Math Against Tyranny

Math Against Tyranny

I've had a drunken discussion or two recently about the electoral college. I recalled an article I had read that made a very interesting article explaining how, mathematically, the electoral college system increases the value of an individuals vote. Most people that I talk to think the electoral college is completely asinine, whereas I, after reading this article, think that it is only somewhat asinine.

Don't trash talk the EC again until you read this article.

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Colin's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

I read it. So now I'm going to trash talk it. I have to admit I was not swayed by that article. I will say that I do not want to get rid of the electoral college. However, some things need to change. As it stands, each political party chooses electors for each state, the numbers determined on population. Let's have a little hypothetical exercise. Let's say on November 2, I vote for George Bush.

In the end, Kerry carries Illinois. Let's say there were 787,987 votes for Bush in Illinois. In this case, all of Illinois' 21 electoral votes are at the tender mercies of the electors chosen by the Democratic party. THey give their votes for Kerry.

Have I and the other Bush voters been disenfranchised? My vote sure as hell didn't count.....all the electors went for Kerry. So, what the hell happened to "Every Vote Counts"? Cause mine sure as hell didn't.

There's a great article in the Harper's I got in my mailbox yesterday by Lewis Lapham looking at this issue. He brings up the issue that electors back in the day, founding-fathers time, were chosen for their agreed upon fairness, learnedness, and being white male landowners.

I suggest that instead of scrapping the electoral college, we change it slightly to keep in meaning with the ideals of this nation.

Let's make it so the electors have to take into account the split of the popular vote in their state. So, take the number of electors, divide it by the population(registered voters would be better) and figure out how many votes it takes for 1 elector.

If the popular vote is split 50/50, so would the electors be. This ensures that "Every vote counts".

We could also have genetically engineered non-partisan electors specially bred for this purpose, but some people might frown upon that.

wadsbone's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

Here's the original source.

sundaykofax's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

The article made me think, which is a worthwile purpose. I think that there's something to accounting for blocs of voters. (Tacos of voters?) We do have groups like the NRA, abortion nutters, and all those who vote in a single issue.

"A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a single issue to isolated blocs of voters."

Mostly, the article reminds me that our country is too large. We're too diverse, and we need to either split up or elect a group instead of one person.

(Visualize Mrs. Krabapple's class in the model UN- the "Das Bus" episode, not the "The Fly King" where its Lisa's class.)

more later's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

In all the discussion about the Electoral College...including NPR's Odyssey today it seems we're skipping the "third party" option...or any sort of true multi party system. (that article talks about A and B, 45-55 percent splits, etc) If Nader (or the other x number running) could actually get enough votes in any state to take electoral votes for themselves the House of Reps. would decide the election...so is this a built in parlimentary-type selection system? Um, cause, you know, we're not a direct democracy anyway. Blaargh...damned if we do, damned if we don't. If this holds up let's keep it for this year.

Alec Eiffel's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

Dunno. If you eliminate the 2 per state Senate rule, you effectively eliminate what makes them states. I'm not sure if this is a great idea. Let's say that in Wyoming all they produce are Bagel Eating Daschunds. That's the whole economy. Also, let's say that nobody else can be bothered with bagels in the country. Uhhhh....what the fuck am I talking about?

Alls I'm sayin' is, if Wyoming didn't have 2 senators, and 3 electors, no federal politician would ever be inclined to give a shit about the people of Wyoming. Wyoming has needs that are different from the needs of NY, LA and Chicago. But without some equal federal clout all the power would be concentrated in those (densely populated) areas, only serving specific interests. Without the EC, it could really damage the Midwest & deep south (read: agriculture.) I think everybody in America needs an advocate, even those of us with fewer neighbors.

You could argue that the purpose of the House is to correct for population, and that it's not doing that well enough, or you could argue that maybe State borders need to be rejiggered.

But as long as we have states, they need to be equal (in the republic) in some meaningful way.

chrisk's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

It was a good article.

I don't find Colin's anti-electoral college argument very compelling. Saying your vote for Bush in Illinois doesn't count because Bush didn't win Illinois is not substantively different than saying that, in a pure-majority election, your vote doesn't count if your candidate doesn't win. Your vote for Bush in Illinois counts in precise proportion to its potential to determine the winner of Illinois's electoral votes, just as your vote in a pure-majority election counts inasmuch as it could be the deciding vote.

