If the USA had direct plurality election of the president, what effect on the party system?

I know the 2020 election result–assuming the Senate majority remains Republican–has ended any chance of serious electoral reform passing for the foreseeable future. But what if the National Popular Vote (NPV) compact were enacted? If there were no other reforms, the compact would result in the US President being elected by direct nationwide plurality.

Given the way assembly and presidential party systems work together in systems with powerful directly elected presidents, just changing to direct election in the USA could open up the wider party system in a way fully consistent with expectations from its existing electoral system. It is likely that direct election would lead to more presidential candidates winning votes, and that, in turn, would potentially lead to more parties in House elections, because the House party system is probably currently being restrained by how the presidency is elected more than by how the House itself is elected.

The House electoral system has seat product of 435. (The seat product of a single-tier electoral system is its mean district magnitude, times the assembly size.) Based on the Seat Product Model, the expected party system in the US House would have an effective number of seat-winning parties of around 2.75, on average, and a largest party averaging around 46.8% of the seats (about 204 seats). Of course, the actual party system has an effective number just below 2.0 and a largest party always above 50% of the seats. Do not blame the electoral system for the absence of other parties in American national politics. Even with single-seat plurality (in a few states, majority), the electoral system for the House should be expected to support more parties than what we actually have.

If we look at the worldwide dataset of presidential elections that Rein Taagepera and I analyze in Chapter 11 of Votes from Seats, the mean total for winning presidents under nationwide plurality is 48%. That is, of course, below the long-term average for US presidents, which is 52%, although it has trended downward since 1992 and averages around 49% over the past three decades, suggesting there is indeed some pent-up demand for more options. The leading presidential candidate typically wins more than the 48% that is the average in countries using direct plurality because the multi-seat plurality rule used at the state level in the electoral college normally suppresses third parties. And, unable to attract many votes in presidential contests, sustained party organizations beyond the top two are lacking. If they existed, they likely would compete for House seats as well.

It just so happens that a switch to direct plurality election of the president would be pretty consistent with what the existing House electoral system should be yielding! The estimates we have are: A president winning 48% on average (roughly what Hillary Clinton won in 2016, though with the electoral college that was not good enough); A largest party in the House having 47% of the seats. Based on other formulas in the Seat Product Model (SPM), the expected vote share of the largest party in the House then would be 42.5%, for an implied effective number of vote-earning parties of 3.13.

While it would be nice to have proportional representation of some sort for the House, it actually is the case that just changing to nationwide plurality for the presidency–as the NPV would produce–might be sufficient to “unleash” the House seat product and bring about a relatively more multiparty, but not significantly fragmented, House party system.

A quick comparative check of the data is in order, to see how these estimates compare to other countries’ experience. Across 117 presidential and semi-presidential systems (including, for the latter, only those with “strong” presidents), the mean share for the first-round or sole-round leading presidential candidate is 46.64% and the mean vote share for the largest assembly party in those same cases is 40.43%. Restricted to just pure presidential systems and those that elect their presidents by plurality (only 25 observations) we have 44.88% and 40.95%, respectively. So 42.5% for the largest vote share in US House elections is within the ballpark of other presidential systems’ observed experience; the set of cases from which I just reported average values has a mean seat product of 934.5, which is obviously higher than the US House’s seat product, and so they should be expected to have higher average fragmentation (smaller leading party) than the USA.

Additionally, Taagepera and I also have a model in Votes from Seats to estimate the effective number of presidential candidates (Np) from the assembly electoral system. It is Np=1.44[(MS)1/4 +1]1/3 (where M is the district magnitude–here 1, obviously–and S is the assembly size). For the US, this yields Np=2.55. We did not try to predict the vote share of the leading presidential candidate, but a rough approximation from that effective number would be 49.5%. Thus, roughly 48-50% for the president, on average, from direct plurality, plus a largest party in House elections in the ~43% range, seem like good educated guesses if the US were to change to direct plurality, by way of the NPV, even without any change in the House electoral system.

Given that reform to PR normally follows, rather than leads, an increase in vote share to parties other than the majors, it is even possible that the NPV’s anticipated effect on the wider party system could generate momentum towards House electoral reform. But that is beyond the scope of this planting, which was simply intended to show that the currently under-fragmented House (according to the SPM) could be brought in line with expectations simply by making presidential elections direct via plurality.

