In defense of the Electoral College followed by a plea for real reform
As I write the first draft of this (November 8,
2000) there is a more than even chance that the winner of the popular
vote in the 2000 presidential elections, Al Gore, will not be the
winner of the Electoral College vote, and thus George W. Bush will
become President. There
will be comments and suggestions that the Electoral College
(henceforth "EC") is unfair. A number of very reasonable people who
have thought deeply and carefully about Americans elect our president
the EC is unfair for exactly these reasons. They will also point
out other anachronisms of the EC which make it seem unsuited to a
The objections to the EC are merited. But, I argue here, there are
also some good reasons for some of the seemingly bizarre stipulations
of the EC. I am not, however, defending all aspects of it. Indeed,
it is most certainly not the system I would support if we were
designing a system from scratch today, although there are some
properties I would try to keep. Let me also note that I do consider
the current voting system massively unfair, but
not because of the EC.
Objections to the EC
Although, they have all been stated before, I'd like to very briefly
review the objections to the EC, all of which have merit (although
some less than others).
- Violates "one person, one vote" principle.
If the popular vote and the EC outcome do not match, then clearly
not all votes are equal. A voter in Florida has had more influence
on the outcome than me, a voter in California. Indeed, the
candidates know this which is why they put much more effort into
campaigning for votes in Florida than they did in California.
Those Florida votes (as ones in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc)
were simply more valuable then votes in California, New York, the
Carolina's, etc. This is a direct consequence of the
"winner-take-state" property of the EC. It doesn't matter the
margin by which you win a state. Getting a simple plurality of
votes in the state is worth as much as getting 90% of the vote in
the state. Likewise, losing by 1% is no worse than losing by 80%.
- Indirectness of voting
Technically, Americans vote not for presidential candidates but for
"Electors committed to a particular candidate". There is nothing
that actually binds these electors to their commitment.
Originally, the idea was that the electors wouldn't even be
committed, but that voters would really be selecting individuals
who would then select the president. While there may have been
some virtue in that 200 years ago with the idea that voters may
trust the judgment of local officials that they know, who in turn
knew more about national politics, there is clearly no
justification for that kind of indirect election today. Although,
one advantage is that it provides a mechanism for selecting a
president if the EC favored candidate dies between the time that
voters' ballots are finalized
and the time that the Electors select the president. Some
procedure like that would save the court battles we are going to
see regarding the Missouri election for US Senate. But there are
ways to get this benefit without having indirect election.
- Clumsiness of procedure
The actual formal procedures reflect concerns and technologies 200
years out of date. They became out of date with the invention of
I will not be defending either indirectness or the clumsiness of the
EC. I suggest that those two problems alone don't justify amending the
Constitution. In practice the Indirectness is not really an a
problem, and the Clumsiness we can just view as some quaint ritual,
and even enjoy if we are so inclined. My focus is on
The People or the States?
In modern times, it is hard to remember that the states (well the
older ones) really were states, independent countries in their own
right. These states formed a federation in which each state had a
voice, irrespective of its population. Currently the European Union
requires unanimity of the member countries or
near unanimity for some decisions. Small countries in the Union have,
for some questions, as much of a voice as big ones. The selection of
the president of the European Commission is one of these. The United
States of America is also a union of states, in which each state has a
voice in national policy.
The clearest place that this happens is with the make up of the
Senate. A voter in Wyoming has a far greater say in the composition
of the US Senate then me, a voter in California. And the purpose is
clear, the Senate is where the states have their voice, while the
House of Representatives is where the population as a whole have their
Now should be President be selected by the states (as the Senate is)
with each state having an equal voice (but each voter having an
unequal voice), or should the President be selected like the House
where each voter has an equal voice, but states are very unequal?
