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David Weakliem on the U.S. electoral college

The sociologist and public opinion researcher has a series of excellent posts here, here, and here on the electoral college. Here’s the start:

The Electoral College has been in the news recently. I [Weakliem] am going to write a post about public opinion on the Electoral College vs. popular vote, but I was diverted into writing about the arguments offered in favor of it.

An editorial in the National Review says “it prevents New York and California from imposing their will on the rest of the country.” Taken literally, that is ridiculous–those two states combined had about 16% of the popular vote in 2016. But presumably the general idea is that the Electoral College makes it harder for a small number of large states to provide a victory. . . . In 2016, 52% of the popular vote came from 10 states: California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia (in descending order of number of votes). In the Electoral College, those states combined had 256 electoral votes–in order to win, you would need to add New Jersey (14). Even if you think the difference between ten and eleven states is important, the diversity of the ten biggest states is striking–there’s no way a candidate could win all of them without winning a lot of others.

Good point. Weakliem continues:

The National Review also says that the Electoral College keeps candidates from “retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score.” That assumes that it’s easier to add to your lead when you already have a lead than when you are close or behind. That may be true in some sports, but in getting votes it seems that things would be more likely to go in the other direction–if you don’t have much support in a place, you have little to lose and a lot to gain. If it made any difference, election by popular vote would probably encourage parties to look outside their “preferred pockets”–e.g., the Republicans might try to compete in California rather than write it off.

I’d not thought of that before, but that sounds right. I guess we’re assuming there’s no large-scale cheating. There could be a concern that one-party-dominant states could cheat in the vote counting, or even more simply by making it harder for voters of one party to vote. Then again, this already happens, so if cheating is a concern, I think the appropriate solution is more transparency in vote counting and in the rules for where people can vote.

Weakliem then talks about public opinion:

There is always more support for abolishing [the electoral college] than keeping it—until 2016, a lot more. . . . The greatest support for abolishing it (80%) was in November 1968, right after the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, which had the goal of preventing an Electoral College majority. The election of 2000 had much less impact on opinions that 2016, maybe because of the general increase in partisanship since 2000.

A lot of recent commentary has treated abolishing the Electoral College as a radical cause, but the public generally likes the idea. . . .

But:

I suspect that most people don’t have strong opinions, and will just follow their party, so that if it becomes a significant topic of debate there will be something close to a 50/50 split.

And then he breaks things down a bit:

The percent in favor of electing the president by popular vote in surveys ending on October 9, 2011 and November 20, 2016:

2011 2016
Democrats 74% 77%
Independents 70% 60%
Republicans 53% 28%

Weakliem presented these numbers to the fractional decimal place, but that is poor form given that variation in these numbers is much more than 1 percentage point, so it would be like reporting your weight as 193.4 pounds.

One thing I do appreciate is that Weakliem just presents the Yes proportions. Lots of times, people present both Yes and No rates, which gives you twice as many numbers to wade through, and then comparisons become much more difficult. So good job on the clean display.

Anyway, he continues with some breakdowns by state:

I used the 2011 survey to look for factors affecting state-level support. I considered number of electoral votes, margin of victory, and region. Support for the electoral college was somewhat higher in small states, which is as expected since it gives their voters more weight. There was no evidence that being in a state where the vote was close made any difference . . . Finally, the only regional distinction that appeared to matter was South vs. non-South. That makes some sense, since despite the talk about “coastal enclaves” vs. “heartland,” the South is still the most regionally distinctive part, and southerners may think that the electoral college protects their regional interests . . .

Funny that support for the electoral college isn’t higher in swing states. It’s not that I think swing-state voters are so selfish that they want the electoral college to preserve their power; it’s more the opposite, that I’d think voters in non-swing states would get annoyed that their votes don’t count. But, hey, I guess not: voters are thinking at the national, not the state level.

Lots more to look at here, I’m sure; also this is an instructive example of how much can be learned by looking carefully at available data.

