Monday, December 19, 2016

The Electoral College Is A Good Idea

As I write this, the American electoral college is voting for the President. They are probably going to elect Donald Trump. America is unusual among democracies, in that its President is not elected directly. The simplest system, and the one most countries with presidents use, would be to award the Presidency to the person who gets the most votes. Then they could say that the President had a democratic mandate, the choice reflected the will of the majority, and that sort of thing. But they don't do that.

Each state (and DC) appoints some electors to the electoral college, and the electoral college elects the President and the Vice President. A state gets a number of electors equal to the number of representatives it has in Congress, and DC gets three, which is the number a state with DC's population would have. States have a number of House members proportional to their population, and two senators. This means, for the most part, that the smaller a state (or DC, although there are additional complications with DC) is, the more electors it has per person. If no candidate gets a majority of the votes then the House of Representives votes from among the top three.

Forty-eight states, and DC, tell all their electors to vote for whichever President/Vice President ticket got the most votes in the general election. Maine and Nebraska tell one elector to vote the way each electoral district voted, and tell the other two electors to vote for whichever ticket got the most votes statewide.

Some people - perhaps most people - don't think this system is very fair. These people are wrong.

There are four main objections to this system:

1) Small states have an influence in the electoral college out of proportion to their populations.
2) The system allows for the candidate who gets most votes not to become President. This happened to Al Gore in 2000, and to some other people a long time ago, and it will probably happen again to Hillary Clinton this year. It happened with the Vice Presidency too, to Joe Lieberman in 2000 and probably to Tim Kaine this year, but nobody cares about that.
3) When a state heavily favours one candidate, neither candidate has to do anything to get that state's votes, since one is guaranteed to get no electoral votes anyway and the other is guaranteed to get all of them.
4) If the electors don't vote the way they are told, then the wrong person will become President (or Vice President). This has never happened before, unless it's happened this year while I'm writing, but it bothers people that it could happen.

The first three can be taken together, because the correct response to them is the same. There's a big difference between a state of America and an administrative division of a lot of other countries.

In Britain, where I live, the national government is in charge. We have some devolution in Scotland, Northern Ireland, to a lesser extent Wales, and to a still lesser extent London, and they're a bit more like states. But in England the national government is in charge. It divides the country up into electoral regions, counties, metropolitan boroughs, postal regions and so on, at its convenience. Some of these regions have elections and local governments. But the national government divides it up however it wants. If the government wants to move most of Wirral, where I grew up, from Cheshire to Merseyside, then it does. (People write to local papers saying that Wirral is all still in Cheshire, but they are wrong.)

States are different. The original states of America were independent entities that decided to form a union, with a federal government controlling some things, and the states retaining control over some other things. It's a bit like the European Union. The central governing entitities of the EU can't just decide that Wirral is a part of Ireland now, or that Alsace and Lorraine are parts of Germany. They can't tell countries how to appoint their commissioners. And there are some things they can't regulate within the countries, without an amendment to the European Union's rules that could be vetoed by any of the member countries.

To summarize: most countries divide themselves into administrative regions, but the states organize themselves into a country.

States aren't as independent as member countries of the European Union, but that's because they've chosen not to be. There are some rights they haven't chosen to give up, and one of those rights is the right to tell their electors who to vote for when it comes to the Presidency and the Vice Presidency. Now, maybe you think the states should give up this right, or that the states should decide how to tell the electors to vote in a different way. But that's up to them, and all the states have democratically elected governments that can change it if they want.

OK, now we can take the objections in turn.

1) Small states have an influence in the electoral college out of proportion to their populations.

Without loss of generality, California (big population) has made a deal with Montana (small population). The deal says that California has more influence over the Presidency than Montana, but not in proportion to the population. It's the same deal they've made when it comes to representation in Congress. If California doesn't like the deal, they can try to renegotiate the deal. They can't unilaterally secede, but nor can Montana: that's part of the deal too. But if they're renegotiating the deal, secession could be on the table. It's understandable that Montana doesn't want to be a drop in someone else's bucket, any more than Malta wants to be a drop in Italy or Tunisia's bucket, and it's understandable that other states are willing to compromise on this to get the benefits of having them in the Union. And whether or not you agree that it's understandable, that's the deal they made.