A couple of caveats: First, the exercise here reveals that the multi-seat plurality system of the current electoral college could be a major drag on the party system at the moment, preventing the House from having the party system its seat product could support. However, we should not ignore the Senate. Given that the Senate is a co-equal chamber, parties need to organize with this body in mind, as well as with an eye towards seat-winning potential in the House. And the Senate seat product is ridiculously small. Even if it were taken to be 100, based on the Senate’s total size, that would be small–roughly the size of New Zealand’s before its electoral reform in the 1990s. However, it is worse than that: I think its seat product actually should be coded as 33, as that is the normal number of seats at stake in any given election. And if we run the SPM on a seat product of 33, we get an expected largest party seat share of 65% (!). Obviously, the actual is already normally well below that, at least in recent times. So that suggests that the more “permissive” House electoral system is already helping keep the Senate less dominated by one party than the Senate electoral system in isolation would.

The second caveat is that primaries also reduce party-formation incentives somewhat. But my working assumption is that ideological groups within the existing parties would bypass primaries for president if the latter were elected nationwide, and that the resulting new parties would want to show their flag in House elections, too, under such a scenario. Yes, of course, single-seat districts make life hard on smaller parties. But note that no single-seat plurality system in the world with a seat product greater than about 100 has a party system as dominated by two parties as the USA has. So small parties can find ways to win local pluralities. They just need to be unleashed. And plurality election of the president would help the House’s existing seat product do its thing.

Electoral reform is not happening soon. The NPV itself is likely off the table for now. Even if sufficient states (totaling at least 270 electoral votes) were to agree to enter into the compact, it presumably would take effect only with the approval of Congress. Thus as long as Republicans control the Senate, its chances are poor. Nonetheless, the issue will not go completely away (I hope!), and it is thus helpful to understand that just this one measure could break the dam of the rigid two-party system for elections to the national legislature, even without any reform of how the House is elected.

Thinking about the US method of presidential selection

Thinking about the US method of presidential selection is something I do a lot, and have written about before (both at F&V and in academic works). This planting won’t have any new ideas on the topic. However, I want to call readers’ attention to a “symposium” at Balkinization on the topic, which began on 13 October. The first entry there makes some good criticisms against the current method that are less commonly articulated–for instance, that the electoral college is vulnerable to “stalking horse candidates” and to the whims of billionaires with egos as big as their asset portfolios.

The symposium is motivated by a couple of new books on the topic (see at the top of their post), and has had further installments posted in subsequent days.

Thanks to Alan for the tip.

Tyranny of the minority

Excellent, succinct post by G. Elliot Morris about the fundamentally undemocratic (and, yes, unrepublican) nature of American political institutions.

Tyranny of the Minority

Despite what the founders intended, the Supreme Court is now fully able to be controlled by a significant minority of the country’s voters. Of course, it is not a popularly-elected branch of government, but there are costs associated with minoritarian rule that transcend the original intent of the founders.

[Excerpted from the post at Moriss’s blog]

 

PR for the electoral college? No thanks

The following is a guest post by Nathan Batto

One of the proposals sometimes mooted (by disaffected Democrats) is that electoral votes should be allotted proportionally within each state according to the popular vote. Obviously, since Clinton won the popular vote, she would then win the election!

Not so fast. Let’s run the numbers. There are several different formulae to calculate proportional representation. D’Hondt is quite favorable to big parties; Ste. Laguë is quite favorable to small parties.

Ste. Laguë: Clinton 264, Trump 262, Johnson 10, Stein 1, McMullin 1.
D’Hondt: Clinton 267, Trump 267, Johnson 2, Stein 1, McMullin 1.

In both cases, no one gets a majority. The race would then be thrown into the House, where each state delegation would get one vote. Since Republicans hold majorities in 31 state delegations, Trump would almost certainly be elected president.

Of course, this assumes that no voters changed their votes, but of course small parties would almost certainly get more votes under this system. What that would do is make it very, very hard for either big party to get 270 EVs. Almost every election would be thrown into the House, where the Republicans hold a structural advantage in state delegations due to their popularity in rural America (read: small states). In other words, this reform would make it much harder for the Democrats to win the presidency.

[Nathan notes that the exact numbers could change based on updated vote totals. See comments for a point regarding possible thresholds. –MSS]

Impact of hypothetical congressional-district allocation of US presidential electoral votes

In recent weeks there has been considerable attention to proposals by some Republican politicians to change the allocation of presidential electoral votes from statewide winner-take-all to congressional districts–at least in states where doing so would help Republicans. If this method had been used for all electoral votes in presidential contests from 1968 to 2008, what would its impact have been?

