Dueling electoral college measures?

Next year, Californians may be asked to vote on two conflicting measures to change how the state’s presidential electors are allocated. Currently, like all states but Maine and Nebraska, California awards all its electors to the statewide plurality ticket for President and Vice President.

Republicans may throw their support behind a plan to change to the Maine and Nebraska model: one elector for the winner of the plurality in each congressional district, and two for the statewide plurality winner.

Democrats may back an initiative that would enter California into the proposed interstate compact by which the electoral college would be converted into a nationwide plurality direct vote.

The status quo method is awful and should be abolished forthwith. However, is the congressional-district plan favored by some Republicans an improvement? On strictly small-d democratic grounds, absolutely not. Most congressional districts are totally safe for one party–even more than the state itself–and so this plan makes a problem (non-sensitivity to the popular vote) worse, not better.

Of course, on large-D Democratic grounds, the congressional-district plan is a major threat. It would essentially compensate the GOP for its likely loss of Ohio’s 21 electoral votes in 2008. And the measure would be effective in the 2008 election were it to be on the ballot in February (presidential primary) or June (regular state primary), and were it to pass.

While a poll recently suggests 47% would favor the congressional-district measure and 35% oppose it, an actual vote is unlikely to result in 50% support, once statewide voters (most of whom have favored Democrats by wide margins in elections in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was not a candidate) catch wind of what is a pure partisan vote-grab.

The other measure would not take effect in 2008, but only after other states whose electoral votes sum to the 270 needed to elect a president had likewise signed on to the compact. At that point, states with enough to ensure victory in the electoral college to the popular-vote winning ticket would have bound themselves legally to give all their electoral votes to that ticket.

A bill to enter the state into the compact passed both houses of the legislature last year but was vetoed by the Governor.

If you click on the block title, “Electoral College & National Popular Vote” above, you will see several previous entries in which I have discussed this proposal. And, no, it is not a partisan vote-grab. In fact, I suspect that the Democratic Party nationally is marginally favored by the current use of statewide plurality in 48 states (and DC). But a direct vote is preferred democratically (small d).

If both measures in California qualify for the ballot and are approved, the one with the higher vote total would prevail. That’s a lousy way to choose from among three alternatives, of course. But for me, as a small-d democrat, it is easy. The status quo is preferable to the congressional district plan, and the national popular vote is vastly preferable to the status quo.

0 thoughts on “Dueling electoral college measures?

  1. One intermediate measure – midway between Statewide block vote (“each Californian casts 53 votes for Electors”) at one end, and “each Californian casts 1 vote only [*] for Electors” (whether in Statewide PR or in single-member districts [**]) at the other – would be for the biggest States to be split into large, multi-member districts, averaging (say) 20 seats each, but still with Block Vote:

    1. Divide the State’s number of EVs by 20 and round off to the nearest whole number, to give the number of Electoral College districts.

    eg, 1-29 EVs = 1 District
    30-49 EVs = 2 Districts

    2. Districts have to be as close as possible in magnitude

    Eg, if California has 53 EVs, it then has 3 districts, electing 18, 18 and 17 Electors respectively.

    This would break up the monolithic giant delegations from Cal, Tex, NY, etc while still giving the decisive plurality result that USAns value so highly for the EC. [***]
    [*] As an STV supporter, I don’t really like the “one vote vs 53 votes” terminology, since it makes Block Vote sound more “generous” to the voter than PR systems (or SNTV). I think it more accurate to say something like “Both PR and Block Vote give you 5,300,000 votes for 53 seats, but PR allows you to cumulate all 5.3 million of your votes on a single candidate, if need be, whereas Block Vote insists you can’t give more than 100,000 votes at a time to any one candidate – even if you end up unrepresented as a result.” Re-framing STV as a type of super-flexible “Transferable Cumulative Vote” would be more accurate, as well as more attractive – but the “only one vote” terminology is very deeply entrenched, unfortunately.

    [**] Or, under the Maine system as I understand it, one vote for a district-level Elector and 2 votes for Statewide Electors. It is hard enough dividing California into 51 districts for the House of Reps without then having to re-divide it into 53 districts for the Electoral College!

    [***] Given that the EC is not a continuing, deliberative body but the functional equivalent of a State-weighted popular vote, I consider (for what my opinion is worth) plurality less annoying for the EC than for Congress.

