[EM] Thoughts on electoral college

Alex Small alex_small2002 at yahoo.com
Thu Sep 16 13:52:31 PDT 2004

First, as to whether proportional allocation would cause more recounts or fewer recounts:
Proportional allocation would certainly increase the odds that 1 or more states might be close enough for a recount.  A state wouldn't have to be divided 50-50 for that to happen, even a state with a wide margin could have a recount if an electoral vote was in doubt (e.g. 6-3 vs. 5-4).
HOWEVER, only a single electoral vote would be in play, and the odds of the national contest being decided by a single vote would be lower.
Next, with proportional allocation, there's the very real possibility that 3rd party candidates could get electoral votes, especially in larger states.  Normally I would be excited to see 3rd party candidates play a larger role, but the US Constitution stipulates that if nobody gets a majority of the electoral votes cast then we go to a Byzantine House of Representatives runoff:  The House of Representatives picks from the top 3 candidates.  Each state delegation gets a single vote, and the winner must get a majority of the states to vote for him.  This led to temporary deadlocks in the 2 previous instances where it happened (1800 and 1824, I believe).  Even worse, the Constitution is silent on whether a state delegation must decide its vote by a majority or a plurality.  e.g. if there are 3 candidates and a state delegation has 9 members, how does it vote in the case of a 4-3-2 split?
Obviously, the ideal would be to amend the Constitution to either abolish or reform the House runoff (or, even better, go to direct Presidential elections).  But since the subject here is a state-level reform, the next best way to avoid a House runoff would be if a state only divided its electoral votes amongst the top 2 vote-getters in that state.  I know, it isn't ideal.  Well, anything short of abolishing the electoral college won't be ideal, but this is a decent compromise along the way.
Also, I have suggested in the past that winner-take-all in the EC is basically a Nash equilibrium right now.  In a safe state, the majority will never consent to giving some of the electoral votes to the other side.  (Why would the Democrat majorities in CA, NY, VT, etc. give some of their votes to the GOP?  Why would the GOP majorities in TX, SC, WY, etc. give some of their votes to the Dems?)  In a swing state, most people don't want to lose the clout that comes with having a bloc of votes (at least 3, frequently more) up for grabs?

Some would point out that being a Democrat in CA or NY, or a Republican in TX or WY, can be miserable because you're ignored in favor of swing voters.  True as that might be, remember that if your preferred candidate had fewer votes locked down then he'd have to spend even more time compromising with swing voters.  Some might also point out that Maine and Nebraska have district allocation, but those states are exceptions.  They have unusual political cultures:  ME recently had a governor with no party affiliation (Angus King, distant relative of novelist Stephen King), and is represented by 2 of the most liberal Republicans in the US Senate.  NB has the country's only non-partisan and unicameral state legislature, and apparently does most of its elections by 2-step runoff instead of party primaries followed by plurality elections.
Rob Brown's idea of making proportional elections contingent on similar reforms in other states is an interesting one, and may be a way out of the Nash equilibrium.  Rob suggests this amendment:
>What if, say, California proposed a law like this :
>"we will have proportional allocation if at least 4 (out of 5) of
>nevada, oregon, new mexico, arizona and washington do as well"
>If all those states (well, 4 of them) signed a similar law, they all
>would get proportional allocation, if less than that, no one would be
>the "sucker".
I would add Colorado and Texas to the list, and require 5 of 7.  In Colorado there's at least a fighting chance that it will happen.  And Texas normally votes for Republicans, so it would partially compensate for the effect of CA allocating votes proportionally.
Incidentally, if this were implemented it wouldn't be the first state election law to include provisions contingent on what other states do.  The NH statutes dictate that NH shall always have the first primary.  (Don't ask me why the Iowa caucus doesn't count, I honestly don't know, but I suspect it's because the caucus is conducted in a manner very different from the primary.)  For proof, see
However, as I think of it, proportional allocation would remain unstable, even if it were done contingent on other states participating.  A swing state would always have an incentive to opt out of this system and revert to winner-take-all.  As for safe states (states where one party consistently gets a majority), consider the effects of such a pact:  One party would undoubtedly benefit.  Which party that is would depend on the membership and whatnot, but no doubt one party would get more votes without the pact than it would with the pact.  If the pact includes a state where a majority of the voters prefer the party that loses out on the pact, then that state has an incentive to withdraw.  Even if a single withdrawal doesn't collapse the pact, it would mean that the majority in that state would be able to give all of the states votes to their preferred candidate, rather than just some of the votes.
Finally, another observation on the politics of proportionally allocated electoral votes:  When the Colorado proposal came up I decided to indulge my curiosity and see what the folks at freerepublic.com thought of it.  They're a very, um, staunch group of conservatives over there.  Most of them didn't like it.  Some of it was for the obvious partisan reason, namely that CO went for Bush last time.  Understandable.  I might not agree, but I can see where they're coming from.

But for some the objection was less obvious.  Some seem to like the Maine and Nebraska system, where a candidate gets one elector for each Congressional district won in that state, and 2 for winning the state overall.  The net result would still be to divide a state's clout, but they seem to be OK with it if it's done in that manner.  I don't know why.  The best I can make out is that the word "proportional" sounds socialist to them or something.
Alex Small

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