Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Electoral College: Just Like Any Other Legislature

Don Boudreaux, in defending the Electoral College, makes the following excellent point:
A related, but potentially more serious, objection to the Electoral College -- indeed, the objection that, I'm sure, motivates most people who object to it -- is that it can result in a minority of popular voters getting the candidate of their choice over the candidate receiving the greatest number of popular votes. ... This objection, too, is weakened when one considers that such outcomes can occur in legislatures based upon geographical representation where there is uneven distribution of the voting population across the electoral districts.

The 25 most-populated U.S. states have a total population of about 235 million people. The population of the 25 least-populated states totals just about 70 million people.

With each state sending two Senators to Capitol Hill, it's clearly possible that a majority of U.S. Senators will vote for a bill even though, if citizens themselves directly voted on the bill, the vote would go in the other direction.
Or in other words, people who have a problem with the Electoral College should have a problem with the Senate as well. In fact, they should have a bigger problem with the Senate, since it diverges much further from proportional representation than does the Electoral College. (Each state has electoral votes equal to its total number of senators and representatives.)

But Boudreaux’s argument can be made even stronger, because it does not actually depend on uneven distribution of population across electoral districts. You can get the very same effect -- i.e., policies being adopted with only minority support -- when electoral districts represent equal-sized groups of constituents, as long as the groups have sufficiently different divisions of opinion.

Here’s a very simple example. Say you have a legislature composed of five representatives, each representing 100 constituents. Each representative votes in line with his constituents’ majority opinion. Legislators Jameson, Johnson, and Jones vote for policy A over policy B, because 70% of their constituents prefer A. Legislators Smith and Stone vote for policy B, because 100% of their constituents prefer B. As a result, policy A gets passed into law, even though the overall population favors policy B by a 290 to 210 margin.

And if you think about it, that’s pretty much what happens when there’s an electoral-popular split in a presidential election. Yes, the states do have different numbers of electoral votes, so that produces part of the effect. But for the most part, the split seems to be driven by the existence of some large states with close divisions of opinion (like Florida in 2000) and other large states with lopsided divisions of opinion (like California).

So Boudreax’s point can be broadened to this: people who have a problem with the Electoral College should also have a problem with representative, as opposed to direct, democracy. Any representative democracy creates the real possibility of policies being adopted that are opposed by a majority of the public.


Ran said...

But representative democracy produces efficiencies; there are benefits to having specialized representatives whose job it is to study the issues and negotiate with each other. The electoral college doesn't have these benefits; its sole effect is to skew the results we'd get from a one-tiered vote where everyone's vote counted equally. (Technically speaking, many states don't require their electors to vote for the candidates they're electors for, but insofar as that's relevant, it's simply a further argument against the electoral college.)

But yeah, I agree that it's annoying that the Senate gives such undue weight to small states, and also that D.C. doesn't have any votes in Congress.

Anonymous said...

If citizens wants to maximize their clout, so to speak, as a voter then they have uproot themselves, or be uprooted, and move to a place that has a shifting/transitional majority. This just happened in North Carolina that just went for Obama. My brother, a liberal democrat from the east coast, was transferred by his corporate employer to religiously conservative No. Carolina. He went along with the program, and even bought a new 4-bedroom house to ease the pain. He said it would be a "career killer" not to obey corporate headquarters. So much for personal choice and freedom in this world ruled by multi-national corporations. Freedom has to take a backseat to more pressing concerns like the size of one's bank account. Money was the controlling factor that made my brother become a transplanted southerner. The more money you have, the more you get to control. More than "Take up the flame!", you need to answer, "How high?" when your master tells you to jump. What does freedom mean to you, and where do you find it? I'm almost too afraid to ask.

Glen Whitman said...

You think I don't recognize you, Trumpit, but I do.

Anonymous said...

"Plurality wins" is one goal for what we'd like a voting system to do (at least when most votes go to one of the top 2 candidates), but it's not the only goal. If there's a good reason for breaking that standard, then it could be okay to compromise and break it.

For a legislature, we want each member to represent a specific geographically-defined set of people, and we want voters to consider the individual person, not just the party. We can't do both of those things and guarantee that the plurality vote-getting party wins a plurality of seats (at least not without a convoluted system), so we've given up on guaranteeing that plurality wins. With specific policies, we've decided that information demands are too high to go directly by voters' opinions, so for the most part we leave things up to the elected legislature. When electing a single executive, none of those reasons apply, and you & Don Boudreaux haven't mentioned any others that might outweigh plurality wins.

Also, people do complain about the Senate, but those complaints are limited by the fact that there's no realistic chance of changing it.

mvymvy said...

Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, that the voters may vote and the winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.

In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, it was necessary to own a substantial amount of property in order to vote, and only 3 states used the winner-take-all rule (awarding all of a state's electoral vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state). Since then, as a result of changes in state laws, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

mvymvy said...

the U.S. Constitution says "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the states over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding the state's electoral votes.

perfectlyGoodInk said...

I'd have to say that this sounds more like an argument in favor of Proportional Representation than an argument for keeping the Electoral College.

Which, as a libertarian, I support wholeheartedly (and in fact happened to endorse in the same post where I called for getting rid of the Electoral College).

Anonymous said...

In the popular imagination, the Congress is a body of proportional representation, divied out by state. The President is the branch of nationwide popular vote. So the Congress represents regions, the President the nation.

There. Mystery solved as to why people - me included - oppose the EC.

Anonymous said...

In the above, "proportional representation" s/b "the geographically weighted representation of the Congress" or some such. "Divied" s/b "divvied."

We regret the errors.

At any rate, the point is fairly simple: people don't make the EC objections against Congress b/c the two ought to have different theories of representation at work.