Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why the electoral college is a great idea

With the election looming, we see the quadrennial complaining about the electoral college. "The electoral college effectively disenfranchises most Americans" complains the New York Times  "Shafted by the electoral college" complains the usually excellent Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune.

Here's why I think the electoral college -- with (crucially) winner-take-all selection in the states, which is under attack -- is a great idea. (Even though I live in Illinois.) Look at the map. (Source here, I found it just by google searching, so no endorsement.)

With the electoral college, Governor Romney and President Obama have to get 51% majorities in enough states to get 270 votes, to win the white house.

Suppose we had a popular vote instead. Now, instead of fighting for 51% of Ohio, President Obama could instead try to raise his 60% of New York and Illinois to 70%, even if it meant 45% of Ohio. Or he could try to raise his 80% of New York city and Chicago to 90%, (made up number).  He doesn't need to persuade people, really, he just needs to  encourage more New Yorkers and Chicagoans to turn out.

Instead of fighting for 51% of Ohio, Governor Romney could raise his 60% of the south to 70%, or raise his 75% of Utah to 85%, or just work to get all those people out to the polls.

The Times bemoaned low turnout in non-battleground states. If you think there is a lot of money, obnoxious ads, and people bothering you now, just imagine if bringing out another voter in Utah could  counter one more voter in New York.

But here's the real issue. If you think politics are polarized now, just imagine what they will be with a straight popular vote.

What policies will the next Democrat advocate, if he can win by deepening his margin in New York City rather than try for 51% in  Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Nevada? What policies will the next Republican  choose if the path to victory can come from bigger victories in Salt Lake city and the rest of the Red states rather than have to  try for 51% of Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Nevada?  What kinds of candidates will parties select if these are the paths to victory?

You don't like letting the Bush tax cuts expire, raising the top rate from 35 to 40%? That's nothing. A policy to win New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and LA, while letting the rest of the country rot, would show you what real "class warfare" looks like!  Wealth tax. 90% income tax. Forget the muddled insurance "reform" of Obamacare -- single-payer "free" health care for all!

On the Republican side, the delicate dance over "social policy" would likely disappear -- appeal to the base for primaries, but  but move quickly to the middle before the election and then don't do anything. If the Republicans can win by going for 90% marjorities in rural areas and red states, what will happen to abortion, immigration, and civil liberties? And taxes that hit, oh, New York, Chicago, and Detroit are a good bet.

This isn't about beliefs. Our parties are coalitions. It's simple math of what policies assemble a winning coalition.

And "polarization" is only the beginning. Look again at that map. The blue states are all together and the red states are all together. We have polarization with strong geographic concentration -- a poisonous combination.

 Remember the "United States of Canada vs. Jesusland" map from 2004 (at left, from Wikipedia) Maybe they weren't kidding.

There were rumblings about secession in Texas over Obamacare. What would they have thought about the real "single-payer" system that so many on the left wanted? How would those people feel about a 70% income tax?

Do you think I'm being extreme? Look at Europe. England/Scotland, French/Flemish Belgium, Catalonia and Basque Spain all want to pull apart. The cold war is over. When you have polarization and geographic concentration, why stick together? It already happened once in the US.

A system in which each candidate has to get a small majority in a large number of states is a good system to keep a polarized democracy together. A straight popular vote, in which one could win by getting huge majorities in some areas and lose by huge majorities in other areas, is a disaster waiting to happen. We do this in sports, for similar good reasons: the world series winner is not just the total number of runs in the regular season.

It looks possible that Gov. Romney will lose the electoral college and win the popular vote. One may forgive liberals bemoaning the electoral college when George W. Bush won. But I hope that people who express reverence for the constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers will do so again even if they lose. It's a good system. If they lose, Republicans need to find a new coalition that delivers small, widespread majorities. We are not immune from the tides of history pulling other countries apart.

(PS, I know the idea is not original, but don't have the authoritative source. It's probably in the Federalist Papers somewhere. Feel free to comment.)

Update: Already there are some great comments.

As many point out, imagine a national recount in a close election. A popular vote means not only that every vote counts, it means that every vote can be recounted, contested, and challenged. Or, more ominously, imagine the chance for shenanigans when every vote across the country counts the same.

This is true, but not a deep problem. If we used the same level of security and technology for voting that we require for, say, boarding an airplane or taking $40 out of an ATM, we could have a secure and accurate popular vote. If that were the only concern, then the electoral college and state by state winner take all would have been very important for 18th to 20th century voting technology, but no longer really needed if we can ever bring voting technolgy up to about the 1990s.

The most important point in the post is my fear that a popular vote would lead to more polarized candidates and parties, and that the polarization would pit region against region. Colin, below, takes me to task on the median voter theorem, which says that under some conditions the outcome of a popular vote is the preference of the median voter.

Good point. But every theorem has assumptions. The median voter theorem assumes that political outcomes can be placed on a one-dimensional line, and that preferences are "single peaked," people liking the outcome closest to their preference. Ask any libertarian where they stand on the left-right continuum and you get a long lecture. Our parties are coalitions of very strange bedfellows, not points on the median voter line.

My worries are about outcomes where there are many dimensions to what we care about -- foreign policy, economic policy, environment, social questions. Most of all, my worry is geographic concentration -- red states vs blue states, and candidates who win by getting 90% majorities in one or the other.  My worry is that the cost of getting a deeper majority in your own state is less than the cost of getting a slim majority in a battleground state. Costs are absent in the median voter theorem.

So the median voter theorem doesn't really answer the question.  But I'm not an expert in voting theorems, so I'm interested to hear from those who are what theorems do apply to this situation.

The point of an election is not really about selecting a winner and a loser, or a set of policies. It's about building a consensus, that the losers  agree to live together under the winner, and try again next time. A geographically broad set of 51% wins with a popular loss is more important to that goal than a 51% popular vote win based on overwhelming majorities in narrow areas, and overwhelming losses in the rest of the country.

We had a civil war. Yes, under the electoral college. It wasn't good enough. A popular vote would have been worse.