Tuesday, November 27, 2012

No need to defend a flawed system

In an editorial Monday, the Denver Post defended the Electoral College, writing,
Until such time as candidates regularly start landing in the Oval Office despite having lost the popular vote, there is little reason to change course on the Electoral College.
I suppose this all depends on what we mean by "regularly," but in four instances -- 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000 -- the Electoral College chose a president despite the plurality of voters having preferred someone else. This represents roughly seven percent of all the presidential elections held in this country. It is difficult to imagine us designing a voting system today in which the plurality winner was denied the office roughly one out of every 14 times a vote was held. If a blackjack table awarded the pot to the player with the lower hand seven percent of the time, we would complain that the system was rigged. And yet this is the system we are asked to uphold every four years, all in the name of providing extra political power to states with fewer residents.

Sorry. Not a fan. I'll concede that no voting system is perfect, but there's a large gap between "imperfect" and "occasionally producing wildly perverse results."


  1. But you don't *really* know how many times the EC has produced a perverse result, since the campaigns build their strategies around the incentive structure. Ex ante, it is just as possible that the plurality winner in 1876, 1888, and 2000 would have lost in a popular vote system had the campaigns been approaching it that way (1824, with the lack of popular-vote states, should probably be treated as a separate problem). Likewise, there are perhaps elections (1960? 1976?) in which the EC winner matched the popular vote winner, but under a popular vote system, the other candidate would have won.

    This isn't to dismiss your point, but I think it's more complicated than saying 1/14 of the time we've had a result contrary to some perceived popular choice. It could be far less than that, or far more.

  2. True, we can't really know what would have happened in those elections absent the Electoral College. By their nature, split elections are very close, so small perturbations could have led to different results. Still, I'm quite confident that the percentage would have been zero if presidential elections were determined by popular vote.

  3. This isn't quite right. Jackson in 1824 did get a plurality of the popular vote, but he also got a plurality in the Electoral College, just not a majority. This lead the House of Representatives to choose the President, since no candidate won a majority of the electors.

  4. Fair point, Star15389. I should have more accurately stated that the Electoral College system allowed for the selection of a president with minority support in 1824, even if it didn't actually select him.