TCS Daily

The World's Best College

By James D. Miller - August 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Slate magazine's recent two part assault on the U.S. Electoral College fails to grapple with both our current system's strengths and an inherent weakness of all voting systems.

Timothy Noah writes in Slate how he wants to trade in our Electoral College for a popular voting system under which the candidate who gets the most citizens' votes is elected President. But such a trade would exacerbate voting fraud concerns.

Currently, not even Michael Mooreish Democrats worry about fraud in Texas's 2004 Presidential vote. Because Bush will win a majority of Texans' votes, and since under the Electoral College it doesn't matter by how much he wins in Texas, politicians have zero incentive to add votes fraudulently to Bush's 2004 Texas tally, so even conspiracy-obsessed Democrats can't whine about how Bush is planning to steal Texan votes.

Under the Electoral College's winner-takes-all approach (which for reasons this article won't detail doesn't entirely apply to Maine and Nebraska) voter fraud really only becomes practical in swing states where Republicans and Democrats get roughly equal shares of the vote in presidential elections. These states, on average, will be well represented by both Republicans and Democrats in their legislative and judicial branches and so will probably have many government officials well positioned to stop their party's candidate from suffering due to voting fraud.

Under a popular voting system, in contrast, there would be great incentive for one-party dominated states to commit fraud by raising the voting share of their party nominee's vote. If all the elected officials and judges support this candidate there might be little local opposition to such fraud. Furthermore, voters in one-party states might even reward state officials who gave some illegal help to the presidential candidate most of them so strongly support. Our current system brilliantly insures that the states with the greatest incentive to commit fraud receive no benefit from doing so. Our Founding Fathers had a much better understanding of democracy then their contemporary critics do.

Timothy Noah, I suspect, would attempt to solve this voting fraud problem through extensive federal oversight of state presidential elections. But federal authorities will never have as much knowledge of local conditions as state politicians do. Furthermore, the number of federal overseers in any one state will probably be trivial compared to the number of dedicated party workers in that state.

Besides increasing voting fraud, moving to a popular voting system would increase the divisiveness of presidential election campaigns. Because of the Electoral College Bush doesn't try to win votes in Texas, while Kerry ignores Massachusetts. Rather, each candidate tries to maximize his appeal to voters in swing states. If, under a popular voting system, Kerry sought to increase the turnout of liberal Massachusetts voters while Bush tried to get more Texas conservatives to the polls, both candidates would find it to their advantage to use more partisan and strident rhetoric.

Scrapping the U.S. Electoral College would increase the value of campaign contributions. As a Massachusetts resident I don't see any presidential ads on local TV because everyone knows that Massachusetts will go for Kerry. Under the Electoral College candidates benefit from spending money only in states that could go either way. With a popular voting system, in contrast, candidates would need to run a fifty-state campaign and so would reap greater benefit from campaign contributions. (In economic terms this means that each extra $1 million spent on advertising would increase a candidate's chances of winning more under the popular than the Electoral College system.)

Many critics of the Electoral College point to the outcome of the 2000 election as proof of why we should switch to a popular voting system. These critics point out the supposed absurdity of Bush winning the election even though a majority of those who voted preferred Gore to Bush. The Arrow Impossibility Theorem, however, named for economist Kenneth Arrow, demonstrates that all voting systems can lead to outcomes that most voters don't approve of.

For example, suppose that under a popular voting system Bush gets 48%, Kerry wins 47% and Nader receives the remaining 5%. Bush would win even if all Nader voters prefer Kerry to Bush. You might think that a runoff would always solve this problem, but runoffs can also produce "unfair" results.

Imagine that there are three types of voters: conservative, moderate, and liberals, and they have the following preferences:

 Voter Type% In Population
 First Choice Second Choice
 Conservative     40% Bush  Kerry
 Moderate  20% Kerry  Nader
 Liberal  40% Nader  Kerry

Further assume that we have a two-round popular vote runoff system. If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote in round one, the two candidates who received the greatest share of the votes go head-to-head in round two. In round one, in our example, Bush and Nader would each get 40% while Kerry gets only 20% and so Kerry would be excluded from the second round. In the second round Bush would receive only 40% while Nader would get the Moderate and Liberal votes and so win the second round with 60% of the vote. But Kerry supporters would surely claim that this voting system was unjust because 60% of the voters prefer Kerry to Nader.

The Arrow Impossibility theorem proves that any voting system can produce outcomes that seem unjust. Consequently, the 2000 election results are not strong evidence that the Electoral College should be abandoned.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is a Republican Candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate.


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