    Of course, if the USA adopted my idea that the EC should be the body with power to impeach and remove the President, a sort of Taiwanese-style “control yuan”… I must finish my paper “College Reunions?” one of these years.

    One could retain State weighting without the Electors, ie, even with a popular vote: “For each State in which a candidate wins a plurality (or absolute majority), an additional [1 million] notional votes are added to her actual popular votes.”

    (1 million = 300 million divided by 50 States, multiplied by 100 Senators, divided by 538 Electors – ie, so the “State equality” component in a popular vote would be the same ratio as in the EC).

  2. > “If both measures in California qualify for the ballot and are approved, the one with the higher vote total would prevail. That’s a lousy way to choose from among three alternatives, of course”

    This would be a rare case where Approval Voting is used in real life public elections. (Of course, referenda on issues have different dynamics from elections for offices: you can pass both proposals, but you can’t elect both Davis and Schwarzenegger as Gubernator).

  3. Actually, “one million notional votes for each State you carry” should be “1,115,241”. But I was close.

  4. My old colleague recently prepared a report on how congressional district and proportional allocation schemes could have played out in past elections.

    Our analysis reveals that both of these methods fail to meet our criteria. Neither reform option promotes majority rule, greater competitiveness, or voter equality. Pursued at a state level, both reforms dramatically increase incentives for partisan machinations. If done nationally, the congressional district system has a sharp partisan tilt toward the Republican Party. The whole number proportional system sharply increases the odds of contingent elections (the selection of president by Congress).

    Her blog post is concerned with the district allocation method but has a link to the fuller report.

  5. Reading Moni Talukdar’s blog post has reminded me – Calif has 53 Congressreps and 55 EVs, not 51 Congressreps and 53 EVs. D’oh. Same principle though.

  6. Tom Round planted:

    One could retain State weighting without the Electors, ie, even with a popular vote: “For each State in which a candidate wins a plurality (or absolute majority), an additional [1 million] notional votes are added to her actual popular votes.”

    Until 2004 Indonesia used a deliberative electoral college, the Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat which could also recall the president. Naturally the recall function was not used under Sukarno or Soeharto, but the third president, Habibie, decided not to seek a second term when the MPR (moved as much by nationalist protest over Timor-Leste’s independence as by reformasi) rejected his annual report in 1999.

    The MPR then elected an unfortunate president and vice-president. President Wahid resigned part-way through his term and President Megawati, who succeeded him, was thrashed in the 2004 popular election.

    Indonesia and its democratic transition should be on the list with PNG as a place that political scientists are watching.

  7. Hi Alan,

    Thanks for responding, but were you meaning to reply to this: ‘idea that the EC should be the body with power to impeach and remove the President, a sort of Taiwanese-style “control yuan”…’?

  8. The MPR did not work as a check under the dictatorships for obvious reasons. Although it’s lost the power to elect, it does retain final say on impeachments and constitutional amendments, but it has a fundamentally different composition from the US college. It now comprises the members of the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, the lower house of representatives and the Dewan Perwakilan Daerah, the house of regional representatives with some additional representatives as specified by law.

    I don’t think making the US electoral college the court of impeachment would be a good idea. US electors have strictly limited mandates and would be extraordinarily unlikely to ever impeach a president.

  9. It is also worth noting that it is a misnomer to speak of “the electoral college” in the USA. There is not a single “college” but rather 51 of them (50 states plus DC).

    That is, unlike most institutions referred to by the term, electoral college, elsewhere* the US “electoral college” never meets as a body. Rather, the electors of each state (and DC) assemble and vote and simply communicate their votes to the US Congress.

    * a category in which I will include the Indonesian MPR and the Taiwanese National Assembly in the days in which they selected presidents.

  10. Yes, but… The parties might choose different candidates for Elector if the EC had a (legitimately) deliberative, ongoing role. I’ve personally met (despite having spent only 6 days in the US in my life) two people who have been Presidential Electors. Both got the nod because they were party activists in college (college in the colloquial sense).

    The problem with the legislature being the judge and jury of impeachments is that (as a certain R Nixon noted in 1974), a trial would paralyse Congress and obstruct its normal work for months.

    Re terminology: MSS’s point taken. The Electors never meet collegially, just go to their state capitol, write “John Ewards” on an official ballot, and go home.

