I’ve been thinking about the Electoral College, that mechanism by which voters in the U.S. indirectly elect their president. More precisely, I’ve been wondering whether small modifications in the system might make a significant difference.
When the polls close on Tuesday night and the votes are tallied, the next President of the United States will not be chosen on the basis of which candidate received the most votes cast. Rather, each state (and the District of Columbia) will tally its votes, and whoever wins within each state (or the District) gets all of its electoral votes.
Except for Maine and Nebraska, which I’ll get to in just a moment.
This set up means, for example, that the five electoral votes allocated to Nevada go to whichever presidential candidate wins the most votes cast by those among the slightly more than 1.4 million registered Nevada voters who actually turn out to vote — even if the highest vote getter and the next-highest vote getter are only separated by a single vote.* Being really close counts for exactly nothing so far as the awarding of electoral votes goes.
This isn’t horseshoes.
After the electoral votes are awarded, the candidate who receives the majority of those (270 or more of the 538 total electoral votes available) wins the presidency.**
One of the big issues people have with the Electoral College system is the winner-take-all disposition of each state’s electoral votes. There are two states, Maine and Nebraska, that don’t award their electoral votes this way. Instead, they use popular vote within the state to determine (on a winner-take-all basis) how to award two electoral votes, and they use popular vote within each congressional district to determine how to award the rest of the state’s electoral votes (three of them for Nebraska, two for Maine). This means that Nebraska and Maine could end up awarding electoral votes to more than one candidate, depending on how heterogeneous the vote is.
Here, it’s worth noting that all of the states have (N+2) electoral votes where N = the number of Representatives the state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and 2 = the number of Senators the state has in the U.S. Senate. In other words, the Electoral College system enshrines a kind of protection of the interests of less populous states. The flip side of that is that my vote (in populous California) has less influence on the outcome of presidential elections than does the vote of someone in a sparsely populated state like Montana or Wyoming.
A bunch of people have opined that it might be better of the electoral votes assigned by states actually reflected the proportion of votes supporting the various candidates on the ballot. Nebraska and Maine don’t quite do this, but they seem to come closer to this than do the other states. Folks have also opined that giving low-population states more power in the election outcomes than their proportion of the nationwide population is undemocratic.
So, a few questions for the demographers:
- How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded electoral votes using the Maine-Nebraska rules?
- How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded all their electoral votes on the basis of the votes within each congressional district? (You’d need to work out how to deal with the extra two electoral votes on top of those which correspond numerically to congressional districts. Is there a way to do that “proportionally”?)
- How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded electoral votes on the basis of votes within congressional districts and eliminating the extra two electoral votes corresponding to Senators from each state’s electoral votes? (Note that this would take away the protection or advantage, depending on your perspective, for less populous states.)
- How (if at all) would electoral vote totals have differed in recent elections if all 50 states and the District of Columbia awarded all of their electoral votes proportionally to reflect the proportions of votes cast for each candidate statewide?
I don’t kid myself that the political powers that be are going to take any interest in reforming (or even tweaking) the Electoral College system any time soon. After all, those powers have learned how to work the system we have — changing it would require them to change their strategies accordingly. However, I think it’s worth understanding the system as it exists. As things stands now, whose interests are prioritized and whose are minimized? If things were changed in various ways, whose voices might get more attention, and whose less?
*Very small margins between top vote getters tend to trigger automatic recounts.
**Given the current state of the economy, “win” may not be quite the right word this year.