2) The system allows for the candidate who gets most votes not to become President.

Accepting (1) means accepting (2).

3) When a state heavily favours one candidate, neither candidate has to do anything to get that state's votes.

Most of the states, in the infinite wisdom of their state governments, have decided to tell their electors to vote for whoever gets the majority of votes in that state. This means that the presidential candidates can more or less ignore the interests of people in, for example, California (which always votes Democratic) and Texas (which always votes Republican). They can't afford to ignore them in the primaries, but once they've got the party's nomination, it's all about Florida and Ohio.

It's understandable that swing states would go for winner-takes-all. The presidential candidates can be expected to promise extra goodies to voters in swing states, which benefits everyone there. And while there's a chance the whole state won't vote the way an individual voter or legislator likes, this is kind of balanced out by the possibility that the whole state will vote the way they do like. The expected number of electoral voters isn't necessarily the same, because the expected vote split isn't the same as the chances of each side winning. (Suppose the state was guaranteed to vote 48-52.) Swing states aren't necessarily close states; they're states where either side might win (which in practice tend to be close states). But in genuine swing states, it's a gamble to be winner-take-all but not obviously a bad gamble, and there is the added bonus of candidates paying more attention to the voters when setting out their platforms.

It's less obvious that voters in safe states should prefer winner-take-all. They confine their influence over candidate platforms to the primaries, and in return they get a bigger influence in the electoral college. (Or for the minority voters, no influence. A California Republican or a Texas Democrat shouldn't prefer winner-take-all.) Most states have gone for winner-take-all. This is the outcome of a standard democratic process within the states themselves. Call it tyranny of the majority, but the states are representative democracies and not direct democracies, so if the voters care enough about it, there will be votes in it. I guess they care about something else more, and let the majority have their way on this one. In a democracy, the minority has to pick its battles.

4) If the electors don't vote the way they are told, then the wrong person will become President.

For some people, this is the one thing about the Electoral College they like. If someone wins the general election but they would be such a disastrous President that it's worth violating a strong democratic norm to keep them out of the White House, there's a final line of defence. But most people probably think that this norm is important enough that it should be enforced by a law. Some states do enforce it with a law, but the penalties probably aren't a sufficient deterrent given the stakes.

I'm not going to say whether this feature of the Electoral College is a bad thing or a good thing. Unlike the other three objections, it's less clear cut. But it's worth pointing out three things. First, the norm has proven pretty strong. Its being a norm rather than a law hasn't changed the result of any elections. Second, it's not weird to have the top dog chosen by representatives chosen by the people. Britain does the same thing. (Unless you think the Queen is top dog rather than the Prime Minister, but the Queen isn't directly elected either.) Third, if a few electors did violate the norm and cause a crisis, the (democratically elected) House of Representatives would usually be able to step in and avert that crisis. They would only be unable to avert it if someone who got a majority of pledged electors didn't get in the top three of actual electors, or if no-one got a majority of pledged electors and one of the top three pledged didn't get in the top three actual. [BUT SEE UPDATE BELOW.] Given the two party system and the strong norm, neither situation is likely. It's a bit more likely that a close electoral college would go to the House and the House would pick the wrong person. But it's OK if your constitution would lead to a minor constitutional crisis in an unlikely situation and a major constitutional crisis in a very unlikely situation. It's normal. Everyone's constitution is like that. You can't blame the electoral college.

Obviously I don't actually think the electoral college is a good system; nobody does. But it’s fun to defend the indefensible, and debate's healthy.

UPDATE 15/02/18: I've realized that the House would also be unable to avert the crisis if someone got a majority of actual electors without having had a majority of pledged electors. I guess this is more likely than the other two situations I thought of: you'd get it when the pledged elector count was very close and a small number of electors defected. I'm not sure how much this possibility should affect the strength of the overall argument.

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