The "winner take state" system is a compromise between the two. It
makes each states voice roughly proportional to its population, but it
also means that big states can't take advantage of their large
populations beyond that. The EC prevents a candidate from trying to
win very big in a few big states (or population centers) while
ignoring the rest of the country. While with the EC an election may
depend on a few crucial states, you can never win by only winning in a
few states. You can only with the EC by winning in a substantial
number of states.
While there are alternatives to the EC which would do the same much
more cleanly (such as using national popular vote, but adding on
"bonus" votes for each state won were the bonus votes are on a "winner
take state" basis), the EC is a remarkably clever compromise.
As the US becomes more homogeneous by region and state the
the importance of state voices declines. But I do not think that that
has occurred to the point where it would be wise to ditch the
compromise the EC achieves.
I do support some radical changes in the voting system in the US, even
though I defend the Electoral College. The current system is massivly
unfair in that it forces people to vote for the "lesser of two
evils". Democracy shouldn't be that way. Our ballots should reflect
our sincere choices and not some calculations designed to stop someone
we don't like.
In particular I support the idea of "Preference Voting" in which
individual votes don't just mark there first choice, but actually rank
the candidates on a ballot from first choice to last choice. If the
system is designed properly it eliminates the situation where one
might vote for the "lesser of two evils". (If it is designed
improperly, like most instant run off
systems, then it doesn't actually improve things). Let me just
say that I support a tallying system for Preference Voting called
I will write more on this, probably in a second document with links to
good resources, at some later date, but let me provide one source
of technical information about voting methods.
And a note to Nader voters
I voted for Al Gore instead of any other candidate on the ballot
because I agreed with him more on fundamental issues and philosophy.
I will be disappointed if he loses this election. And despite the
claim that Nader voters wouldn't have voted had Nader not been
running, it is just not plausible that Nader support didn't draw
enough in Florida from Gore to cost the election if Gore loses.
But if you voted for Nader because he was your favored
candidate, you did the right thing.
I think you were wrong to agree with Nader. I consider him very wrong
on many extremely important things, but I passionately dislike the
electoral system that tries to make people choose the lesser of two
evils instead of voting for whom they support. People shouldn't have
to hold their noses when the vote. And don't believe that it has to
be that way. The Condorcet voting system would fix that.
So, Nader voters, although I disagree with your candidate and
political outlook and may be very unhappy with the consequences of
your votes, I support your decision to vote for a thrid party
candidate in the face of an unfair voting system.
You refused to let your vote be corrupted by
an unfair voting system. Let's support electoral reform so that nobody
has to let their vote be corrupted.
Most of this applies not just to Nader voters, but to all who voted
for third parties. The only thing that makes Nader voters special is
that they may have swung the election, and so are being presented as
"spoilers". Yet, all they did was vote honestly. Is a system where
voting honestly makes you a spoiler democratic? A democratic
election should come to a collective decision based on the preferences
of the electorate. Surely the electorate should state their
There is no doubt in my mind that if a campaign to fix the voting
system ever gets started in earnest, the two big parties will do
everything in their power to discredit it. They will do this
primarily by spreading half-truths and attempting to confuse voters.
Let me anticipate some of the myths they will spread.
- Myth: Don't mess with the consitution
Answer: Unless you want to reform the electoral
college, fixing the voting system does not require any change to
the US constitution. And it can proceed on a state by state
basis. Indeed, if you consider that the current system really
denies an honest vote for supporters of third parties, then the
current system is in violation of the spirit ofthe 14th amendment
(one person one vote). So reforming the voting system as
suggested here would be making practice more constitutional.
Representation (as in Isreal) leads to unstable coalitions with
Answer:That can be true, but the proposed system
is not Proportional Representation Indeed, it tends to
have the opposite effect proportional representation.
This is because Condorcet will reject candidates who are widely
disliked, but still allow votes for minority positions to count.
- Myth:It's too complicated
Answer 1:So are the details of the electoral
college, but nobody fusses about that, do they?
Answer 2:What voters have to do is simple. All
voters need to do is mark their preferences, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.
Even if the tallying method is complicated (which it really isn't,
see next answer), voters don't have to perform the count. All
they need to know is that in this system they really are better
off voting their sincere preferences.
Answer 3:For the most part, Condorcet is simple.
Each voter marks their preferences, lets say among three
candidate, Alice, Bob, and Charlie. Finding
the Condorcet winner is simply finding the candidate which defeats
all of the others in head to head races. If more people rank B
over A than A over B that means that B defeats A in head to head
races. If B also defeats C in head to head races that makes B is
the winner as Bob defeats all opponents in head to head races.
The only complication is that sometimes there may not be a
"Condorcet winner". That is, sometimes, A may defeat B and B may
defeat C and C may defeat A, so no candidate defeats all others in
head to head races. The Condorcet method has various ways of
resolving those situations, and those are complicated. But those
situations are very unlikely to come up.
- Myth: Well, what about Borda, Hare, Single
Transferable Vote, Alternative Vote, etc?
Answer:There are lots of confusing alternatives
to the Condorcet method. And this is probably where most smoke
will be blown, simply because there are well-meaning reform minded
advocates of those methods. The problem with those listed (which
fall into the broad category of "Instant Run-off Voting" (IRV) is
that they don't
actually eliminate the problem of voting for the lesser of two
evils. There are a few reasons why these terrible methods are
(And what about the "approval" method, which is not an IRV? I'll
write more about that later).
- Historically, people ran run-off elections in an attempt to
solve the problems of the current system (it doesn't work
though). And then later people figured that if they could get
voters to list preferences they could avoid having to have
multiple ballotings for run-offs and do instant run-offs. All
of these methods evolved from tinkering with run-offs. But
run-offs never solved the problem in the first place.
- The earliest forms of these systems were designed for hand
counting of paper ballots. Ballots were sorted into piles and
then the ballots from the shortest piles got redistributed to
other piles. Condorcet on the other hand is not as well
suited to counting that way. When ballots are calculated by
computer, however, Condorcet is easier to count (but who cares
if the computer needs to do a bit more work).
- Lots of academic and professional societies (like the American
Psychological Association, etc) started using varients of
these methods, so lots of professionals have a passing
familiarity with them.
- It is possible that they are used deliberately to blow smoke.
Recently the British government has introduced such methods
for elections to the relative powerless Scottish Parliament,
Welsh Assembly and used proportional representation for the
even less powerful European Parliament. While they have gone
back on any hint of previous pledges to look at voting reform
for elections that matter. One might suspect that they are
deliberately trying to discredit Preference Voting.
- Myth:If it ain't broke, don't fix it
Answer:It is broke. If in a democracy you have
to hold your nose when you cast your ballot, then that democracy
is broken. If in a democracy you have to lie about your
preference on your ballot, then that democracy is broken. If in a
democracy a candidate wins not because they are the most preferred,
but because the others split the vote, then that democracy is
broken. It's broken. Let's fix it.
- Myth:Don't just extremists want this?
Answer:It is certainly true that third parties
have the most to gain by getting rid of the unfairness of the
current voting system. But Condorcet actually promotes the
selection of compromise candidates with nobody having to
compromise their ballots. (See the Proportional Representation Myth) For the
record, I tend to genuinely prefer the candidates from the two
main parties over those from third parties (although in my youth I
actively supported left-wing third parties). I may disagree
strongly with fellow reformers on the right and the left (and the
libertarians), but I want more mainstream views to win on their
merits, not by a rigged system.
Over the next few days [From Noveber 8, 2000 when this was written], I
will put in links to resources about these issues, but I am a bit
tired from a sleepness night and have other things to do as well.
[In June 2001, I still haven't done that. Maybe I still will.]
Version: $Revision: 1.12 $
Last Modified: $Date: 2003/01/15 06:29:56 $ GMT
First established November 8, 2000
Author: Jeffrey Goldberg