I happen to have district-level presidential votes for each of these elections (but not, yet, for 2012*). The graph below plots both the actual and hypothetical** electoral vote percentages for each party against the popular vote. Red for Republican, blue for Democrat. The solid symbols indicate the actual percentage of electoral votes obtained, while the open symbols indicate the hypothetical allocation by congressional district. The plotted curves are local regression (lowess) curves for each party under each condition (solid for actual, dashed for hypothetical).

EV graph 2pty

The exercise shows how any discussion of shifting to this method of allocation should be talked about for what it is: a GOP-biased proposal. Note that, under the actual allocation, the two curves are close to one another, at least through the part of the graph where it really matters–the relatively close elections. There does appear to be a slight Republican bias in the actual method, as that party’s line crosses over 50% of the electoral votes at almost exactly 50% of the (two-party) popular vote, while the curve for Democrats crosses over at just over 50% of the popular vote. In other words, the data plot predicts the Democrat needs a bigger vote lead to get the electoral vote majority. But the effect appears very small, consistent with what Thomas, King, Gelman, and Katz find.

However, under the hypothetical congressional-district allocation, there is a clear Republican bias. The Republican curve crosses over 50% of the electoral vote well to the left of the 50% popular-vote line, while that for Democrats does not break over 50% of the electoral vote until the party has a clear majority of the popular (two-party) vote.

The 2012 result is shown in the graph for the actual allocation, though I did not have the district data readily available. The 2012 result closely matches the fitted curve for the actual result. If it also matched the fitted curve for district allocation, the electoral-college result would have been very close indeed.***

Only in the case of landslides in the popular vote does the congressional-district method result in greater “proportionality”, as indicated by the flatter curve for congressional-district allocation. Otherwise, there is no sense in which the Republican proposal is “proportional“; rather, it is a partisan power grab. It is a power grab especially when employed only in states where the Republican candidate tends to have a better geographical spread of the votes in the state; it is a power grab even if employed for all electors, as assumed in the hypothetical allocations shown here.

Let’s turn to individual elections. Below is the change for the Republican candidate in electoral votes if the congressional-district method had been used instead of the actual statewide winner-take-all:

1968: -8
1972: -46
1976: 28
1980: -97
1984: -57
1988: -49
1992: 48
1996: 34
2000: 15
2004: 31
2008: 64

As we already saw from the graph, in landslide years, the Republican wins fewer electors via congressional districts. The only electoral-college landslides we have had during this time have been by the Republican candidate: 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988. All of these but 1980 were also huge wins in the popular vote. In every election since 1992, the Republican gains electors regardless of whether he wins or loses the actual election. He also gains in 1976. (In 1968, both major-party candidates lose electoral votes, as George Wallace obtains 56 under the congressional-district allocation, against the 46 he actually won.)

In 2004, despite its being a very close election, Bush would have won 317 electoral votes with a district plan, against the actual 286. His total also would have been better in 2000: 286 vs. the “actual” 271. Had Florida’s electors been awarded properly in 2000 under statewide allocation, Bush’s total would have been only 246, meaning that the congressional-district plan would have netted him 40 extra electors, despite losing the popular vote. That’s even more than his 31-elector gain in 2004, when he actually won the popular vote. (It might have been a slightly bigger change in 2000, as I am missing three districts that year: AR3, IN10 and LA2. For two of these, congressional votes are also missing; IN10, is a very safe Dem district in 2000 House race.)

Of course, an objection to any simulation such as this is that we do not know how campaign strategy might have changed under different rules. That is certainly true; if each House district actually would have awarded an electoral vote, campaigns would have targeted the marginal districts, some of which would have swung the other way. In other words, the votes themselves could have been different.

We can get a broad understanding of the opportunities for potentially swinging electoral votes by considering how often a district is marginal in the presidential contest.

There are 4,782 observations.**** There have been 730 the entire time that were decided by less than 5 percentage points (15.26%).

