at least nationally.

  19. #19 Harald Korneliussen
    June 26, 2006

    Meyrick Kirby, indeed some systems are better than others. That a set of consistent preferences can not always be reasonably translated to one consistent preference, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it when it is possible. And that is what a condorcet voting system does…

    All this talk about how wise the people who invented the electoral college and the senate were: I think you should face what Churchill said about democracy, that all the alternatives are worse. Protecting minorities are well and good, but no consitution can reliably do that without the respect of the majority of the people living under it. A constituion depends on the people’s approval like all other laws. Put another way: no political system can consistently give people better societies than they deserve.

    Sure, in some areas it happens. EU politicians, left or right, are much more strongly opposed to death penalty and judicial cruelty than their consituents – but they make up for it in other ways. And there have been “enlightened” monarchs at various times in history, but they usually had nasty descendants. Such anomalies don’t last, unfortunately. The electoral college, or any other democracy-reducing insitution, may in certain circumstances give people better governments than they deserve. In the long run it fails, like all other attempts to protect people from themselves.

  20. #20 liberal
    June 26, 2006

    ben wrote, This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities…

    Where is the evidence from the history of political economy that rural people comprise a political interest which is unfairly dealt with by urban majorities?

  21. The same reason every state gets two senators no matter their population. This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities, unlike what happens in my former home of Canada, where the ruling party does what they like, and the “opposition” is in name only, being reduced to a lot of griping.

    Perhaps it would be better if Canada elected its senators, rather than appointed them. More power to the smaller provinces, for one.

  22. #22 Shinobi
    June 27, 2006

    This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities, unlike what happens in my former home of Canada, where the ruling party does what they like, and the “opposition” is in name only, being reduced to a lot of griping.

    This would be different from America in which ways, exactly?

  23. #23 SP
    June 28, 2006

    Some people seem to be missing the point of this story just as badly as Lott is. The entire point is that this system is a way for large states (as few as 11, I believe, if it’s the 11 most populous) to effectively eliminate the Electoral College without having to pass a constitutional amendment. The Constitution reserves the right for each state to decide how to assign their electors. They don’t have to award them all or nothing, proportionally, or even with any regard to how the residents of their state voted. So if CA, NY, IL, MI, FL, TX, etc. say that their EVs go to the national popular vote winner, regardless of how their own state votes, then the national vote winner is the president as long as states with at least 270 EVs follow that system. (Hence Lott’s idiocy, it’s a triggered, either-or system- if 270 states have approved such a binding measure, it goes into effect, if they don’t, it’s still the old system- there’s no such thing as only one state following the new system, unless one of the states secretly welches, presumably impossible without changing the law in a very public fashion.)
    One caveat is that this system allows the assignment of EVs of one state based on the reliability of the voting systems of other states, which may make some people quesy, especially with recent voting technology problems. It’s basically allowing systems you have no control or authority over to determine your state’s actions. Furthermore, since every vote now counts (god forbid!), there may be many “Floridas” where, in a close election, lawsuits are filed in every state to get as many popular votes as possible. (Or even worse, only in some states where courts favor one party or another- there’s nothing as patriotic as venue shopping your election.)

  24. #24 Carleton Wu
    June 29, 2006

    The same reason every state gets two senators no matter their population. This is so that the masses cannot run rough-shod over the political minorities

    This has the dual advantage of being both historically inaccurate and idiotic.

    Historically inaccurate bc the states preceeded the Constitution- they (and their political influence) were preserved out of necessity, not as an intentional design decision on the part of the founders.
    Idiotic, bc this “plan” would only protect minorities that happened to exist in great numbers in the small states- any other minorities would still be at the mercy of the terrible masses. If the founders intended to protect minority viepoints, they surely would’ve created a system that protected minority viewpoints in general (eg the use of supermajorities instead of majority votes, as occurs in some places in the Constitution).

    Since no one else has pointed this out, allow me. There’s no chance the electoral college will be eliminated, for the same reason it was instituted. It gives small-population states power beyond their relative population size.

    Read the post again- if states compromising a majority of the EC bind themselves together, then the EC will continue to exist, but it will effectively have been abolished.
    I think you just failed the “are you smarter than John Lott” test…

  25. #25 Eli Rabett
    June 29, 2006

    I think SP has the nub of it. This is a way of the populous states getting a handle on the rotten boroughs. If they work together they can force a more rational division of seats in the Senate, and get more of a say in the Electoral College.

    It is one way to force the greedy dwarfs to the table (ever hear a candidate’s debate in one of those places, they brag about how much money they can steal from the rest of us for their few constituents)

    Must mail this to the South Dakota whatever…to troll, to troll, away to troll we go….