Options For Electoral College Essay Research Paper

Options For Electoral College Essay, Research Paper Options for Electoral College Reform The recent presidential election has re-raised the question of electoral college

Options For Electoral College Essay, Research Paper

Options for Electoral College Reform

The recent presidential election has re-raised the question of electoral college

reform, since the presumptive winner of the electoral college lost the popular

vote, like Benjamin Harrison did in 1888. Many are saying that if the loser of

the popular vote serves as president, he will (like Harrison) be very weakened

by a lack of mandate. Therefore quite a few people, including Senator Hillary

Clinton, are calling for a constitutional amendment that would elect the

president by a pure popular vote. In my youth I would have supported such a

reform. I remember Hubert Humphrey calling for it back in those days. But

there are quite a few other alternatives for reforming the archaic system we

use, some of which might offer advantages over a simple popular vote.

The first question that has to be looked at is, What are the problems that we

are trying to reform? Obviously, we need to reform the habit of using cheap

and unreliable voting equipment such as Votomatic card punches, but that’s

not a constitutional issue. The concerns with the electoral college system

itself are these:

1) The candidate who loses the popular vote can win the election by

being unpopular in the most populous states. This is not necessarily a

problem. The framers quite deliberately chose this rule, giving voters

in sparsely populated states more weight than voters in heavily

populated ones, so that the interests of smaller states would not be

overwhelmed. It was a compromise between backers of states (the

existing power structure at the time, which many were reluctant to see

weakened) and advocates of the people.

2) The candidate who loses the popular vote can win the election if he

happens to get small wins in many states while his opponent gets larger

wins in fewer states, regardless of the size of the states involved. This

is because of the “winner take all” rule that most states use in choosing

their electors. It means that the proportion of the electoral vote often

bears little resemblance to the popular vote.

3) The small number of electoral votes causes a certain amount of

random round-off error. The winner-take-all rule makes this random

error larger.

4) The winner-take-all rule also leads to voter apathy or disgruntlement

in states where one party is dominant, because their vote will have no

effect on the electoral vote totals.

5) When no candidate gets a majority of electoral votes, the vote is

settled by the House of Representatives, throwing out the people’s vote

entirely. This generally leads to a purely partisan battle that loses all

sight of whatever popular mandate really exists. Often the only

resolution is some kind of back-room deal like the “corrupt bargains”

of 1824 and 1876.

6) The electoral college tends to enforce a two party structure, freezing

out alternatives, because nobody wants the election thrown to the

House of Representatives. Third party candidacies are generally seen

only as “spoilers” instead of as real choices. (The framers did not

expect a two party system to arise; some cynics say they really

intended to leave the choice up to the House of Representatives

whenever nobody was overwhelmingly popular.)

7) The forces upholding the two party system also bring about the

necessity of primary elections, which have a host of shortcomings. Or,

if we don’t have primary elections, the result is that most of the

candidate selection process is done before voters have a voice.

8) One problem with the primary system as it currently exists is: The

parties are supposed to be private, independent organizations, not part

of our legal apparatus of government. Mixing the party’s internal

choice of candidates with the state election process is a bad

compromise. It violates private associations’ right to choose their own

candidates and platforms, and gives excess legitimacy to a side of the

political process that doesn’t deserve it.

9) Another problem with primaries is that everything depends on the

states that hold their primaries earliest. States that vote late usually end

up with no voice at all, because most of the candidates have conceded

by then. This leads to states constantly moving their primary dates

backwards to get a more advantageous position, which in turn leads to

the whole campaign season becoming more and more prolonged.

10) The candidate that wins a party’s primaries is often not the one

who would best serve that party in the general election. An ideologue

tends to score better within the party than a moderate centrist does

(though the current fad is for everybody to try to be centrist, since it

worked so well for Clinton).

11) You don’t know anything about the individual electors you are

voting to send to the electoral college, and in many states they are free

to go against what the voters told them to do. This creates an opening

for a capricious individual to violate the voting rights of hundreds of

thousands of citizens.

12) And finally, the electoral college makes America look stupid to

foreigners, especially when we talk about how we’re the bastion of


Now, what are the possible reforms? Let’s just go through a bunch of options

we might try, and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each one. The

first possibility is the most obvious and most frequently discussed one:

PURE POPULAR VOTE. There are two variations to this one, depending

on what you do when nobody gets a majority. If you throw an election with

no majority winner to the House of Representatives, you minimize the degree

of change from the existing system. If you give the presidency to the

candidate with the largest plurality, you solve more of the problems on the list

above, but you make it obvious how poor a mandate the winner has really

got. (The mandates of the people we elect now are no better, but the electoral

college makes them look better.)

