11 October 2011

Goldilocks and the Electoral College

George Will opposes the National Popular Vote plan, a compact among states that would award all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote nationwide. So do a lot of other people, for a variety of reasons. Will's reason has to do with a belief that "the Framers wanted rule by certain kinds of majorities -- ones suited to moderate, consensual governance of a heterogeneous, continental nation with myriad regional and other diversities." If he means the legislative branch of government, his comment is reasonably correct. However, his concern that the NPV might result in an "ideologically narrow" majority is doubly ahistorical, since ideology wasn't a concern for the Framers and majorities today are often ideologically narrow already. For the moment, and for the sake of my own argument, let's concede his point that "The Framers ... did not subordinate all values to simple majority rule."

At first glance, it'd seem that the argument against the NPV would also be an argument in favor of the bill under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature that would end the state's practice of awarding all its electoral votes to the winner of the statewide popular vote for President. As it turns out, Will also opposes this plan. His opposition is not partisan: he notes with disapproval that the bill has been pushed by Republicans who hope to diminish Democrats' electoral-vote total next year. In one way, on the other hand, it is partisan -- not in the sense that he seeks advantages for one party over another, but in the way that it exposes Will's bias in favor of Bipolarchy over alternatives.

While Will notes with implicit approval that "the existing system handicaps third parties," he worries that "Pennsylvania's plan would encourage third parties to cherry-pick particular districts, periodically producing 'winners' with only national pluralities of electoral votes, leaving the House [of Representatives] to pick Presidents." For one so reverent toward the intentions of the Framers, it seems odd that he should deplore this possibility. It is only what the Framers intended, and for all we know they may have expected presidential elections to go to the House more often than they have. It was also the Framers' intention to give each state discretion in how its electoral votes are distributed; as Will notes, two states already follow the practice Pennsylvania may adopt. How, then, does doing so violate the Framers' intentions?

The answer has something to do with Will's notion (if not the Framers') of the right sort of majority rule. The "certain kinds of majorities" he favors "do not materialize spontaneously.

They are built by a two-party system's candidates who are compelled to cater to entire states and to create coalitions of states. Today's electoral system provides incentives for parties to alter the attributes that make them uncompetitive in important states. It shapes the nation's regime and hence the national character. The electoral college today functions differently than the Founders envisioned -- they did not anticipate political parties -- but it does buttress the values encouraged by the federalism the Founders favored, which Pennsylvanians, and others, should respect.

Will's peroration begs a big question: if the Framers intended politicians to seek the not too small, not too big, but just right approval of statewide majorities, why on earth did they divide the states into electoral districts? Why is it not one state, one electoral vote instead? The answer probably has less to do with the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution than with the ambitions of the framers of the two-party system. It's more than implicit in Will's commentary that winner-take-all rules for states serve the interests of Bipolarchy best of all. The existence of Bipolarchy, and the desirability of its persistence, justifies the different function of the Electoral College that Will favors. Why Bipolarchy itself is desirable -- its main virtue, from Will's account, is that it compels candidates to compromise their principles -- is apparently a question for another time.


toto said...

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state and district (in ME and NE). Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don't matter to their candidate.

With National Popular Vote, elections wouldn't be about winning states or districts (in ME and NE). No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps.

Every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republican voters, Democratic voters, and independent voters, as well as every demographic group surveyed in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO - 68%, FL - 78%, IA 75%, MI -73%, MO - 70%, NH - 69%, NV - 72%, NM-- 76%, NC - 74%, OH - 70%, PA - 78%, VA - 74%, and WI- 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK - 70%, DC - 76%, DE - 75%, ID - 77%, ME - 77%, MT - 72%, NE 74%, NH - 69%, NV - 72%, NM - 76%, OK - 81%, RI - 74%, SD - 71%, UT - 70%, VT - 75%, WV - 81%, and WY - 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR - 80%,, KY- 80%, MS - 77%, MO - 70%, NC - 74%, OK - 81%, SC - 71%, TN - 83%, VA - 74%, and WV - 81%; and in other states polled: CA - 70%, CT - 74%, MA - 73%, MN - 75%, NY - 79%, OR - 76%, and WA - 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in AR, CT, DE, DC, ME, MI, NV, NM, NY, NC, and OR, and both houses in CA, CO, HI, IL, NJ, MD, MA, RI, VT, and WA. The bill has been enacted by DC (3), HI (4), IL (19), NJ (14), MD (11), MA (10), CA (55), VT (3), and WA (13). These 9 jurisdictions possess 132 electoral votes -- 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


