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Friday, November 11, 2016

Thoughts on the electoral college/popular vote discussion

You all do know that originally the "electors" in the electoral college were not elected by the voters in a state? They were selected by the state legislature in some cases and the governor in others. Each elector had two votes; the candidate receiving the largest number of votes was to be elected president & the candidate receiving the second largest number of votes, VP. In 1800, Jefferson & Burr tied (73 each) and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. That only took 36 ballots to resolve. (It also resulted in an amendment to the constitution, which made the votes for president and vice-president separate. In 1824, four candidates received votes for president (Jackson, 99; JQ Adams, 81; William Crawford, 42; Henry Clay, 37). So we're back to the House--the second time, in 10 elections. This time, it only took 1 ballot, as Clay threw his support to Adams. In 1876, the vote in four states was contested, leaving the election in doubt. A "compromise" was reached, in which all 20 of the electoral votes (Florida, Louisiana, SC, and one elector from Oregon) to Hayes, with the payoff being the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of troops from the south. Oh, and in 1860, there was not a problem in the electoral college, because one party managed to run three candidates...
And, almost always (since we began counting popular votes--in 1824), the candidate with a plurality (usually a majority) of the popular vote won in the electoral college. The exceptions:
1824 Elected: Adams. Plurality: Jackson
1876 Elected: Hayes . Plurality: Tilden
1888 Elected: Harrison. Plurality: Cleveland
2000 Elected GW Bush. Plurality: Gore
2012 Elected Trump. Plurality H. Clinton

So switching would not, historically, have made much difference (although, in my opinion, four of those winners were not so good). And in all 5 cases, the popular vote was pretty close; it's not clear whether the results would have been different had the election been based on the popular vote--because campaign tactics would have changed.

Also, from the perspective of those who oppose the electoral college system, the current method essentially means that votes cast in a state only "matter" if your candidate wins the election. Which sort of leads to an obvious question: Why are electoral votes assigned on an all-or-nothing bais, except in two states? In 2000, for example, allocating the electoral college votes between Bush and Gore as a percentage of their popular votes in the states (rounding up if the allocated vote was, for example 6.51 and down if it were 6.49), Bush would still have won--with the same 271 EV total, but very differently distributed.

Note that if you allocate EV as a % of the popular vote, you give candidates a very strong incentive to compete in every state. "Writing off" a state will reduce your share of the EV in that state, but without a necessary gain in another state. 
(Personally, I think that the same thing applies if you just use the popular vote. Right now, Republicans tend to write off New York and California and Oregon and Washington instead of contesting them. Democrats tend to write off much of the south and plains states. If their vote totals in those states mattered, we might see truly national campaigns from both parties.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don -- this is MarisFan from Bill James' site. Thanks for the link to your blog -- I much appreciate this article, and learned much from it.

I think it would be very hard and very unlikely for the system to be modified, because many states have disproportionate sway from it and would resist giving it up. Although, maybe my take is distorted by my LIKING the Electoral College, notwithstanding its having perhaps tilted two elections in a direction that I thought was way wrong.

12:50 AM


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