I do have a problem with the electoral college, but it's not with its very existence. I'm on board with the weighted-majority-of-majorities approach (as we call it here in dorkville), but I take serious issue with the way the weighting is done. The problem isn't with the electoral college, it's with the senate. There is no justifiable reason to count senators when determining the number of electors a state should have -- it should be in pure proportion to that state's population.

The senate itself is pretty problematic -- a national legislative body in which Wyoming is represented just as strongly as California is out of its goddamn mind, and no mistake -- but just flat-out abolishing the senate would cause more problems than it would solve (a unicameral congress would also be out of its goddamn mind). It would be a step in the right direction, though, to make the number of electors for each state equal to the number of representatives it has in the house. As an added advantage, this would force the republicans to begin a return to their senses, as they could no longer count on the absurdly disproportionate advantage conferred on them by the votes of a bunch of pitchfork-waving idiots in South Dakota.

Peace onward.

wadsbone's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

It's interesting that the fairness of the EC system changes depending on the issue. Maybe this was a much more sensible system back in the days when the federal government didn't have a whole lot of power. It seems appropriate for issues like "Should we go to war with country X," which was about all that the federal government did in the days when they came up with the idea.

chrisk's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

Thanks Evan, I think that was the analysis I was trying to remember. Now that I think more about it, though, electoral votes per voter might not be the best measure.

If we actually want to determine the voting power (i.e., the probability of being the deciding presidential vote) of, say, a Wyoming voter, then I think we want the probability that that voter is the deciding vote in Wyoming, times the probability that Wyoming is the deciding state. That's quite a bit more complicated to compute, and I don't actually know whether it gives Wyoming voters more or less power than the EV/person approach.

e lo's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

@chrisk, the actual numbers are:

Wyoming: 3 EC votes / 501242 citizens (population # source) = 5.985 X10^(-6) EC votes per citizen

New York: 31 EC votes / 19190115 citizens = 1.615 X10^(-6) EC votes per citizten.

Which means that, theoretically, a vote in Wyoming counts 3.7 times as much as a vote in New York towards electing a president..

chrisk's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

So, let me say one more time that I think this argument in favor of the EC is basically a good one, but I don't think it addresses the problems I was suggesting. In fact, peep the following deduction:

(a): A constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage would be idiotic and unamerican. (Your point, with which I wholeheartedly agree.)

(b): The disproportionate relative representation in congress of (say) Wyoming and California makes such an amendment much more likely to pass than it would be if representation were proportional. (My point from before.)

(a & b) ==> (c): There are cases in which the aforementioned disproportionate representation makes us more prone to passing laws that are idiotic and unamerican.

I know that doesn't settle the issue. I don't doubt that we could come up with a different issue in which a purely proportional representation might make us more likely to pass idiotic laws. The point is just that even if you believe that there are issues (e.g., automotive industry concerns, agriculture) for which small states should have disproportionate influence, you can't possibly believe they should have disproportionate influence on every national issue, and the fact is that they do. I haven't offered a solution here because I don't have one, but that doesn't make me any less sure that there's a problem.

Now, the other point: you say "I wouldn't argue that a Wyominger is more qualified than a New Yorker, but that they are differently qualified." I totally agree, and that's why I support the idea of using a weighted majority of majorities (like the EC). The problem is, the current system emphatically does say that a Wyominger is more qualified than a New Yorker. The analysis goes like this: a voter's power to choose the president is precisely the probability that that person's vote decides the election. Obviously, that's a very small probability no matter what state you live in, but it's always nonzero. With the current system, a Wyoming resident's power to choose the president is many times greater than a New Yorker's power (I know, I know, this would be more convincing if I could show you the actual numbers, but I don't have them handy). While we may only be trying to make sure that the concerns of rural Americans are given fair consideration, the effect of this approach is that the opinions of an individual Wyoming voter are given much more weight than the opinions of an individual New Yorker.