Of course, this varies a great deal by year, as shown below (number in parentheses indicates winner’s margin under a congressional-district allocation):

1968, 71 (104)
1972, 28 (410)
1976, 102 (2)
1980, 77 (247)
1984, 36 (398)
1988, 61 (216)
1992, 103 (106)
1996, 82 (152)
2000, 62 (37)
2004, 44 (96)
2008, 64 (64)

Obviously, 1976 could have been swung by district-focused campaigning: there were many more close districts than the margin (two electors!) that Carter would have won by under a district-based allocation. Not surprisingly, 2000 is another year when districts within the margin of 5% outnumbered the overall electoral-vote margin under the hypothetical allocation. In 2008 there are as many close districts as the electoral-vote margin, and in 1992 the two figures are within a few districts of one another. Looking only at these four elections, we can see which party had the greater number of marginal district wins.

year Rep Dem
1976 62 40
1992 46 57
2000 27 35
2008 37 27

This suggests that Bush’s district-based win in 2000 would have been relatively secure, as he had fewer close races to defend against the Gore campaign’s (hypothetical) district-swing efforts. And there would have been little risk of the Republican swinging the 1992 or 2008 outcome, though the Republican could have made the race closer. But 1976 really would have been a complete toss-up, depending on how various individual district contests turned out.

We might think that the candidate who trails in the popular vote would have more marginal districts to defend, but this is not true in either 1992 or 2000.

All in all, it is clear that congressional-district allocation of electors benefits one party more than the other, and that in a close election, the Republican candidate would be likely to have an advantage. The Republican might even be able to win with less than 49% of the two-party vote.

It is easy to see why Republicans might like a district-based electoral college. It is much harder to see why anyone would think it was a democratic (small or large d) improvement over the current method, bad though that may be.

I am actually somewhat happy that some Republicans have opened the issue of electoral-vote allocation. The country needs this conversation. However, what it needs is not one party pushing a plan that would be blatantly distorting in its favor. It needs the Democrats to engage the conversation, and come out in favor of the National Popular Vote plan, which would remove partisan bias from presidential elections.


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* See sixth comment, below.

** As is standard for such proposals, I assume that the winner of the statewide plurality of the popular vote would be awarded two electors, in addition to a number corresponding to the number of individual House districts won. Two small states, Maine and Nebraska, are the only two states to have used such an allocation in at least some of the years analyzed.

*** Andrew Gelman suggests that Romney might have won, given the “huge” distortion of congressional-district allocation.

**** Would be 435*11=4,785, if not for the missing districts.

What is “proportional” about robbing a majority winner of his majority?

Sent to The Los Angeles Times today, in response to an article that inaccurately refers to Republican proposals for several state’s allocation of electoral votes as “proportional systems”:

The LA Times refers today (Jan. 27) to Republican proposals in several states to replace statewide winner-take-all allocation of presidential electors with “a proportional system”.

These proposals are NOT proportional; they are still winner-take-all, but in each congressional district. As noted elsewhere in the article, had a district plan been in effect in 2012 Mitt Romney might have won 9 of Virginia’s 13 electors.

This means Barack Obama, who won 51.2% of the statewide vote, would have had barely 30% of the electors! This does not meet any standard of proportionality.

Even the House of Representatives, which is obviously allocated based on congressional districts, is not proportional: Democrats won the most House votes in 2012, but Republicans won a majority of seats.

Proportional representation is used by most of the world’s democracies. It produces allocations of political power that mirror how people actually vote. By contrast, the Republicans are proposing a house of mirrors to distort the vote for partisan advantage.

Presidential election

I completely forgot, but there was a significant presidential election yesterday, in a very large country with a very restricted electorate.

Just 538 voters cast ballots, a tiny fraction of the country’s adult population, but the only citizens constitutionally entitled to vote for the country’s chief executive.

Evidently, someone who was a mere state legislator just four years ago was the choice of this elite class of voters. Intriguing.

(Thanks to Steven for the reminder and inspiration.)

Let the electoral-college-reversal scenarios begin

Marc Ambinder outlines a scenario in which Barack Obama could win the popular vote while losing (legitimately) the electoral vote. Basically, the scenario rests on the assumption that Obama will turn out legions of new voters in safe Republican states like Mississippi and Texas, but not enough to swing such states. Thus he will build his national total without augmenting his electoral votes. (Meanwhile, presumably he will win the safe Democratic states by larger margins than Gore or Kerry did, which has the same effect on the outcome.)