    Re Taiwan: pace the legal usage in many republics (eg, Trinidad), I don’t think political scientists should use the term “electoral college” when it’s just the normal legislature wearing a different hat. Aliter if it’s augmented by outside members – even if just, eg, 60 out of 1,000 (the regional assemblies’ Electors in Italy).

  11. “I don’t think political scientists should use the term “electoral college” when it’s just the normal legislature wearing a different hat” (Tom).

    Absolutely! But who does? I suppose the literature on Mexico before there was an independent agency to confirm electoral results (the IFE): Congress sat in joint session as an “electoral college” to determine the winner (always PRI, of course).

    In Taiwan, the National Assembly was elected separately from the Legislative Yuan. (I say “was” but I think it still exists; it just is not an electoral college anymore).

    Finland formerly elected an electoral college–that was all it did, but it was an actual deliberative assembly, elected separately from parliament.

    Many parliamentary systems have an “electoral college” that contains all or most of parliament, but augments it with other officials (Italy, Germany, India, Estonia–the latter case only if parliament fails to elect the president). Are these bodies worthy of being called electoral colleges? I think so, but Tom seems to suggest otherwise. In any case, I recognize a clear distinction, compared to those of Finland (or, formerly, Indonesia and Taiwan). And also, of course, from the USA (and formerly Argentina).

  12. The legislative branch in Indonesia is, to say the least, somewhat complex. The DPD is a very limited second chamber (basically it can only advise the DPR on bills) and the MPR functions as a superchamber. Impeachments, for instance, go to the Constitutional Court which must certify the legality of the impeachment claim, and then to the MPR (not the DPD) for decision. Constitutional amendments go to the MPR. Presidential and vice-presidential vacancies are filled by the MPR.

    Sukarno and Soeharto used the MPR as a vehicle to legitimate their claim to power and stacked it with their own nominees. A fifth of the Soeharto MPR were military members appointed by the President in consultation with the armed forces.

    The reformasi MPR no longer has an obvious role beyond vacancies, a task you’d think the US could reasonably give its electoral college, and impeachments. Surely a citizens assembly on the Netherland/BC/Ontario model would be a better idea if if the US wanted a new body to try impeachments.

  13. Now there are three initiative proposals about California’s electoral
    votes rather than just two. Pretty soon you will need a roster and scorecard to keep track of the players.

    On August 27 a supposedly nonpartisan group called Californians United to Reform Elections (CURE) submitted this application to collect signatures for a measure that would allocate the state’s electoral votes by Congressional district (like the Republican effort), but only if a majority of other states adopt either proportional allocation or Congressional district allocation (confusingly, not at all the same as the Democratic plan). The way I read it, Maine and Nebraska would count toward the majority of states.

    These folks could be sincere, but someting about the situation makes me think they were put up to this by one side or the other. I find the whole thing too confusing to guess which side.

  14. The ballot measure to divide California’s 55 electoral votes by congressional district would magnify the worst features of our antiquated system of electing the President.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Obviously, if the district approach were installed in only one large state (such as California), it would greatly increase the chance that the winner of the presidential election would not have received the most votes nationwide.

    The district approach would not, as claimed, make California relevant in presidential elections. Candidates have no reason to campaign in districts (or states) where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. Currently, candidates concentrate over two-thirds of their money and visits on just six closely divided “battleground” states, and 99% of their expenditures in just 16 states. Thus, two thirds of the states are ignored in presidential elections (including California). In California, the presidential race is a foregone conclusion in 50 of the state’s 53 congressional districts. Candidates would have no incentive than they do now to pay attention to California remaining 50 districts. Even if the district approach were used nationally, there are only 55 “battleground” districts that are competitive in presidential elections, so seven-eighths of the county would be left out of presidential elections. This is even worse than the current system, where two-thirds of the states are spectators.

    A national popular vote is the way to guarantee that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states becomes President. It is the way to make every person’s vote relevant, regardless of where that person lives.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President. When the legislation is in effect in that sized group of states, all of the electoral votes in the participating states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Thus, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee that the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in all 50 states will win the Presidency.

    The bill has 320 legislative sponsors in 47 states. It has been signed into law in Maryland. The bill has passed by 11 legislative houses since its introduction in February 2006 (one house in Colorado, Arkansas, and North Carolina, and two houses in Maryland, Illinois, Hawaii, and California).

    See http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

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