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.

Presidential election with distribution (or Even troubled democracies can offer us good ideas)

There may not seem to be much that Americans can learn from Nigeria about how to conduct elections and democracy, but even troubled democracies can offer valuable lessons. In fact, the more troubled democracies are precisely the ones where the political engineer’s craft is most likely to be applied, and from their efforts we may be able to draw more general propositions and political-reform ideas. Such is the case with Nigeria’s method of reconciling federalism and presidentialism.

Those in the USA who like the regional/federalist implications of the electoral college but who recognize the inferiority of the state-by-state winner-take-all method used here currently should take note of the “distribution requirement” used in Nigeria.

In addition to a nationwide plurality, to be elected president of Nigeria a candidate must have obtained a minimum of 25% of the votes in at least two thirds of the subnational units of the federation (there are 36 states and a capital territory).

Variants of distribution requirements can also be found in Indonesia and Kenya.

One aspect of Nigeria’s rule that should not be emulated is the requirement that the runoff be repeated if neither candidate has met the distribution in the second round.* If the distribution cannot be met in either of two rounds, it is unlikely to be met in a third, and thus the rule sensibly should allow the result to be definitive in two rounds. Indonesia and Kenya do not have this feature, meaning that they encourage distribution by requiring it in order for a candidate to be elected in the first round, but their runoffs are by simple majority.

A potentially useful innovation on this rule might be to permit a candidate ranked lower than second in overall national first-round votes to be the vote-leader’s runoff opponent if he or she had a better distribution (however defined) than the runner up.

If a distribution requirement were to be considered for future direct elections of the US President, what should the requirement be? The vote threshold in the minimum number of states would need to be much higher than the 25% (of whatever number of states) to have any effect. The idea would be to discourage candidates from campaigning primarily in a few big states that would be sufficient to secure a national plurality (the fear of opponents of reform**) while simultaneously eliminating the incentive to campaign primarily in a few “swing” states (one of the main flaws of the current system).

Despite the potential strategic and practical benefits of a reform proposal along these lines, I have never seen a distribution requirement even mentioned in debates on reforming/abolishing the US electoral college. Let the debate begin right here in this orchard!

* Thanks to Jonathan for correcting an earlier error here (and also for noting that the other African country with a distribution requirement is Kenya, as the revision here now states). The value of peer review!

** I do not believe it is a justified fear, only that it is expressed by proponents of the status quo. (As earlier plantings in the electoral college and national popular vote block have made clear, there is evidence that even in some smallish states, the legislatures are not buying that argument. Does that mean distribution is unnecessary, even strategically? Let’s see how many other small/medium states agree to pass NPV before answering that.)

Final remark on Nigeria: As I note in a separate planting earlier today, the distribution requirement is not likely to matter in this year’s election. In fact, the election could turn out to be a debacle, with the opposition divided and having faced alleged fraud in the recent state elections. The problems of this current electoral cycle in Nigeria are in no way connected to the distribution requirement, which was an innovation of those who engineered the country’s first presidential constitution (in the 1970s) and were looking for ways to alleviate the regional conflicts that had led to the collapse of the post-independence parliamentary system amid secession and civil war.

National Popular Vote progress

In past discussions here at F&V on the National Popular Vote plan for US presidential elections, some opponents have suggested that it is a bad idea to have democratic elections for the nation’s highest office, on grounds that it would result in low-population states being ignored. The view is apparently not universally shared. Consider this item on Montana, where the NPV bill just cleared a key committee in the upper house:

Republican Sen. Rick Laible and other supporters said the change would make Montana and other sparsely populated states more of a factor in presidential races and could increase voter turnout. [my emphasis]

The NPV organization has a page devoted to tracking the progress of an idea whose time has come.


Greg commented that it was unclear how a less populous state like Montana would gain from NPV. This is a good point, and I had the same thought. I initially answered at the seedbed, but I might as well put it here.

The basic response would be that we–myself included, apparently–are so stuck in the state-interest paradigm that we hardly think of presidential elections, or presidential-election mechanisms, in any other way. But interests that transcend state boundaries are inherently under-represented by the electoral college, relative to a popular vote.

Under current arrangements, if an election were very close in both the Electoral College and Montana, the state could be targeted by campaigns. Otherwise, it is likely to be taken for granted, given only 3 electoral votes (and normal Republican leanings in presidential elections, though not necessarily safely so).

My priors would be that NPV is something of a wash for a state like Montana–thinking in terms of state interests, that is. I can’t get inside Sen. Laible’s mind, but following is one example of what he could be thinking of in the remarks quoted above.

If issues of concern to voters in the Intermountain West become more important in future elections, candidates would pay attention to them even if such issues were unlikely to swing Montana’s own vote plurality (or those of any other single state in the region).

That is, NPV would allow various broad regional interests that transcend state boundaries to be more electorally relevant than they are now.

Governator Terminates National Popular Vote

As reported in the New York Times on 2 October, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have added his state to the proposed interestate compact under which states would agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. (The compact itself would take effect if, and only if, laws enabling it had been passed in states comprising at least 270 electoral votes, the number needed to elect a President.)

The veto is not surprising, as–unlike in various other states–for some reason the issue became a partisan issue in this state, and Republicans refused to vote for it in the legislature. I have addressed the merits of this idea before, as well as the utter speciousness of the arguments against it.

The short story is that it is a means by which states–which are constitutionally empowered to appoint their electors by rules of their own choosing–would commit to one another that they would back the national winner. Thus, without either a constitutional amendment or any kind of “end run” on the constitution (as some opponents have rather hysterically called it), we could transform our electoral process for chief executive into a democratic vote of the people.

Under the current system, the number of competitive states has been dwindling. We have ceased having national campaigns for the national executive as a result. In a large state like California, the campaign is virtually invisible, because the state is not competitive between the two main parties.

Under the national popular vote, a vote that might be cast by any citizen anywhere in the country would be just as valuable as that of any other, anywhere else. (One person, one vote–get it?) For some, democracy is still too threatening. Unfortunately, that includes the governor of our largest state–a governor who likes to style himself as a government reformer, and who was himself elected in a jurisdiction-wide plurality popular vote without the intermediation of electors (or even party primaries). If a vote for governor cast in Los Angeles can count just as much as one cast in Alturas, why can’t the vote cast in Alturas for president count as much as one cast in Cincinnati? The state-by-state, winner-take-all, rule for electing the most powerful leader in the world defies all logic, and indeed, the founders of the nation’s political system never defended it (to my knowledge).*

Why did this become a partisan issue in this state? I challenge my readers to tell me why Republicans–here or anywhere–believe their party would be harmed by this measure. Are they not aware that Bush won over 50% of the vote in 2004, yet nearly lost the electoral college in Ohio?

Are the Republicans right to believe that 2004 was an aberration and that they can win in the future only if the campaign is concentrated in a few states and not national? It is possible that the answer is yes, but advocates of democratizing America need to call them on it. Because “my party can’t win” is not an acceptable argument against democratic electoral reform.

* In fact, some years after the electoral college had gone into operation, Thomas Jefferson noted how states were unwilling to dilute their own particularistic influence for the good of the nation: As long as other states give all their electors to the winner–by whatever vote share or margin–within their own state, no state has an incentive to do anything else. The national popular vote compact solves this dilemma.

California Assembly approves NPV

The California Assembly passed the bill that would enter the state into an interstate compact for electing the US President according to the National Popular Vote plan. The plan would take effect only after it became law in states combining for a majority of electoral votes.

Surprisingly, the bill passed, 49-31, and obtained only one Republican vote in the chamber. There is no objective reason why this should be a partisan issue, and in fact, in New York’s state legislature it was a Republican who introduced the bill. Similarly, in Illinois and Colorado and other states, many Republicans support the concept of the National Popular Vote.

Over at the Fair Vote blog (see grafted link at the bottom of the post), there is an absolutely hysterical quote from a California Republican, John Doolittle, about how “the left is nothing if not creative” and is using this as a ploy to turn elections into “into populist referendums [that] will benefit their candidates.”