P.S. I’m posting this now rather than with the usual 6-month delay, not because the subject is particularly topical—if anything, I expect it will become more topical as we go forward toward the next election—but because it demonstrates this general point of learning from observational data by looking at interesting comparisons and time trends. I’d like to have this post up, so I can point students to it when they are thinking of projects involving learning from social science data.

25 Comments

  1. D Kane says:

    > I guess we’re assuming there’s no large-scale cheating.

    1) That is a very bad assumption and one that the Founders were unwilling to make. In fact, you really need a stronger assumption: That there will be no widespread suspicion of large-scale cheating, since suspicion alone is death to republican government. How much faith do New Yorkers of your acquaintance have in the honesty of Republican office holders in Texas?

    2) This is false empirically, c.f. history.

  2. Collin says:

    People objecting to the Electoral College are mindlessly objecting to the fundamental principle & structure of the “United States” nation, as specified in the U.S. Constitution.

    Both the Senate and Electoral College were designed to reflect a federal rather than a unitary government system, so complaining about them is pointless … unless you make a thorough argument for a unitary system in the American context instead of just presuming its superiority. (17th Amendment was a huge mistake)

    None of the Electoral College opponents realize how the United States nation was conceptualized and instituted — they just casually assume the popular vote will deliver better Presidents and better government — they want their guys to win power … and object to electoral systems that do not meet that objective.

    British and most Parliamentary systems do not elect their national chief executives by popular vote — but nobody thinks that is a big problem.

    • Andrew says:

      Collin:

      1. Lots of things were specified in the U.S. constitution. But then the constitution’s had lots of amendments. Opponents of the electoral college recognize that it’s in the constitution; the point is they want to change it.

      2. You might not agree with these people but their objections are not “mindless.” You can disagree with someone without thinking that their arguments are mindless.

      • Collin says:

        1.
        yes, obviously the Constitution could be changed … but fundamental changes should be carefully considered.
        When many Americans cannot name their U.S. Congressional representatives nor the three branches of government — it’s difficult to trust vague convenience polls assessing national views of the Electoral College.
        You do not “know” that a majority “they” want to change the Electoral College.

        2.
        ‘mindless’ in the sense of being unfocused & lacking factual context.

        If you are sitting in a Chinese restaurant and objecting to the absence of Mexican food items on the menu — you are mindlessly missing important context of that situation.

    • >but nobody thinks that is a big problem.

      I do!

      There’s lots of things I think shouldn’t be changed in the constitution, most of them are about guaranteeing individual rights. As far as structure of the organization goes, there’s nothing fundamental human-rights about having say a senate and a house…

      If elected king of the world for a day, I would immediately make election of people to the US govt be on the basis of score voting and divide the country into say 5 regions each of which have within a small margin of equal numbers of residents. The top 100 scores across the country would get senate seats, the next 400 would get house seats. Only people matter, not borders or acres.

    • Bill Jefferys says:

      I think it is simplistic to lay it all down to federal vs. unitary government system.

      It is evident, if you go back and review the writings of those that wrote the Constitution in the first place, that a major factor in the adoption of the electoral college was the issue of slavery. Approximately half the states depended heavily on slavery for their economic welfare, and half had pretty much discarded it economically (although slavery did exist, although in small numbers). The heavily slave (Southern) states actually had a larger population than the Northern states, but a large number of those were slaves who could not vote. The notorious “3/5 Compromise” roughly equalized the power of the slave and non-slave states in the House of Representatives, and the power of the slave and non-slave states was already about equal in the Senate. So the electoral college preserved that rough equality between the slave and free states.

      It is clear that without the 3/5 Compromise, there could have been no union (this was discussed at the time). Had the fraction been 0/5 (slaves didn’t count), the South would never had gone along with the Constitution, and had it been 5/5 (slaves counted fully) the North would never have gone along with it. Either of these numbers would have left one or the other of the two major groups of states fully in charge, which would not have been acceptable to the other group.

