Monday, 30 August 2004

Electoral College

Funnily enough, my American politics class decided to support the continued existence of the Electoral College by a margin of 13–7, with 1 abstention, after a 20-minute debate.

Perhaps more interestingly (and surprisingly), nobody put forward a partisan argument either for or against its abolition.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.

Do you happen to know what percentage of the general population supports vs. opposes the Electoral College? If, as I suspect, a majority supports it, it seems a bit odd for the minority opposed to it to argue we should get rid of it because it’s not democratic enough (never mind those who oppose it on other grounds). If the Electoral College itself can “win the popular vote,” isn’t that be good enough?



If a racial majority enacted, democratically, laws disenfranchising a racial minority, would it be “odd” for someone to oppose the disenfranchisement on the grounds that it’s undemocratic?

Personally, though, I seriously doubt whether a majority of the population has a well-thought-out opinion on the electoral college.


Xrlq: This page has some details on public and expert opinion on the electoral college.



Gotta call you on that one. No-one is disenfranchised by the electoral college. Just because they vote for the candidate that loses in their state doesn’t mean they are disenfranchised. They got to vote, didn’t they? They just lost.

The Founders were not fans of direct election of the President and designed a system, as amended, to mirror our form of government.


Brock: yes, it would. If someone passed a law to disenfranchise a minority, the proper objection would be that the law was racist, not that it was undemocratic. Disenfranchising an unpopular minority is no less “democratic” than disenfranchising any other group.



Suppose the laws mandated that the votes of a racial minority counted for half the value of a racial majority. Wouldn’t that be “disenfranchisement”? “They got to vote.”

No? Suppose a minority vote counted for one-tenth, or one one-hundredth?

I know the purported opinions of the founders on direct election of the president, but this is one case in which I beg to differ with their immortal wisdom.


I should note that my objections are not to the electoral college per se, but to the current system wherein states receive electors in numbers dispropotionate to their population.

We would all agree (except for Xrlq, of course), that if Tennessee received more electors than all other states combined, this would be undemocratic, and would constitute disenfranchisement of the voters of all other states. The current system differs from this hypothetical one only in degree.

The problems of the electoral college would be mostly fixed by dropping the “one elector for each senator.”

I’d be interested in seeing the opinions of your class, Chris, when given a trinary choice: (1) direct election of the president, (2) the current system, and (3) an electoral system in which state representation is proportional to population.



You seem have a strange “procedural” view of democracy, according to which any democratically enacted system cannot, by definition, be undemocratic; or, at the very least, cannot be objected to on democratic grounds.

I, on the other hand, think that there is a real danger, e.g., that a democratic election in Iraq, held right now, would put in place a theocracy, which would be no more democratic than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.



Initial language aside (about blacks being 3/5 of a person), races are not a needed political construct within our country. States are an integral part of our form of government and the EC is designed as yet another check on the power of the majority.

My original argument stands because race is a false construct.


Brock: That’s an interesting question to ask, but I’m not sure I have class time to launch another discussion about the electoral college. Tempus fugit and all that.

I read an article in PS not too long ago about possible electoral college reforms and their substantive impact on elections, but I can’t manage to find it on my bookshelf at work. My recollection, though, is that the small-state bias inherent in the “two senators” rule doesn’t actually make much difference.

Robert: I find it difficult to believe (living in Jackson, of all places) that race has little substantive meaning, even if it is a “false construct” or the product of social choices, neither of which I particularly believe either; physical differences—such as skin color and gender attributes—among individuals are clearly not the result of societal norms, at least over the short term (social effects could conceivably result in microevolution, but probably not among humans in less than a few hundred years).

My recollection, though, is that the small-state bias inherent in the “two senators” rule doesn’t actually make much difference.

It made a difference in 2000. I’m betting it will make the difference in 2004. Certeris paribus, of course: when you change the scoring rules, you change how players play the game.


Well, in any close election, any tinkering at the margins will make a difference.

Some quick—and possibly wrong, as I may have miscounted the number of states that voted for Bush—math on my part shows Gore winning the electoral college 225–211 if the “senator” votes (60 for Bush-Cheney, 42 for Gore-Lieberman) were thrown out.

Someone who doesn’t have a class to prepare for in 90 minutes will have to do the past few elections.


It would have made the difference in 1876 as well. Without the “senator” votes, the electoral college result would have been Tilden 150, Hayes 145. So in both of the post-civil-war elections where the popular vote loser won the electoral vote, my suggested reform yields the “right result” from a purely majoritarian perspective.

It would be interesting if it affected an election in the other direction, causing the popular vote loser to win. The closest election I can think of, apart from 2000, would have been 1960. Subtracting out the two “senator” votes, Kennedy still beats Nixon in the electoral college, 255 to 167.



Bad choice of words on my part.

There’s nothing about our form of government—or federalism in general—that requires that races be considered distinct political entites. They don’t share sovereignty with the states or the federal government, except in their capacity as individuals. A government could be formed in that way—and may yet be necessary in Iraq to protect minorities from violence by a central government—but they would still, I imagine, be organized as states or provinces, not ethnic enclaves.

In any case, our government is not organized in that way and has states, not races, to act as a check of the federal government. The electoral college is an extension of this idea.


Brock, my definition of democracy definitely has a procedural element to it, in the sense that I find it odd to argue that the majority should rule, but should not be allowed to rule on how it should rule. However, the definition is not purely procedural. If a country held a referendum on the very idea of democracy, and the “no” vote won, it might be fair to say “the people have spoken” for a year or two, but at some point any serious democrat would have to go against the results of the last election and hold another, if only to make sure that’s still really what the majority wants. If the majority isn’t allowed to vote on that issue anymore, there is no democracy, no matter how democratic the process leading up to that point may have been.

You can argue, of course, that every law that disenfranchises anyone dilutes democracy one voter at a time, and is in that sense undemocratic. The problem with that definition is that it proves too much. “Democracy,” as such, does not explain why it’s not OK to disenfranchise a race, even though it may well be OK to disenfranchise certain other segments of the population, who really shouldn’t be voting (e.g., children, convicted felons, registered Democrats, non-citizens, or the mentally ill). In my view, the difference between disenfranchising a race vs. disenfranchising children is that the former is a terrible, and rightly unconstitutional idea, while the latter is a sensible one. But I’d be hard pressed to say that one idea is more “undemocratic” than the other.

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