Abolishing the Electoral College?


Via FiveThirtyEight, there’s an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal outlining efforts to effectively abolish the Electoral College in the US without changing the constitution.

This approach, called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, would see states pass legislation committing them to a binding agreement that they would cast all of their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. The compact won’t come into effect until states which hold a majority of electoral votes have signed on. The WSJ article continues:

The debate hits full stride now in Colorado, a state that political analysts say presents a key test for the National Popular Vote project. So far, the states most receptive to doing away with the Electoral College have all been solidly Democratic — not the swing states that have been high-profile players in presidential elections.

But Colorado last year joined a small cluster of newly minted swing states that drew a disproportionate share of candidate visits and campaign spending. It will now help answer the question of whether swing states will take the leap.

As Nate Silver points out, only 50 EVs so far have been committed to the compact, and all the states who have passed the legislation or close to passing it have been very Democratic and very safe states when it comes to presidential elections.

Nate Silver further argues that there is a high hurdle to be jumped before any electoral college reform can gather enough steam to be passed:

What would it take for there to be a real chance of abolishing (or end-arounding, as the Compact seeks to do) the Electoral College? I think it would take two elections in relatively rapid succession in which there’s a popular:electoral split, particularly if these two elections are won by candidates of opposite parties. The memories of 2000 should linger for a few more cycles, and so if there’s another such occurrence before, say, 2020 or 2024, things could get very interesting.

Apart from the issues in getting it passed, the biggest barrier to electing the US President by popular vote is the current US system of election administration. Unlike the Australian Electoral Commission, elections are conducted on a very local level in the US, and votes are never counted across state boundaries. Indeed, there is no official record of the popular vote, it is simply tallied by media organisations based on state tallies of the popular vote.

In the case of an extremely close national vote, the issues that popped up in Florida in 2000 would take place on a massively expanded scale. On the other hand, a directly-elected presidency could be just the thing the USA needs to finally bring election administration completely under federal control.

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  1. Wouldn’t they be better off going the other way and agreeing to all allocate electoral college votes proportionately?

  2. Regarding federalism, I guess it’s just a different way at looking at this issue, one that sees the President as elected by the people, thus should be elected by a simple one-vote-one-value count. I think you’d find most Americans think that’s a good idea, but it is an ideological shift from 1789.

    As far as allocating EVs proportionally, there are two problems with that:
    1) The “I’ll put down my gun when you put down yours” problem. If only some states did this unilaterally (in this case mainly very Democratic states) they would dilute their power while other states didn’t. This was proposed by the Republicans in California, where EVs would be distributed by congressional district. But as long as big red states like Texas didn’t follow suit, it would’ve given a big unfair advantage to one side.
    2) Allocating EVs by congressional district or proportionally would simply result in a different set of “key states” or “key districts” that would be just as perverse as the current system. If you did it proportionally, states with an even number of EVs (with the exception of very large states) would become completely safe, as each party would win half of the EVs. On the other hand states with an odd number of EVs would become key battlegrounds.

    While it may appear on the surface that the current system favours smaller states by giving them more EVs, remember that it only favours small states that are swing states. And actually, the most powerful states under the current system are the big swing states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Swing states with only 3 or 4 EVs are still (mostly, but not quite) irrelevant.

  3. Proportional EVs would give undue attention to big states. Since small % swings would flip EVs, whereas only big swings could shift EVs in small states.

    Not that that is necessarily any worse than the current system that gives undue attention to the politically evenly balanced “battleground” states. But it’s certainly no solution.

  4. The states that would not be swing states with PR allocation are those who have no seats that would change hands within a reasonable swing of the margin from the previous election. So a state with 4 electoral votes would be marginal if it had a margin of around 20%* (60*-40* in favour of one party) but not if it was evenly balanced (the reverse of the current situation).
    * Presuming an STV PR system

    The number of swing states would increase because a larger number of states would have at least one seat where the state`s margin is within range of a quota. While this would lead to all the large states being marginal it would also increase the number of small states that are marginal.

    It would also spread the campaigning between the small and large swing states because the maximum number of electoral votes that could change hands in any state would be quite small (no more than 7 I guess) so It would be most efficient to spread the campaigning around.

    It would overall benefit most states (including most small ones) but direct election would be better (and what the 70% American people want) but then again they should have a parliamentary system.

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