      So to ignore the issue of slavery in the establishment of the electoral college is, in my view, a huge mistake.

    • Corey says:

      Canadian here, living under that Westminster parliamentary system you’re using to defend the Electoral College. I think it’s true that most people under this sort of system aren’t interested in direct election of the Prime Minister, but our system of first-past-the-post election of members of parliament in combination with various evolving fractures along the political spectrum has often resulted in the election of a Prime Minister who is the *least* favoured choice of a plurality of voters, and this is indeed viewed as a problem among people who think about electoral reform.

    • Chris says:

      All well and good but why not keep Congress growing with the population as the Constitution dictates? If there were no cap of 435 Congressional seats, then the number of Electors would more closely follow the population as originally intended. Its been nearly 100 years since the seats were capped at 435, with the commensurate decline in power of the populous states and gain to the most rural.

      A common sense increase like the Wyoming Rule (# of seats must be set so there is a common ratio of population to Congressional representatives based on the least populous state) would re-balance the Electors by adding just over 100 seats. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyoming_Rule for more details.

  3. Joe says:

    I think the one compelling argument for the EC is that by concentrating the campaign in a handful of swing states it reduces the costs and reduces the returns to the side with more money.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Not from the USA so this is likely a stupid point but

      I think the one compelling argument for the EC is that by concentrating the campaign in a handful of swing states it reduces the costs and reduces the returns to the side with more money.

      seems to imply that anyone in the other states are essentially disenfranchised?

      I must be getting that wrong.

      • Matt says:

        They’re only as ‘disenfranchised’ as any voter whose vote doesn’t tip the balance and change the result — i.e. every voter in almost every election. The only difference is that campaigners know in advance that some races won’t be close. The voters in those races still matter as much as any other voters — if enough of them change their minds, the result will change — it’s just that we’re pretty confident that not enough of them will change their minds, (almost) regardless of how the campaign goes.

        • jrkrideau says:

          Okay. This is going to sound rude, but, if I read that correctly, they are not completely disenfranchised but just abandoned by their parties?

          I realize I am wrong but my impressions are formed by coming from a parliamentary system where one normally will fight each riding no matter what since we do not have the larger, state, issue. And who knows, this time the horse may talk.

          The two systems are so different that I just have problems envisioning the US system. Possibly in a couple of hundred years I may understant primaries.

          • Andrew says:

            Jkrideau:

            I think the best way to understand this discussion is at the meta-level. The electoral college as it currently exists—a system for tallying and weighting votes by state—does not seem like anything that could be justified on its own. It evolved from the original idea which is that the president would be elected by a group of elected representatives. But, now that the electoral college, with all its flaws, exists, it’s natural that there is resistance to changing it. Some of the resistance is institutional (it’s not easy to amend the constitution), some of it is based on political expediency (criticism of the electoral college can be taken as a criticism of the legitimacy of the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections), some of it is based on distrust of the natural alternative, and some of it comes from a general conservatism or desire to not change existing institutions except when absolutely necessary.

            I agree with you that it’s odd, to say the least, for someone to try to claim as a positive feature the fact that most voters in the U.S. live in states where they have essentially no chance of influencing the presidential election. I would not take that claim at face value; rather, I’d guess that the people making that claim are arguing from general principles of not wanting to make big changes to the system, and are just searching around for any available arguments in favor of what we currently have.

            To put it another way: I think it’s also a reasonable position to say that the electoral college should go, but I also to think it’s a reasonable position to say the electoral college should stay. But I think the reason for keeping the electoral college is not because it’s a good idea in itself, and certainly not because it’s a good idea that many people live states are so far from the national median that their votes just don’t count, but rather on the general principle that amending the constitution should be difficult, and that it’s better to have stability.

            • Joe says:

              Joe here again. For what it’s worth, I would certainly support abolishing the electoral college, and I wasn’t making or attempting to make the sort of argument you suggest. My only point was that this is the one argument for the electoral college I find somewhat compelling (and much more compelling than the sort of argumentation more often put forward).

              Unlike the extreme disproportionality of the two senators per state rule (which I think is utterly indefensible on democratic principles), the electoral college provides a relatively small deviation from proportionality. So, given that it’s only modestly undemocratic, I think it’s possible to justify the electoral college (or something like it) in a first principles way if it advances other important interests. I don’t think anyone is going to seriously argue for a lexicographic ordering of majoritarianism over all other democratic values and no system represents such a principle.

              There are any number of first principles other than pure majoritarianism that an electoral system could serve from the perspective of democratic theory. Minority rights/prevention of is probably the most important of these, but it’s not one that the electoral college advances in any meaningful sense (it testifies to the power of the goal that some people try to defend the EC along these lines). Some people think that delivering “decisive” results is important because it confers legitimacy, so you can say that the EC is good because it turns a narrow popular vote margin into a more impressive-looking EC margin. Maybe that’s a legitimate interest, but I suspect the EC does not actually accomplish this given that the popular vote is widely reported and probably is better understood as the source of an electoral mandate. Similarly, and I’ll get to this below, many see the deliberative process as a democratic good.

              Reducing the role of money in politics is, so far as I and many other Americans are concerned, also an important value. I think it’s hard for people coming from other systems to get the immensity of money in American politics. I’m guessing Jkrideau is from Canada (given the reference to ridings), where strict legal limits prevent spending more than a few hundred thousand dollars in a single district. The national sum total of the current candidate spending limits (https://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=pol&document=cand&dir=limits/limitcannov1518&lang=e) is $36.4 million, so even if two candidates in every riding spent the absolute maximum that would add up to less than what Sheldon Adelson personally spent on the 2016 election. So, for many Americans, if some institutional arrangement can reduce the role of money in politics that’s seen as a good thing.

              Imagine, hypothetically, that we could identify the median voter nationally or the median two dozen voters or something. Might it not be reasonable for these people to sit down for a weekend with the two candidates, grapple with the issues in depth, and choose a winner? We thereby get a somewhat more deliberative process and eliminate the corrosive influence of money in politics. In practice, of course, this would itself be highly susceptible to manipulation (how will we actually select the median voter?) and raises legitimacy concerns in terms of giving no voice to other voters. But it’s not a terrible structure on its face. And in other contexts (e.g. juries), we attempt to proxy for the population by using some representative subset that can be given increased information and time for deliberation. There’s actually quite a bit of support among theorists for democracy by lot (“sortition”). Whether or not you like the concept, it’s certainly a reasonable one, justifiable from first principles.

              If you accept general concept of delegation to representative agents, then the Electoral College is a generally reasonable real-world approximation. We delegate the choosing process to the swing states, whose median voter will inherently be quite close to the national median. Precise features of these swing states will vary, but at least in terms of attitudes toward the candidates, the swing states will inherently be fairly representative of the nation taken as a whole. Campaigns then focus almost exclusively on the swing states, which reduces the advantages to money, and also increases the visibility of the campaign in the place where it will be decided. I don’t actually know the empirical literature on this point, but I assume that voters in swing states end up being more informed about the election than matched voters in noncompetitive states. So, on balance, you end up with a process that hews a bit closer to deliberative ideals.

              And let’s note that the idea of delegation to representative agents who proxy for the median voter is deeply baked into the US (and most other) systems. Congressional roll calls often do not reach the same result as a national referendum would (hard to say how this compares overall to the chances that the EC and popular vote will diverge) and we’re fine with that because we recognize that other values intervene.

              If you buy all of that (and, again, my only point is that it’s reasonable not necessarily persuasive), then it still leaves the question of why we, in effect, delegate to states rather than individuals. Here, there’s not as clear a first principles case, but it makes sense to delegate to geographically contiguous areas given the way campaigns operate. So, you could just as plausibly argue for an electoral college that’s defined by media markets or metropolitan areas rather than states, but states are extant, geographically compact, and meaningful entities so allowing the electoral college to aggregate at the state level is probably as reasonable as any other choice.