Advantages: it brings us out of the stone age, it greatly simplifies things, it

upholds the principle of “one person, one vote”, and it gives us the

opportunity to cut the House of Representatives out of the picture.

Disadvantages: it does little to solve the problems above having to do with a

two party system. Indeed, it makes them worse in one way if the House is cut

out: “split votes” can become a real problem. If two similar candidates divide

the vote of those who agree with them, then a dissimilar candidate gets the

plurality of the votes even if the electorate sides more with the first pair on

the issues. Recounts in close races would be a real problem to implement. But

the biggest problem is that a constitutional amendment to elect the president

by pure popular vote probably could never be passed, because an amendment

requires approval by a large majority of states, and most states would lose

power with this change. Few of the less populous states are going to vote for

a change that gives more power to the big populous states like California and

New York, and less to themselves. However, there are those who argue that

the “winner take all” system actually gives California and New York more

power already; if this is true and can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of

the people in other states, then a popular vote reform amendment just might

be possible.


popular vote option, except that instead of holding primaries followed by a

general election, you hold a free-for-all election followed by a runoff between

the two top vote-getters. This is the system commonly used for

“non-partisan” elections such as mayor’s races.

Advantages: eliminates the bad compromises of primary elections, and

reduces the control of entrenched political parties over elections, so that

independent candidates have more opportunity. This system reduces the split

vote problem at least mildly; it is more difficult to figure out a scenario in

which the candidate with the most popular views on the issues does not win.

This approach has a much better chance of electing centrist candidates

instead of flip-flopping between the left and the right as partisan elections

using primaries tend to do. It shares all of the advantages of a popular vote

with primaries, and it eliminates the house of representatives from the


Disadvantages: it has the general disadvantages of any pure popular vote,

though none of the specific disadvantages of a popular vote with primaries. It

would have the same trouble being approved by small states. The clearest

problem we’ve seen in contests of this type, such as mayorial races, is that

there may be substantial difference in who votes between the free-for-all and

the runoff; the outcome of the latter may not reflect the consensus will of

those who voted in the former. This is especially true given that only one of

the two could be on the main general election day, and the other is likely to

have a smaller turnout. It would also be true if any great amount of time

passed between the two elections, such as the current large gap between

primaries and the general election. However, that would probably not be as

bad as the very severe split vote problem that would occur if you simply

awarded the election to whoever got the plurality of a free-for-all. That’s why

they have runoffs in the first place.

PROPORTIONAL ELECTORAL VOTE. This simply means that each

state’s electoral votes are divided in proportion to how the state’s voters split,

instead of allowing a winner-take-all system. We would have to be careful in

exactly how we write the mathematical rule for how vote proportions are

rounded off to whole electoral votes. One or two states already do this.

Advantages: this is one of the few reforms listed here that would not require

a constitutional amendment. It could be mandated by Congress, or

implemented one state at a time. It would mean that the electoral college vote,

within the limitations of roundoff error due to having only 538 votes total,

would much more accurately reflect the popular mandate coming from the

states. (It would preserve — some would say restore — the weighting of votes

in favor of small states, which as noted above is probably very hard to

eliminate, so we might as well consider that a good thing.) It would weaken

the hold of the two party system: third parties would still tend to be seen only

as spoilers, but their chances of breaking out of that role would be better.

Disadvantages: if a significant third party effort is made, this reform would

greatly increase the likelihood of the decision being made by the House of

Representatives. When that happens, your vote ceases to count.


like the above, except with the House of Representatives cut out of the

picture unless there’s an electoral vote tie. Unlike the previous case, it would

require an amendment. Another factor that could be tossed in is an increase

of the number of electoral votes — say, ten or a hundred for each senator and

congressperson, instead of one. This would reduce roundoff error and make

the proportional splitting of votes more accurate.

Advantages: the result gets settled a lot easier and quicker without the House

being involved. This further improves the picture for third parties.

Disadvantages: like a pure popular vote with the winner being awarded on a

plurality, this makes “split votes” a real danger. A conservative may beat two

liberals even if the electorate has a liberal majority, or vice versa. This leads

any large power blocs to do their best to unify behind one candidate picked in

advance and keep as much choice as they can away from the voters.

WEIGHTED POPULAR VOTE. This is a system in which we don’t use

electoral votes, but still preserve the weighting in favor of small states. There

are various options for how to do this. One is that we multiply each state’s

totals by a weighting factor which would be up to three times as large for the

smallest states as for the big ones. Another is that we could include a block of

fake votes, of a total equalling 102/538ths of the number of real votes, and

give each state an equal share of these fake votes, awarded winner-take-all to

the most popular candidate in that state. As with those above, we have the

choice of throwing races without a majority winner either to the House or to

the candidate with the plurality, or holding a runoff.

Advantages: this is very similar in effect to the proportional electoral vote

option, only without the inaccuracy caused by rounding off to whole 538ths

of the total. If we use blocks of fake votes awarded winner-take-all by state,

we reduce the likelihood of races having no majority winner.

Disadvantages: using winner-take-all blocks of fake votes puts more of a

freeze on third parties, but using weighting multipliers — in effect, saying

“Your vote counts 2.8 times as much as his vote” would create an overt

impression of unfairness that, despite it being essentially the same as what we

already have, would probably piss people off and create a lot of resistance.

Also, the “split vote” problem arises with weighting factors the same as it

does in a pure popular vote. The split vote problem is present, but reduced

(rather artificially) with winner-take-all state blocks of fake votes. A runoff

would reduce it further.


was proposed by Arthur Schlesinger Jr in Time magazine. His idea was to

award some extra electoral votes to whoever wins the popular vote. The

number he named was 102 electoral votes, which is silly because it’s just an

overcomplicated roundabout way of awarding the election to the popular vote

winner. But the question gets interesting if you award a bonus of less than

102 votes. The amount you pick allows you to select any desired weighting

between the outcome of a pure popular vote and the outcome under the

existing system.

Advantages: you can create a compromise, with any weighting you choose,

between advocates of the traditional system and advocates of a pure popular


Disadvantages: like many compromises, there is very little to recommend this

system, in any absolute way, over either of the pure alternatives it is

compromising between. Also, the process of selecting the exact weighting is

bound to be contentious and arbitrary, and therefore repeatedly challenged. It

doesn’t help that the exact degree of weighting for either side is not any

obvious linear function of the number of bonus votes.

PREFERENTIAL POPULAR VOTE. This is a system that was invented

specifically to deal with split votes and lack of a true majority. It is also

called the “instant runoff” balloting system. How it works is that instead of

just voting for the single candidate you prefer, you make one vote for your

first choice, a second vote for your next-best choice, a third vote for the next

best choice after that, and so on. If the candidate who was your first choice

loses, your vote is transferred to the candidate you listed as your second

choice, and if he loses, your vote is transferred to your third choice candidate.

Ideally, you rank every candidate from first to last, but this leads to a very

complex counting process, so in practice we might ask people only for their

first few candidates, not to rank all the lesser ones they don’t like. Limiting

the number of rankings you vote for to three or four or five simplifies the

logistics of counting while probably having only a small effect on the

accuracy of the outcome, unless the number of candidates is very large. This

system is commonplace in Australia and New Zealand, with several minor

variations by locality. For instance, some local laws require that the voter

rank every candidate on the ballot, whereas others allow the voter to mark

only the first few that they like. It is also used in Ireland.

Advantages: lots and lots. No other system clears up as many of the problems

listed above as this one does. Split vote problems are eliminated because your

second-choice vote goes to the other candidate who is on the same side of the

issues; the candidate whose position on the issues is in the minority will lose

even if the vote on the other side is divided several ways. Third parties can

thrive and attract exactly as many voters as they actually represent the beliefs

of, because you have no fear of losing your vote to a “spoiler” if your second

or third choice is a mainstream candidate. This reduces apathy. Primary

elections become completely unnecessary: a party can run all its candidates at

once and the strongest of the group will get almost all of that party’s votes in

the final count. Elections in general will be driven more by people’s

preferences on issues than by loyalty to parties. We could well see more

candidates running as independents and being elected. The election season

could be significantly shortened. No voter would be frozen out of the

pre-selection process within a party because of variations in state laws. The

House of Representatives or other mechanism for resolving the lack of a true

majority has no possible role except in a rare case where the vote is split so

deeply that even people’s third and fourth choices don’t produce a winner.

This is pretty much impossible where ideological camps are divided into Left

and Right; it might happen if we had Left, Right, Up, and Down factions all

incompatible with the other three, but that’s hardly likely to happen.

Disadvantages: the ballot itself would be more complicated. The counting

process would have to be modernized and made a good deal more

sophisticated and reliable. (But then, the 2000 election makes it clear that we

have to replace a lot of bad voting equipment already.) We would probably

need voting machines that have good preventive interlocks to reduce mistakes

that would invalidate ballots, or there would be a lot more such mistakes

made by voters. (Again, this probably needs doing anyway.) In any

jurisdiction where we don’t have such modernization, the counting process

would be prolonged and tedious. There would always be a tradeoff to make

between having the voters make more secondary choices (fifth best, sixth

best, and so on) which would improve certainty when there are lots of

candidates, vs. limiting the number of secondary choices in order to reduce

the data processing burden on vote counters. (And if we ask for more

secondary choices, a lot of voters probably won’t make them; they’ll vote for

the two or three they like and cast no votes for the others.) A disadvantage

that has been claimed for this system is that there are obscure strategies by

which clever enough voters can actually hurt a candidate’s changes by giving

him a higher vote, but I don’t think this would apply if people were ranking

only their top few choices. It also tends to generate a lot of backroom

horse-trading between various factions over who they will endorse as second

choices, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. But as with a pure

popular vote, one big disadvantage is that this undoes the weighting by states

that the electoral college has, which means small states probably won’t pass



SYSTEM). This is a variation of preferential voting in which, if there are

(say) six preferential rankings on each ballot, a candidate gets six points for

being picked first, five for being picked second, and so on. The candidate

picked last gets one point. The winner is the one with the highest total point


Advantages: like preferential voting only with considerably faster and simpler

counting procedures.

Disadvantages: unfortunately, this system gives voters a considerable

incentive to rank candidates who are threats to their first choice much lower

than they would deserve based on the issues. For instance, if voters for one

mainstream party candidate want to make sure their man beats the other

candidate from the same party, they would rank the other guy lower than the

opposition party candidates. If enough voters act this way, fringe candidates

with no true mandate end up getting greatly inflated vote totals and could

conceivably even win.


preferential system compatible with the electoral college’s protection of

smaller states by giving each state a weighting factor to multiply its vote

totals by, as in the weighted popular vote system. Or we could toss

winner-take-all fake vote blocks by state into the mix, though I figure this

would make an awkward and ugly fit with a preferential system.

Advantages: all those of preferential voting, plus protection of small states as

under the existing system, and therefore much better likelihood of being


Disadvantages: overtly spelling out in law that one person’s vote counts for

more than another’s is bound to get people irked. State winner-take-all blocks,

on the other hand, introduce a non-preferential element, and increase the

chances that the majority winner is not selected correctly according to

people’s real rankings of the choices. As with any preferential system, the

ballot and the counting are more complex and therefore would have to be

more computerized than they are now.

PREFERENTIAL ELECTORAL VOTE. This is an attempt to introduce

the advantages of the preferential method into the electoral college. The

voters in each state would cast preferential ballots. The state would award its

electoral votes according to the first choice vote count. If nobody got a

majority of the electoral college, the votes of losing candidates would be

transferred to those voters’ secondary choices, and the electoral vote would be

recomputed. Electoral votes would have to be awarded proportionally by each

state, not by winner-take-all, because if winner-take-all was used, the

preferential part would quite likely never get to operate. With a variation of

this scheme — have each state use a preferential system to select its electoral

votes, instead of using the second place votes only when there is no electoral

majority — you could implement this system without a constitutional

amendment. Even the first version might just possibly be able to be

shoehorned into the space allowed by the present constitution, if the Supreme

Court would allow each state to make its final choice of electors based on

vote totals announced by the other states.

Advantages: retains most of the benefits of a preferential system with less

disruption of the status quo, and probably less contention over the state

weighting issue. Proportional electoral voting does not create the high risk of

there being no majority winner as it would in a non-preferential system, if

you use the stronger version that probably requires an amendment.

Disadvantages: basically, this is at best not much more than an inaccurate

way of doing weighted preferential popular votes; the electoral college

apparatus is pretty much just nonfunctional window dressing. Or, if this is

implemented in the toned-down form without an amendment, states might

want to award their electoral votes winner-take-all, which would re-introduce

a lot of inaccuracy into the process.

POPULAR APPROVAL VOTE. This is a new addition to the list — a

system I had not heard of when I wrote the first version of this document.

Approval voting consists of giving a “yes” vote for every candidate that you

can stand, and a “no” vote for all those you can’t. In essence, you can vote for

as few or as many of the candidates as you wish. It’s like preferential voting

except without a hierarchy of individual ranking. The winner is the candidate

with the most total “yes” votes. State weighting could be applied, or not, the

same as with preferential popular voting, with about the same consequences.