Samuel Wilson said...

toto, when you say that NPV would give voice to minority party voters, I presume you mean whichever is the smaller of the big two in any given state, since NPV would seem to only further marginalize third parties. As things stand, and as would be even more the case if more states follow ME and NE, a third party could at least force a presidential election to the House -- as the Framers provided for -- and force one of the major parties to make or at least promise meaningful compromises. Under NPV, the all or nothing alternative for independents would be even more stark, and Bipolarchy could well become entrenched beyond remedy.

toto said...

With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted for and directly assist the candidate for whom it was cast. A vote for a third party candidate would count for the third party candidate. A vote for a Democrat would count for the Democrat. A vote for the Republican would count for the Republican. The candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President. Nothing sinister. One person, one vote. Candidate with the most votes wins. It's how every other election in the U.S. is run.

It would seem much more preferable for a third party to be able to win the presidency with the most popular votes in the country, than merely hope for a nonbinding "promise" from an opponent, and leaving the House to decide the election, not based on ANY actual voters.

Samuel Wilson said...

I might be more impressed by NPV if the contracting states made their agreement conditional upon a candidate receiving a majority, not a plurality, of the popular vote. Otherwise, it would seem that the majority of votes cast against the most popular candidate won't count. Correct me if I'm wrong about the NPV plan, but you have been writing "the most popular votes," not "a majority." That aside, I still think that the two-party system is a bigger problem for the country than the Electoral College, and I don't see how NPV helps break the Bipolarchy.

toto said...

Under the current system of electing the President, no state requires that a presidential candidate receive anything more than the most popular votes in order to receive all of the state's electoral votes.

Not a single legislative bill has been introduced in any state legislature in recent decades (among the more than 100,000 bills that are introduced in every two-year period by the nation's 7,300 state legislators) proposing to change the existing universal practice of the states to award electoral votes to the candidate who receives a plurality (as opposed to absolute majority) of the votes (statewide or district-wide). There is no evidence of any public sentiment in favor of imposing such a requirement.

Since 1824 there have been 16 presidential elections in which a candidate was elected or reelected without gaining a majority of the popular vote.-- including Lincoln (1860), Wilson (1912, and 1916), Truman (1948), Kennedy (1960), Nixon (1968), and Clinton (1992 and 1996).

And, FYI, Under the current system, it could only take the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency by winning a mere 51% of the vote in just these 11 biggest states -- that is, a mere 26% of the nation's votes.

Americans do not view the absence of run-offs under the current system as a major problem. If, at some time in the future, the public demands run-offs, that change can be implemented at that time.

Anonymous said...

Well, if you support NPV, why not just go "whole hog" and eliminate the electoral college completely? Why not just have a "most popular" contest and the winner gets to become president?

Given the current level (or lack thereof) of the average American, the only thing NPV ensures is that the movie "Idiocracy" will become the reality. I put about as much stock in any president elected by NVP as I would the local high school prom king because about as much thought goes in to both elections.

toto said...

States have the responsibility and power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election. The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. It does not abolish the Electoral College, which would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action, without federal constitutional amendments.

On Election Night, most voters don't care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was directly and equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans consider the idea of the candidate with the most popular votes being declared a loser detestable. We don't allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

The bill is 49% of the way needed to bring the law into effect.