Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Electoral College

A friend of mine recently sent me a link to this article:

It purports to show that Americans should keep the electoral college in place by proving, mathematically, that it is better than direct voting. I disagree.

First off, Natapoff assumes that increasing the power of the individual voter -- by his definition -- should be the goal of our electoral system. He neglects the fact that, under the electoral college, some people's votes don't matter at all. He says that the electoral college prevents the majority tyrannizing the minority, but if you live in a state where the majority is against you, your vote will never, ever count. The majority tyrannizes the minority in those states by wiping out their votes.

When I lived in Texas, my vote for Gore was utterly meaningless because the majority were going to elect George W. Bush no matter what I did. In a direct-vote system, I may not have as much "power" by Natapoff's definition as Natapoff claims I will under the electoral college, but in practice, it's the difference between *some* power and *no* power. The electoral college disenfranchises anyone who lives in a state where the majority is consistently against them. I don't see maximizing Natapoff's theoretical voter "power" at the cost of taking all power away from some people as desirable.

As such, I disagree that maximizing "voter power" as defined and prescribed by Natapoff should be the goal of our electoral system. There are other measures of voter power than the chance that your vote will turn the election: such as the chance that your vote will mean nothing at all. Under direct voting, that chance is 0% (barring actions by Karl Rove). Under the electoral college, for me in Texas (or me here, if I wanted someone other than Kerry), it was 100%. I don't know what the overall chances of an individual's vote not counting are under the electoral college is, but it is greater than 0% and much greater for some. I think making sure that everyone has a voice is more important than "maximizing voter power" as Natapoff suggests.

By the same token, I find his analogy with baseball specious, as it assumes that runs and votes are equivalent. They aren't. In baseball, runs have no meaning other than as counters as to who wins. The game is about the teams and who amasses the most runs and nothing else. No one is deciding who gets those runs and distributing them to the teams.

In voting, on the other hand, it is not about who wins as much as the will of the people, ie, how the *people* distribute those runs. Using that analogy, when a team scores twice as many runs as the other team, yet still wins the series, the people who gave the first team all those runs do not have their voices heard.

Also, I fail to see how maximizing voter power through the electoral college protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Natapoff uses the example of Serbs and Croats and such, but the electoral college is not divided up according to races or interest groups but by states. The electoral college really can only prevent big states from tyrannizing little states, which was, in fact, part of the purpose of its creation, because it gives more votes proportionally to small states than large ones (because of the 2 automatic electoral votes each state gets in addition to those granted by population).

Despite what Natapoff says about everyone's voter power increasing under the electoral college, it actually increases the power of voters in small states and weakens the power of voters in large states, rather than universally increasing voter power. With regards to the large states vs. small states issue, in his book, "How Democratic is the American Constitution?" Robert Dahl discusses the "large states tyrannizing small states" issue and whether it is is actually a problem. I'll spoil part of the book for you: It isn't. Issues, it turns out, tend to be *regional,* rather than based on size. That is to say, Wyoming and Colorado agree on more issues with each other than Colorado does with Ohio and Wyoming does with Rhode Island. Texas and New York do not agree more with each other than with Oklahoma and New Jersey, respectively. So the electoral college fails here too.

And, finally, the electoral college actually disenfranchises voters in certain geographical areas rather than empowering them (this dovetails with the argument about how the electoral college creates apathy in "decided" states which many have put forward). Take two cities of roughly equal size. One is in, say, North Dakota. One is in, say, California. There are exactly the same number of voters to be wooed in both places. Under the electoral college, where do you campaign? The one in California. Because that city can help you to get all of California's electoral votes but the one in North Dakota can't. But, under a direct election system, both places would be equally important and equally deserving of a candidate's attention. And then, when a candidate is elected, he will have to listen to the issues of both cities equally, rather than blowing off the people in North Dakota for the more important people of California.

In short (too late!), Natapoff is horribly wrong. His math may be correct, but his assumptions in how he measures voter empowerment and his belief that his vision of voter empowerment is a worthwhile goal in an electoral system are dangerously flawed.


At 7:22 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Your post is a nice one. In general, I completely agree with you; however, I do have some relatively specific rebuttals, as well as extentions, to your comments about the issues, the mathematics to begin with. I cannot respond too specifically since, though I have read the posting you put here, I have not read Natapoff's work itself.

I don't really believe you have a different definition of "voter power" from the traditional, mathematical one. That is to say, I think you are talking about a separate notion altogether. I think two things (both important) are being mixed up together. One is the theoretical power a given voter has in a system in which distributions of opinions are unknown, and the other is the statistical reality of our current context, and the effective leverage of your power in that context.

That is to say, voter power is voter power. There is a very clear definition in mathematics for this: the ratio of sets of votes in which your vote was necessary to swing the election out of all possible sets. You had as much power as any other voter in Texas in this respect ... because the measurement is not one that considers how people are likely to vote, but all possible ways they could vote.

In fact Hively's discussion simplifies things to the point of error, I think. He states that voter power diminishes as the size of the voting pool increases. While that is true in general, it is more complicated than this. He assumes a uniform distribution of power, which is the case (within a state) in our context if we know nothing about the distributions involved, but there are simple examples of weigted voting where this is not true. Take a situation with four voters, the first three have 26% of the vote apiece, and the fourth has the remainder (22%). In this case, the fourth person has no voting power at all. There is literally no difference between voting and not voting for them; they cannot make any difference whatsoever.

But in a situation where any voter could vote any old way they like, we know nothing about how they will vote, and all their votes (in a state) count equally ... it is true: larger pool sizes clearly diminish voter power.

Here's the rub: we do know (roughly) how people will vote. The reason you say that you had no voter power in TX was not because your vote counts any less or more than anyone else's, not because you are any more or less capable of swinging the election as any other vote, but because you know something about the a priori distribution of votes in the state. If we imagine that we are not voters, but we are a member of a voting group then we have a weighted voting situation and it is very possible that certain demographic groups will have dispropoprtionately low voting power (e.g., the 4-vote example above where one person has 22% of the vote, but 0% of the voting power).

Indeed, the reason (I believe) that the electoral college is a problem is because of this artificial discritization effect. Districting has similar kinds of effects. To some extent, all republics must do things like this ... and to some extent it is necessary for stability. In my mind, it is a question of degree, though, and a question of balance. The US is at the extreme.

There are at least three arguments given in the article from the orginal Federalist Paper for this topic, of which you seem to address only one (state's power): state's power, informed & educated electorates, and stability of the office.

The state power argument is easily dismantled I think. Not only are your comments exactly on target, but it is also true that we needn't have our current system to preserve state power. In fact, if we were proponents of the state-power argument (which I don't buy any more than you do, btw), there's still a way out: proportional votes per state. We could hold a direct vote for the office of President, but your vote is weighted based on the state in which you live. This presereves the same state power you have now, but allows voters to vote directly for their President ... and allows your vote in Texas to count with liberals in Ohio.

The second argument is probably very unpopular now, as it was a very elitist one: quite frankly most people under the Articles of Confederation were not educated, and there was very little in the way of national media (none, really) to help inform them. It was believed that a smaller group of educated, informed voters would be more able to come to a reasonable decision. This breaks down for several reasons in practice, even if we are elitist snobs. While it is true that modern Americans are frustratingly still very uninformed when it comes to elections, we are more educated and have access to a much richer set of informational resources about the issues facing us in our electoral choices. Moreover, given that historically the electoral college almost always goes the way of the will of the people in a given state (some electorate members are bound to, depending on the state, etc.), it seems a pointless safeguard that isn't really being used.

The stability argument is the most enigmatic to me. Hamilton is vague about it, so it is hard to form a cogent opinion one way or the other based only on his words. Moreover, an historian friend of mine considers it to be the most important reason, and Natapoff seems to swing this way, as well. What is it? The idea is that without the electoral college, small factions will gain more power than we would like (that is, their proportional power to begin with) and the in-fighting will weaken and destabilize our country.

There are two protections against this afforded by the EC. First, a very small group of people, constitutionally unrelated to the legislative branch, makes the decision. As a result, an unbiased consensus is ostensibly more easily attained. Second, since nearly all the states work on a winner-take-all stratagem, there will typically be a very clear winner (recent elections notwithstanding).

The opposing example offered to me by the historian I mentioned was Europe: several European countries have great troubles with respect to stability exactly because of these small factions. I am not sure I understand this example, though, since their systems are totally different from ours ... in many cases their legislative branch chooses the executive, so there is no real direct connection. No one is seriously proposing changing us to a parliamentary system (aside from me, but that is another post altogether ... this one has gotten long enough). So I don't really see this as a compelling argument.

Here's where I think Hively's description of Natapoff's argument breaks down for me: he also mixes up the theoretical mathematical issue with the specific distributional information, he just does so differently. He makes his argument for why individuals have more voting power under the EC then he makes the anecdotal argument that the EC has helped keep things stable. It seems fishy to me because by taking into account historical context, you admit that the a priori distributions are not uniform, in which case his mathematical argument almost certainly no longer holds. I think the mathematical argument is an interesting one (and a new one in the context of the EC, to me), but this discussion of Natapoff's argument seems to me like having your cake and eating it too.

There are plenty of systems that seem to be stable enough without the EC, that have existed for quite some time. Is our democracy so tragically flawed that we need to hamstring it with this strange ultra-republic kludge? I guess Natapoff and Hibely believes it is ... otherwise we would have long ago descended into "tyranny" (like the demacracies of Great Brittain and Germany have, for example).

But also, this argument of instability is a little frustrating to me even if I did buy it. What they call "unstable", I call "proportional vote." My views are far to the left of most Americans, and as long as that is so, I essentially have no voice whatsoever in how this country is governed. Obviously it is a trade off. In a pure democracy, where we all participate in every decision by vote, the instability is obvious. However, a dictatorship is often very stable, but I don't want to live in one because my voice would not be heard at all. We want a balance: I want my voice to be heard, which means a little chaos in the process; but I don't want too much chaos because that would be very bad, too.

I think the EC is going too far. Its discritization effects maximize the majority voice providing the dubious benefit of stability (we do afterall, only really have 1 and half parties in this country), while in practice it clearly reduces the voice of those already in the minority. Hively and Natapoff would have to give me a lot more evidence than their anecdotal suppositions of what might have happened if we hadn't the EC to convince me that it is a necessary trade-off.

Sorry about the length of that one. It's a matter to which I've recently been giving some thought.


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