I do not find the scenario plausible, even if it is theoretically quite possible. I find it implausible for two reasons. First of all, if there is any partisan bias in the electoral college over recent cycles, it is not clear to me that said bias does not favor the Democratic party. It is easy to forget, but in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the “Democratic lock” on the electoral college. The lesson of a stolen swing-state outcome and judicial coup d’etat in 2000, followed by an extremely narrow squeaker in 2004 (that was very close to a reversal in favor of the Democrat) should be a lesson in how fundamentally hard it is for the Republican to overcome that lock, rather than a lesson in how likely the Democrats are to fail to win electoral college majorities. Thus, if either candidate is more likely to win the popular vote but lose the electoral college in a close race, it is McCain. Quick: really, which states won by either Kerry or Gore do you think McCain is going to pick off? No, really? ((Nate’s simulations agree that a reversal favoring Obama is somewhat more likely than a reversal favoring McCain. He also notes that part of the reason is that while population shifts favor Republican-leaning states, the electoral college apportionment for 2008 is based in the 2000 census. Thus, Nate reasons, McCain will suffer from malapportionment that will cost him around 5 electoral votes. My “favors Democrats” (I would not say “lock”) argument does not depend on the lag in apportionment; rather, it stems from the tendency of larger states to be somewhat more likely to be Democratic leaning because they are more urban. That favors a Democratic candidate in the electoral college in a close race.))

That the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 saw a reversal against it as more likely than one favoring their ticket seemed to me likely at the time from their strategic behavior late in the campaign. They were on the air in California, a state they had no chance to win, but where a higher Republican turnout would increase their chances of winning the popular vote even if (as expected) Gore-Lieberman ran the table on the relatively large swing states, including Florida. ((It was also plausible, given that Ralph Nader was expected to win more than the paltry 2.7% of the vote that he did win nationally. Of course, much more and he might have “spoiled” Oregon and Wisconsin. The point simply is that Gore, late in the campaign, was moving into pretty good position in the electoral college, even as the popular vote remained tight. See the discussion and my comment at Brendan Nyhan.))

Ambinder suggests that the Democratic party and the public might not take a reversal against the Democrats so passively as in 2000 if it happened again. ((Even if it happened legitimately, as his scenario outlines.)) He asks, “can the two-party system sustain another disparity?” I would most certainly hope not!

But there is a more fundamental reason why I do not find plausible Ambinder’s scenario. I do not find the scenario plausible for a very simple reason: I think Barack Obama is likely to win at least 53% of the two-candidate vote. ((No simulations, no models. Just a gut feeling. Check back later.)) That will produce, if not quite the blowout that a large popular-vote margin would produce in the past, a resounding win in the electoral college.
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Sen. Nelson of Florida: The time for reform is now

Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat (and pro-Clinton delegate) of Florida, speaking today before his state’s legislature:

A year ago, you passed a bill to move Florida’s presidential primary to an early date on the national election calendar. Your thinking was to give our large and diverse state – a microcosm of America – more of a say in the selection of the presidential nominees.

And we all know what happened: Both national parties decided to punish Florida, because their rules reserved early presidential contests to a handful of other states.

Having failed to get an agreement on a mail-in re-vote, he is now proposing that his party:

divvy up the equivalent of half of Florida’s delegates from the Jan. 29 results. This is allowed by the Democratic rules and was done by the GOP. ((This seems like a reasonable idea to me, even as an Obama supporter, and even coming from a Clinton delegate. But what about Michigan? There, unlike Florida, Obama (and let’s not forget Edwards) were not on the ballot, and the turnout was minuscule.))

But he is thinking bigger:

If nothing else, this election has provided further evidence that our system is broken…

Last fall, I filed legislation in the U.S. Senate requiring that no vote for federal office be cast on a touch-screen voting machine starting in 2012. I also joined the senior senator from Michigan, Carl Levin, to propose a system of six rotating primaries from March to June in each presidential election year.

And very soon I will file a broader-based election-reform bill.

This new legislation will abolish the Electoral College and give citizens direct election of their president by popular vote. Additionally, six, rotating interregional primaries ((Not an idea I am fond of, but worth a look.)) will give large and small states a fair say in the nomination process. The legislation will establish early voting in every state. It will eliminate machines that don’t produce a voting paper trail. It will allow every qualified voter in every state to cast an absentee ballot, if they want. And it will give grants to states that develop mail-in balloting and secure Internet voting.

Naturally, that was me emphasizing the most important part. It has been a while since a Senator has raised this issue. It is about time.

Yet the more promising path than a bill in Congress (which, for the electoral college, would have to be a constitutional amendment) is one on which he missed an opportunity today: advocating that this own state’s legislature join the National Popular Vote compact.
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NJ developments

By way of a couple of blogs I checked at lunch time, I see it has been a very good week in the New Jersey legislature.

    NJ Assembly passes National Popular Vote (see TDP)

    NJ To End Pointless Expensive Boondoggle (abolishing the death penalty; see LGM).

Democracy and human rights, all in the same week! (The NPV measure has not yet been voted in the NJ Senate. The death penalty measure has cleared both houses and the governor has said he will sign it.)

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.