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Saturday, January 01, 2005


Week 2: Response to Sidial on the EC

I apologize for my blatant disregard of your blog’s word limit. If this poses a problem, we’d be more than happy to host the debate over at Hawkenblog.

It’s true that in the history of US presidential elections, the winner of the EC has won without winning the popular vote 3 or 4 times (depending on your interpretation of how voting directly for electors in Alabama affected the popular vote in Kennedy-Nixon). You say that’s “very rare,” hence good enough. I say it’s not good enough, but I suppose this disagreement, relative to most of the other ones, is simply a difference in opinion. However, I think it’s worth noting that we nearly had two consecutive elections where the winner of the EC was the loser of the popular vote, which shows how likely it is any time there’s a close election. If Ohio state voting officials had provided an adequate number of voting machines for all citizens, this may well have been the case. Furthermore, why would you defend a system that has failed several times and is liable to fail during any close election when you could replace it with a better system that would always correspond to the will of the majority? Another point I made on Hawkenblog is that the current system disenfranchises millions of voters in the 2/3 to 4/5 of states whose winner-take-all outcomes are all-but-certain weeks before the election. So, under the current system, the popular vote always must be taken with a grain of salt, because there are millions of people out there who, like me, could have decided to just stay home on the basis that their vote would be worth infinitely less to the outcome than someone’s in a swing state.

It’s true that the EC was developed in part to satisfy the concerns of large states, slave states, and small states. In the beginning, those entities were able to argue that they might need a special boost in national elections. I think it speaks for itself that you’re not arguing for what the value of that boost might be today, you’re simply advocating the preservation of unfair weighting. You’re saying that the vote of people in small states must count for more—much more—than the vote of someone in one of the largest states. Why is that good? I’ve already stated why I believe each vote should be equal. The onus is on you to explain to us why some people’s vote should be worth much more others’.

Even if you wanted one group’s vote to be more valuable than another’s, why would you want the arbitrary distinctions created by state lines to determine the groups? Wouldn’t you want a more meaningful demographic distinction? Let’s take your figures that 80% of the population is “urban” and the other 20% is “rural.” That seems like a pretty big disparity, and most farmers are surely in the rural category, and farming is essential to the livelihood of our country. Let’s change it so that instead of someone in Wyoming having a vote that’s worth four times more than mine in California, which really doesn’t seem to be for any reason anyway, and let’s make it so we multiply the value of a rural vote by four times instead. Okay, so now rural voters have as much of a say as urban voters. First of all, this would never happen, because the majority of the country—the 80% in so-called urban areas—would never allow their congresspersons and states to go along with it. Secondly, it would give the reigns of the country’s highest office to a minority group, and there’s no telling how much this would offset the balance of power in the US, most likely, I would guess, for the worse. Can we agree that we shouldn’t do something like that? You say the EC, “evens out some of the gross inequalities a purely popular vote method incurs.” Does it not, in fact, create gross inequalities that a purely popular vote method would eliminate?

I agree with you that we are not a single entity all across the US. But the president (and the vice president) is the single person in the US who is elected to preside over all Americans. We have senators and representatives to represent the geographically-determined minority interests. Your argument that the diversity of this country requires that some people should be given more of an ability to determine the president is an egregious affront to the concept of Majority Rules, Minority Rights.

Why would it take longer to count the votes in a direct election than through the EC? Obviously, it took several weeks to call the election in Florida in 2000 (and proper recounting by an independent commission didn’t conclude for more than a year, if I recall), and if the margin had been, say, 50,000 votes instead of 130,000 in Ohio (which, as I said, it easily could have been, if people in “minority areas” in that state had been given approximately equal access to voting machinery), it would have taken at least two more weeks to count all the provisional, absentee, military, and oversees ballots, because Kerry would not have conceded on November 3. Sometimes it’s just going to take a while to get a winner, and I hope we can agree that in this case correctness is a higher virtue than quickness. If we made it through the aftermath of the 2000 election (and Kerry quickly conceding the 2004 election despite lingering questions in Ohio) without inciting anything even resembling civil war, it’s not going to happen over presidential elections. Also, under a direct vote system, taking additional time (at least beyond the time when all provisional, absentee, military, and oversees ballots are counted) to determine a winner would be rarer.

