Regarding Counterarguments to Electoral College Reform

In a 2005 paper, Thinking About the Political Impacts of the Electoral College, Bernard Grofman and Scott L. Feld review the arguments for and against reforming the Electoral College. As one who believes strongly in reforming the Electoral College (as well as replacing the two-party system with a multi-party one), I was thrilled to discover such a concise compendium. I was especially curious to find out if any of the counterarguments would make sense to me. They did not. Here, I summarize and explain each argument, and why I think it’s either wrong or irrelevant.

Argument 1: The US is not a pure democracy; it balances state-level representation with individual representation. “It makes no sense to object to the Electoral College unless you are also willing to reject the bicameral congress, since it is state representation in the U.S. Senate that creates the (supposed) small state bias in the Electoral College.”

I believe in “one person, one vote”. I would be perfectly willing to reject the bicameral congress (i.e., get rid of the Senate, which gives equal representation to all states without respect to the size of their populations). But doing that would require a major change to our Constitution, for which I don’t think there’s much support. It’s just not very feasible. But it isn’t necessary, either — the goal (for me) of reforming the Electoral College is to make all votes count, and remove obstacles to a multi-party system. It has nothing to do with the Senate.

Because we are not a pure democracy, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to become more democratic.

Argument 2: The magnitude of the small-state bias created by the Electoral College is overstated; in fact, because large states are more likely to be pivotal (i.e. swing states), it is actually large-state voters who are overrepresented in the Electoral College.

Lightly populated states like Wyoming and the Dakotas are overrepresented, relative to population, in the Electoral College, because there is a minimum of 3 electors per state, whereas they might have just 1 or 2 if it were determined solely by population. This violates the principle of “one person, one vote”, but I don’t mind it that much, because we are talking about a small portion of the Electoral College.

See, I’d like to get rid of the Electoral College, but given that it will be difficult to amend the Constitution in that way, I don’t think we have to. We can live with the Electoral College, as long as we get rid of winner-take-all–the absurdly anti-democratic system whereby all of a state’s electors are awarded to the winning candidate (even though he or she may have gotten only 50%, or less, of the state vote).

The reason swing states have outsized influence in the Electoral College is because of their winner-take-all systems. Florida, with 29 electors, and Ohio, with 18, are big prizes for presidential candidates, but they wouldn’t be nearly so important if they divided their electors proportionally. When you think about it, allocating electors proportionally seems to be the only fair way to do it. The fact that all but two states use winner-take-all (and even the two exceptions don’t use a truly proportional system) illustrates how far behind the times our two-party system of government is.

Argument 3: It is rare, and “will continue to be rare” that the Electoral-College winner may not be the winner by popular vote.

It’s not rare enough — it has happened three times in our country’s history, the last in 2000. And if we don’t reform the system, I suspect it will be less rare in the future, because the fine calibrations allowed by advances in polling and other social sciences, along with the horse-race approach of the mainstream media, suggest that the country will continue to be divided very closely.

Why should we ever have to tolerate a misfire like this? Once would be bad enough; three times is a disgrace.

Argument 4: Even when it does happen, it’s no big deal, as evidenced by the fact that “the agitation for reform of the Electoral College after the 2000 election was surprisingly limited”.

I think most citizens of the world would agree that the election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000, in spite of the popular vote, had serious ramifications.

The main reason agitation for change was limited is because Democrats (at least at the leadership level) have gotten so used to playing the current game that they didn’t want a change. The leadership of both parties would prefer to stay focused on a small number of swing states than have to run a true 50-state campaign where everyone’s vote would count.

Argument 5: There is not a significant Republican bias in the Electoral College.

Since I don’t accuse the Electoral College of having such a bias, I don’t mind conceding this one. I had not heard the argument before reading this paper.

Argument 6: While there can be little doubt that the Electoral College focuses candidates’ attention on the small set of swing states, we must consider that alternatives may pose “equally problematic” issues, such as focusing candidates on large media markets.

What is so problematic about the idea that candidates would spend more of their time speaking to larger audiences? For anyone who believes in “one person, one vote”, this should not be an issue.

Argument 7: If voters in non-competitive states are bothered by their lack of impact, all they need do to restore some of their influence is to vote, or threaten to vote, less predictably.

This argument presumes that voters understand their lack of impact, have options they find tolerable to vote for, and are interested in strategic, collective action to change things — all very dubious.