Fairness, of course, isn't the only concern. A pure-majority voting system would be perfectly fair, but open to the sort of tyranny-of-the-majority problems pointed out in the article that started this discussion. One way of looking at the EC system is to say that, for each voting bloc a candidate wins over, that candidate gets a reward in proportion to the size of the bloc, plus a "bloc bonus." This means that a candidate who wins a lot of small blocs will win out over a candidate who wins a few large blocs. One way to justify the bloc bonus in the abstract is to say that the many-bloc candidate has more broad-based appeal, and should therefore be preferred. I'd be willing to consider that argument if the blocs were chosen sensibly, but state boundaries are largely arbitrary, and do not make for sensible blocs. Winning both North Dakota and South Dakota does _not_ mean you have broad-based appeal, it means you appeal to the kind of voter who lives in the Dakotas. Winning both New York and Utah, on the other hand, would be a sign of broad-based appeal. If we really want to tailor our system to reward broad-based appeal, we'll have to be willing to decouple "state" from "electoral district."
[EDIT: Sorry, I just now noticed that you mentioned the "... you could argue that state borders need to be rejiggered..." angle a while ago. I guess our only disagreement on this particular issue is that you seem to be starting from the assumption that states need to be taken seriously as voting blocs (even if that means redrawing state borders to make it reasonable), while I'm not willing to take that for granted.]

Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded, but I've developed an obsession with the upcoming election that seems to go way beyond normal civic concerns. I'll try to relax.

Post edited by: chrisk, at: 2004/10/23 01:59

Post edited by: chrisk, at: 2004/10/23 02:12

Alec Eiffel's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

I would argue that your gripe here is misplaced. The problem with the first case is that a gay marriage amendment would be idiotic, unamerican, illegal and unconstitutional. It certainly should have nothing to do with the powers on Capitol Hill, and recent attempts to make it an issue in that forum are political and little else. Blaming the EC or the fact that Wyoming has two senate seats is imprudent.

As far as the voting for President is concerned, I wouldn't argue that a Wyominger is more qualified than a New Yorker, but that they are differently qualified. If we had a country where the government catered solely to the interest of the areas where the most humans were concentrated, I think we would have some issues. New Yorkers, for example, would be like, "FUCK CARS." Most people I know here think it's good that the price of gasoline is going up. To NYCers, they have no day-to-day interest in the automotive industry and generally find cars to be a smelly, polluting nuisance.

I'm not sure that's what's best for the country as a whole. Or even for New Yorkers. Part of what has made the USA work has been its ability to function as a federation, with many different, dissimilar regions with competing yet complimentary interests.

chrisk's picture

Re:Math Against Tyranny

I think Win's right up to a point here. If we were to abolish the senate (to look at the most extreme scenario), we'd effectively be saying that a state-as-such doesn't have any special status, i.e., that a state is important to the U.S. only to the extent that people actually live up in it. I'm somewhat comfortable with that, in that I don't really think the state is the right kind of bloc, or that a state can reasonably be said to have coherent interests. (Just look at Illinois, which votes reliably democratic largely just because of Chicago, while the rest of the state seethes and revs its pickup truck.) I think you could probably make a good argument that different voting blocs should be given equal say and not necessarily just in proportion to their size, but you'd have to require that the makeup of those blocs be determined by something more sensible than largely arbitrary geographical borders.

As Win suggests, you can argue that it's (perversely) only fair to give low-population states an unfair advantage, because the issues that concern them directly are of an importance disproportionate to their population (like, agricultural interests are important to the whole country, even though relatively few people live in heavily agricultural states).

The problem with that argument, I think, is that once those states have an unfair voting advantage conferred on them, they have that advantage on every issue, not just the pet issue(s) that we thought they deserved an advantage on. Like, say a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage makes it to the senate -- at that point, the two senators from Kansas will have just as much say as the two senators from California in whether or not it passes. Think about what that means: it tells us that each vote cast for a senatorial candidate in Kansas was worth a hell of a lot more in deciding on the gay marriage amendment than each senatorial vote cast in California, which is effectively saying that the opinion of a resident of Kansas on this issue is somehow more important (a lot more) than the opinion of a resident of California. I don't give a damn how many amber waves of grain roll through Kansas, you can't tell me they deserve their disproportionate say in this issue. (Sure, granted, people weren't voting only on gay marriage when they voted for a senatorial candidate, but the idea is there.)

In fact, the gay marriage amendment example is unnecessarily complicated; one could just point out that the fact that Wyoming has three electoral votes while New York has 31 means that each Wyoming resident has a much greater say in who becomes president than each New Yorker. It seems to me that, to argue that this is just, you have to be willing to argue that the average Wyomingster is somehow more qualified to decide who should be president than the average New Yorker. I don't buy it.