Well, that is refreshing, in one sense. It apparently is admission that Democrats are likely to be more popular than Republicans and so Republicans can win only with an electoral college that distorts the electorate’s choice and occasionally overrides the popular vote. Now, that’s an interesting argument given that his party’s candidate in fact won a majority of the popular vote in 2004, yet nearly lost the electoral college. The Kerry campaign put almost all its effort into a few states, while the Bush campaign was much more national in scope. Kerry almost swung Ohio, and if he had, Bush’s popular majority would have been irrelevant.

Moreover, the 2000 result also could have gone the other way, and, at the time, Republicans acted as though they thought such an event was likely. How else to explain the sudden ad purchase in California–a state that Bush had no chance to win–late in the campaign, if it was not an attempt to lift the popular vote nationaly? When the election was clearly going to the wire, and Ralph Nader was potentially cutting into Al Gore’s popular vote, but Gore was expected to run the table on most of the swing states (including Florida), media reports started to appear that this could be the year that the popular vote and electoral vote go separate ways. But the most likely outcome was a Gore electoral vote win and a Bush popular vote win–which presumably Bush would have used to political advantage in any post-election contest. Instead, Gore legitimately won both, but the Supreme Court intervened, and some Republicans like Doolittle have developed a folklore that their party can win only by keeping the electoral college as we know it.

The question of electoral vs. popular vote is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue. It is simply false to assume that the electoral college benefits small states and Republicans, as though those were one and the same. Republicans do slightly better in smaller states, which are over-represented in the electoral college, but Delaware and Hawaii are small states that are safe for Democrats. And, precisely because Democrats are indeed marginally stronger than Republicans in larger (more urban) states, and because the electoral college is currently chosen on a statewide winner-take-all basis in all the large states (and all but two of the entire 50), if one party benefits from the status quo institutional arrangement over the long haul, it is the Democrats. More likely, there is no systematic partisan bias to the current procedures, as the impact depends on the extent to which the partisan and state maps interact with one another in a given election. What we do have is a perpetual risk of having small numbers of votes in critical swing states, instead of national preference swings, determine the national executive.

The effective confinement of the campaign to a few swing states is what 2000 and 2004 have in common, and neither election would have resulted in post-election controversy had it been decided based on the national vote.

US Presidential elections: National Popular Vote

Today marked the launch of a plan to promote a citizen- and state-driven approach to changing the archaic and anti-democratic manner in which the United States currently elects its president: National Popular Vote. The idea was launched via C-Span this morning, and the program will be repeated. Check the C-Span schedule for times.

I will have much more to say about this in the near future. For now, I am just flagging the existence of the campaign, and a book released today (most of which I have already read eagerly, courtesy of an advance copy). The short version of the story is that the proposal is to avoid the (also archaic and anti-democratic, as well as cumbersome) process of amending the constitution, and have states enter into interstate compacts. Once a sufficiently high number of states has entered into such a compact, the states in question would change, under their Article II authority, the means by which they appoint electors such that the electors would go to the winner of the national popular vote (even if that ticket were not the winner of the popular vote within any given state). Voila, you have de facto direct vote (by plurality rule).

That last part–plurality rule–is an Achilles heal of the proposal, in the event of a three-way race. But there is no way I can see to mandate a runoff, whether in two rounds or “instant.” Congress would have to act to allow a second round of voting. (I do not believe doing so would require a constitutional amendment.) Most certainly, the instant runoff (alternative vote) favored by many American political reformers could not be adopted through the NPV plan. No allocation method, aside from the current state-by-state method, can be based on votes cast in any subset of the states. Thus I don’t see a way to implement this other than with plurality; we can determine the national popular-vote winner, just as we now do, and states in the compact–once they amount to states with 270 electoral votes–can each award all their electors to the candidate with the national-vote plurality. Efforts to use something other than plurality would have to await all states joining a compact that also covered the voting rules within the states, or else a constitutional amendment. One step at a time…

Anyway, more to come, for sure. This is an exciting, innovative proposal.