Argument 8: It seems inconsistent to claim that the Electoral College benefits voters in small states, and also to claim that it benefits voters in competitive states.

I think the three-elector minimum per state, determined by the Constitution, benefits voters in small states, while winner-take-all, which is determined not by the Constitution but by the states, benefits voters in swing states. In heavily populated states, it’s only if the state is evenly split (and presuming a two-party system) that voters benefit in terms of influence, while in solidly “red” or “blue” states, the minority is disenfranchised. I see nothing inconsistent between these claims.

Argument 9: While there may be incentives for electoral fraud in swing states under the Electoral College, the alternative (national popular vote) would also present incentives for fraud, at a larger scale.

There’s no systemic guarantee against fraud, but there are laws against it, and they should be strongly enforced. We may also be able to come up with reforms to help prevent fraud. I am not convinced that a national popular vote would be more prone to fraud than the Electoral College. But even if so, I don’t think we should be deterred from doing what’s right by the chance that it would be more susceptible to fraud.

Argument 10: The Electoral College prevents elections from being decided by the House of Representatives, by promoting two-partyism and maintaining decisive election outcomes.

Oh no! Not … THE HOUSE!!!! (If no candidate gets 270 or more electors, the House decides the winner.) Apparently the argument here is that it’s a good thing to have a reduced range of choices and a quick, decisive resolution, even if it is not democratic.

Look, I’m no fan of the House either (as it currently exists), but if we had such a competitive election that it went to them to decide, that seems to me like a big improvement over the current system, where the popular will is suppressed. Any House member who defied the popular vote would have a lot of explaining to do. If we saw that this system didn’t work well, we could change it by amending the Constitution.

We don’t need a two-party system to have decisive outcomes. By adopting instant-runoff voting, we would ensure that winners would have 50% or more in the final round of voting, adding an extra measure of decisiveness. At the same time, we would eliminate the spoiler effect, freeing citizens to think less about tactical effects and more about what they really want, and promoting the viability of alternative parties so they could have more choices.

Argument 11: If we had direct elections, minor parties would have incentives to “blackmail” the major parties into accepting “extremist points of view” or other favors, so as to avoid sending the decision to the House.

The authors here betray their own biases by seeming to presume that minor parties are always “extremist”. This argument presumes that the spoiler effect exists–that’s the leverage the minor parties could theoretically use. But if we adopt instant-runoff voting, the spoiler effect will go away.

Argument 12: The US is the only country with a durable two-party system at the national level. If it’s not because of the Electoral College combined with our presidential system of government, “it is hard to see” what else would explain it.

The authors seem here to represent a favorable view of the two-party system (as in their formulation of argument #10), which I do not share. But plurality voting explains the two-party system pretty effectively, as formulated in Duverger’s Law.

When comparing the US political system with other countries’, we have to be careful to distinguish presidential from parliamentary systems, where the chief executive is not directly elected. In Brazil, where currently 22 parties are represented in the federal government, there are two rounds of voting for president, and legislators in the lower house are elected by proportional representation. I am not aware of another country with a presidential system, where plurality voting is used exclusively. (If you know of one, please let me know.)

Argument 13: We don’t know enough about how reforming the Electoral College would affect electoral outcomes. There is no consensus on important questions such as (a) “Does the Electoral College give greater power to influence outcomes to citizens in small states or to citizens in large states?”; (b) “How important is the Electoral College in reinforcing a two-party system?”; and (c) “Which states will attract the most attention during a campaign?”

The answers to these questions seem reasonably clear to me. It seems undeniable that winner-take-all is anti-democratic, and produces many of the negative effects we associate with the Electoral College.

Argument 14: The debate is largely moot because most states have reason to stick with the current system.

It’s far from moot when you consider the high costs of the Electoral College (especially with winner-take-all) and the two-party system. It’s true that some states may see short-term advantages in using a winner-take-all system. To compensate, we need to have a national strategy of reform, not state by state. Red states, who disenfranchise Democratic voters, see an advantage in throwing more weight to Republicans, while blue states, who disenfranchise Republican voters, see an advantage in throwing more weight to Democrats. But if they agreed to abandon winner-take-all at the same time, both types would end their disenfranchisement of voters while maintaining roughly the same nationwide level of support for their party.