              • Elio says:

                “Imagine, hypothetically, that we could identify the median voter nationally or the median two dozen voters or something. Might it not be reasonable for these people to sit down for a weekend with the two candidates, grapple with the issues in depth, and choose a winner?”

                You should read Isacc Asimov’s short story Franchise. From wikipedia:

                > In the future, the United States has converted to an “electronic democracy” where the computer Multivac selects a single person to answer a number of questions. Multivac will then use the answers and other data to determine what the results of an election would be, avoiding the need for an actual election to be held.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    I don’t think we have much evidence one way or the other about whether it’s easier to find more votes in your natural home territory or not. That’s because the presence of the electoral college so greatly attenuates total votes in noncompetitive states. If we assume that those that didn’t vote would have cast votes proportionately to those who did, then the prospect of finding more Democratic votes in CA or Republican votes in TX is a pretty good one. On the other hand, if the discouraged are disproportionately the losers then I think Weakliem’s objection to “preferred pockets” makes sense. I guess I lean towards the former — get out the vote efforts make little sense when you’re going to win the state anyway, but might be very valuable without the EC.

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      There’s some relevant evidence from governor and senate races.

      • Jonathan (another one) says:

        Interesting. Can you point me to some literature about this? Because the implication is that you can manipulate the Presidential vote in a particular state (without affecting the identity of the winner) by running noncompetitive down-ticket races.

        • Andrew says:

          Jonathan:

          I haven’t looked at this in detail, but it’s said that one reason Clinton got such a huge majority in California in 2016 was that there were no Republicans running competitive statewide races. There was a competitive Senate election but both candidates were Democrats.

  5. Matt says:

    > I guess we’re assuming there’s no large-scale cheating. There could be a concern that one-party-dominant states could cheat in the vote counting, or even more simply by making it harder for voters of one party to vote. Then again, this already happens, so if cheating is a concern, I think the appropriate solution is more transparency in vote counting and in the rules for where people can vote.

    I don’t think the last sentence is right. ‘Then again, this already happens’ — doesn’t this support the original point, rather than weaken it? This already happens, but it’s not as big a deal as it would be without the electoral college, so the electoral college is doing some good here. (And ‘the appropriate solution is more transparency in vote counting and in the rules for where people can vote’ is probably right, but if this first-best solution hasn’t been achieved so far, it would be rash to do away with the existing second-best solution.)

  6. Roy says:

    Interesting that everyone seems to forget that the original US Constitution was the Articles of Confederation that had a unicameral legislature. It is an interesting read which groups, socially and economically, did not like the Articles and pushed for the constitution as we know it now.

  7. nzhagen says:

    There is one practical reason for keeping the electoral college that I found convincing: recounts. If the election is close, then one side may demand a recount. With a nationwide popular vote, this involves an enormous task. While the electoral college increases the chance of recounts by having 50 vote tallies rather than 1, it also reduces their burden to recounting only individual states. And, in practice, only swing states could practically expect a recount, whereas states like California and Texas will not see a recount without large changes in existing voter preferences.

    • Brent Hutto says:

      To my mind this (recount burden) is the only meaningful advantage that the Electoral College design has over a straight, nationwide popular vote. But that one advantage is IMO a huge one, in practical terms.

      The main disadvantage, again in my opinion, is that the Electoral College thing would never, ever be created if starting from first principles to design an election system today. But sometimes even a stupid historical legacy system works out better than any practical alternative. This may be one of those cases.

  8. Joshua Pritikin says:

    Regardless of the merits of the electoral college, it’s going away. States worth just an additional 86 electoral votes (270-184) need to join the state compact to switch to a national popular vote, https://www.nationalpopularvote.com

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