Advantages: the same advantages as the preferential system, and it’s simpler,

imposing no extra difficulties with counting or requiring new fancy voting

machinery. Split vote problems are eliminated, primaries and two-party

constraints are eliminated, everybody can vote for who they really like best,

and the one who is most broadly acceptable wins.

Disadvantages: unlike the preferential system, this one does not distinguish a

ringing mandate from bare tolerance. It gives less of a mandate on issues than

a preferential system does. One can’t help but suspect that winning candidates

will tend to be bland mediocrities… though in practice I suppose this system

will probably elect the same person that a preferential vote would. Still,

voters would probably be happier and feel more engaged if they could

indicate which candidate they really like vs. which they find merely

acceptable. Because of this, any really partisan voter might feel motivated to

vote “no” for all candidates but one, just to make their preference clear,

thereby increasing the likelihood that the winner would have no majority. In

short, it’s difficult to come up with anything very solid as a disadvantage for

this system… all I’ve got here is either subjective, speculative, or just a minor


APPROVAL BASED ELECTORAL VOTE. This is another one that

could be implemented without an amendment. The electoral votes of each

state would go to whoever got the most approval votes in that state, or could

be split proportionally among candidates according to their approval vote


Advantages: similar to those of the non-amendment version of the

preferential electoral vote. Voters would get to vote for who they really liked,

and there would be no need for primaries and no obstacles to third parties.

Disadvantages: Without an amendment, proportional assignment of electoral

votes would leave considerable risk of nobody winning an electoral vote

majority. You could have ten candidates with handfuls of electoral votes

apiece. Winner-take-all assignment of states’ votes would perpetuate errors

and distortions of the outcome, without fully eliminating that risk. A pure

approval vote always has a winner, but combining the results of separate

approval votes by state no longer has this advantage. This could send third

party candidates back to the ghetto of being “spoilers” once they become

strong enough to win a few states. A preferential system, if imposed in the

more sweeping way that would require an amendment, could eliminate this

problem even if the electoral college is still used; an approval system cannot

do so.

In conclusion, I think it’s obvious that I would strongly prefer either some

kind of preferential system or a popular approval vote. Any other leaves the

majority of the current shortcomings unresolved. I think a lot more voters

would end up happy with the way they were voting, and we’d have far less

apathy. I think my preference of the systems listed here would be a pure

preferential popular vote, or maybe a weighted one (though of course as a

Californian I can hardly embrace weighting wholeheartedly).

I think the data processing challenges that a preferential system would bring

are entirely manageable, even if voters end up casting many ranking votes.

Each precinct would, instead of submitting a total for each candidate, submit

a table listing votes for each permutation of preference order. The amount of

data would be much larger than what is needed today, but would still be

manageably sized — a paper printout of it could fit into a manila folder if the

voters rank the top eight candidates. (It gets more like milk-crate sized if we

allow nine or ten rankings.) Once such tables are combined at a county or

state level, the translation of secondary votes could proceed without any

further reexamination of the ballots. But if a precinct has inadequate data

processing gear to produce and transmit these large result tables, they’d be

forced to repeatedly recount all the ballots as losing candidates are eliminated

one by one. The burden could be minimized if voters only mark their top two

or three or four choices, but this slightly increases the likelihood of the

winner not showing a true majority.

One person objected that if we had a constitutional amendment describing

such a system, it would be as big as the rest of the constitution. I think it

could be described in general terms in about the amount of text that the

twelfth amendment uses, with the details being left up to congress. Another

common objection seems to be that voters would be annoyed and confused

by such a complex system. But as far as I have been able to learn, when the

system has been tried on a small scale by a few U.S. cities such as

Cambridge MA, people are usually pleased with it.

I also think that almost any of the above would be better than the existing


If none of these national reforms gets accomplished, one positive step I’d like

to work toward is to get the state of California (where I live) to allocate its

electoral votes proportionally. Having such an enormous block of votes be

awarded winner-take-all is just far too unfair both to other states, and to the

millions of voters on the losing side within the state. It is, I believe, a major

contributor to voter apathy. Some may say that this would, at present, be to

the advantage of the Republicans, but in many other times it would have

helped the Democrats, so I think the idea can be considered on its merits for

the long term in a nonpartisan way. The fact that the state is genuinely split

between left and right and is not dominated over the long term by either party

(as are New York and Texas, the other two most populous states) also means

that such a reform has a real chance of being passed. No state where the party

in power always gains by winner-take-all would want such a change. Unless

maybe, just possibly, you could persuade the New York democrats and the

Texas republicans to make a trade, since the effect of both doing it together

might come out pretty much neutral. But California is the place to start.