What you’re failing to consider is that the more votes there are, the less likely it is that the outcome will be very close. Consider how close it was in the EC in 2000 and in 2004: differences of 537 and about 120,000 votes, respectively. Then consider how close it wasn’t in the popular votes in 2000 and in 2004: differences of about 500,000 and 3,500,000, respectively. Historically, the margins in the closest states are much closer than the margin in the popular vote. It’s mathematically less probable for an election to be meaningfully close in the popular vote than for it to be so in the key swing states. So, if someone wanted to commit fraud in Florida in 2000 (assuming the actual outcome would have been determined before the Supreme Court stopped the dispute), they ended up only needing to switch 537 votes to change the outcome of the entire national election. In Ohio in 2004, someone wanting to commit fraud would have had to impact what turned out to be about 120,000 votes (something which, arguably, Secretary of State Blackwell indirectly did by not providing adequate voting machines in minority areas), as opposed to 3.5 million on the national scale. Most if not all cases throughout the history of presidential elections will confirm this effect. So, while supporters of the EC say it quarantines fraud in just one or two states as opposed to on a national level, when fraud does happen in the critical state(s), it’s result is grossly magnified into a national result. Whereas, it would be prohibitively difficult to cause, say, 500,000 votes worth of fraud on a national level without getting caught, which is what you’d have to do to overturn an entire direct election. So, the EC actually makes the outcome much more susceptible to fraud.

You go on to argue for “the illusion of semi-unity between states.” (This seems ironic, because you were just saying that a, “purely popular vote would be treating everyone like they all lived just down the road from each other,” as if that would be objectionable.) Don’t you think lot’s of liberals in this country are still pissed specifically at rural Ohioans, the people of Columbus and Cincinatti, and Mr. Blackwell for putting their enemy back into office? I’m not sure they’re justified, but I get the sense that it’s the reality of the situation. It seems to me that breaking things up by state in a way that doesn’t ensure that the majority determines the victor actually makes it much easier for people to say the election was decided by people in “Red states” or “Blue states” (which can be highly divisive) and, even, that the election was a sham (as many people are saying, considering the problems in Ohio in 2004 and the illegal way the recount there has been handled). I think perceived unity is a good thing, and I think direct voting would encourage that by making every eligible voter equally responsible for electing the president.

Presumably, you were talking in the following quote about how EC results tend to magnify the outcome to give the illusion that the winner won by more than the popular vote indicates: “It has the chance at making those who are going to go out and vote anyhow feel more like they’re part of a national group.” Believe me, nothing would make people feel more like they were voting as a group than if everyone went out and knew that their vote counted equally toward the majority election of a candidate. My vote for president in 2004 was utterly and completely arbitrary, whereas the votes of hundreds of people I knew back home in Ohio were arguably the most meaningful of the election.

You and I both believe in representational democracy for this country. Pure democracy is perhaps a useful thing with certain issues, as in 2004 when there was a strong response to initiatives on banning gay marriage in many states and approving $3b for stem-cell research in California, among many others. But, for the most part, our system is representational. Let’s remember that we elect our national and state congresspersons by direct vote, and yet they are still our representatives in the democratic process that occurs in state capitals and in Washington. Just the same, whether the EC or a direct vote is used to elect the president, he is still the nation’s representative—the people don’t get a chance to vote whether (s)he goes to war or whether (s)he proposes or repeals any initiative (s)he wants.

The proposed change of divying up EVs on the basis of a state’s popular vote does not do anything to invalidate the fact that some individuals’ votes count a lot more than others under the EC, nor does it effectively address most of the criticisms I have leveled at the EC, either here or on Hawkenblog (although it could encourage candidates to actively campaign in more states, if it was uniformly implemented). If states were gradually to move to such a system, those who did it first would be committing suicide with their power in the EC, because no candidate would campaign heavily in their state for the difference of just 1 or 2 votes (as we learned in the debate on Colorado’s initiative to do this in 2004). For example, if Florida were to do that, no matter how close it might be there, candidates would give no more attention than any of the smallest swing states, like Nevada or New Hampshire, because both candidates would be virtually guaranteed of getting almost half their votes regardless. So, for such a system to be implemented it would have to be a Constitutional Amendment to ensure that it would go into effect everywhere at once. If we’re going to pass an Amendment on voting for president (as a senator and a representative soon hope to do), then why pass one that just fixes part of it when we could pass one that would improve the system in virtually every way without any negative consequences for the vast majority of the nation’s population?

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