Broken Pipes and the Electoral College

  1. The water was shut off at the office this morning, due to a broken something something. It’s amazing how slowly something as simple as “there’s no water” can move through one’s consciousness – I kept turning the faucet (“tap”) and being surprised when nothing came out.
  2. I promised Harrison a response to
    his discussion of the Electoral College; said response is in the extended entry.
  3. What do you call a pundit on the radio? They’re not precisely talking heads, because there’s no camera to cut them off at the neck… talking voices? Talking talkies?

Okay, here we go.

The discussion took off around a sort of tangential premise, that the best one plausible/widely-affirmed benefit of the Electoral College is the way it props up Federalism (Harrison’s main argument was that any value to federalism was negligible in light of the harms to the far more important goal of weighting all votes equally). I kind of sniffed around this side issue for a bit, but now I think the whole Federalism argument is just flat-out wrong irrelevant: it’s not about Federalism and the power of the individual State per se (it may once have been thought of that way, but we’re a far more unified United States now than we were 200 years ago), it’s about forcing regional majorities to obtain the consent of regional minorities; regions are generally identified on a state-by-state basis for reasons of history and administrative convenience, but they don’t inherently require federalist rhetoric.

This article provides a better explanation, I think, with an analogy to the World Series:

Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states. The Yankees won three blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0), but they couldn’t come up with the runs they needed in the other four games, which were close. … In sports, we accept that a true champion should be more consistent than the 1960 Yankees. A champion should be able to win at least some of the tough, close contests by every means available – bunting, stealing, brilliant pitching, dazzling plays in the field – and not just smack home runs against second-best pitchers. 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.

The article goes further in to a nontechnical summary of one mathematician’s analysis of the Electoral College, with the summary results that:

  • The chance that your vote will tip the election is maximized in a win-by-districts system;
  • The “balance of power” between small states and large states depends on the closeness of the election – voters in large states have more power during close elections, while voters in small states have more power in lopsided elections (“power” here is defined as the chance of one vote tipping the balance of a tie).
  • These results depend on non-gerrymandered voting blocs.

So with all that, I have mixed feelings about the Electoral College. I find something disturbing about the idea that a candidate could win entirely by appealing to densely populated urban areas while screwing over everyone in flyover country. The hippie in me sometimes thinks of it as a way to give the land itself a voice, by amplifying the voices of its people – and yes, I crumple at the excruciating irony of this interpretation, given the rabid anti-environmentalist records of the states canonically advantaged by the Electoral College. But it seems to me that regional interests have turned in to a kind of cultural segregation and gerrymandering; I don’t know what to think about that.

I don’t feel finished with this, but I am out of lunch time…


  1. Harrison wrote:

    Hey, thanks for the reply.
    I’m not sure what you mean by “the premise is flat-out wrong.” I was addressing a standard argument in favor of the EC — Federalism — but I was not claiming that it was the best argument for it. In the recent comments, I also mention, as you do here, that the conditions that made Federalism attractive 200 years ago don’t seem to hold today.
    I also took up the win-by-district issue. The problem is that the districts *are* heavily gerrymandered. I think that’s an even harder problem to address than reform of the EC. Given how unlikely it is that we would see a (fair) redistricting of the entire nation, I still think the best solution is a simple popular vote.

  2. yami wrote:

    D’oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you personally thought the Federalist argument had any particular popularity or strength – but you *did* choose to argue against the Federalists without devoting much space to other arguments for the EC. I think that was an ineffective choice; the kinds of arguments I outlined above appear to have stronger foundations, and appeal to a general principle (restraining the power of the majority over the minority) that’s much broader and, I think, more important than plain ol’ Federalism.
    And by “win-by-districts” I don’t mean Congressional districts specifically – you’re right that they’re too heavily gerrymandered to be of any use for anything. I mean any arbitrarily drawn districts that are heterogeneous without being dominated by any one voting bloc; we could tally votes by Social Security number or government-issue middle names if we wanted.

  3. All Day Permanent Red wrote:

    Mathmatical defense of the Electoral College
    Yami responds here to my post, The Electrical College, and to the comments that followed the post. She cites an article, “Math Against Tyranny,” written before the Florida debacle, in 1996.
    Natapoff, the mathematician whose work forms the basis o…

  4. Harrison wrote:

    The Federalism argument has to be addressed, even if it’s not the best argument, because it’s one most important political arguments that prop it up. I think it’s important to address the argument in the article you cite (and I do, in my blog), but I don’t think that the argument would play an important role in saving or getting rid of the EC. (It’s a hard sell as a political argument. How would it interest a state legislature? How would they sell it to their constituents?)

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *