The Electoral College Is Not Unfair

By | 2016-11-12T09:57:14+00:00 November 12th, 2016|
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Every election with a disparity between the popular and electoral vote brings cries to abolish the Electoral College. Aside from the fact that doing so would require a constitutional amendment, which would require ratification by states that would lose if it passed, there are several reasons why I think the Electoral College is a good idea.

Arrow’s Theorem demolishes abstract “fairness” arguments. It says that no election rules can meet all of the following criteria that most of us would consider essential for a fair election:

  • The rules do not merely pick a single voter and ignore everyone else.
  • If every voter prefers candidate A to candidate B, the final result also prefers A to B.
  • Adding or removing a losing candidate does not change the winner.

In other words, “The Electoral College is unfair, but we can make elections fair by doing X” is invalid because no such X exists.

Here’s a way to look at it that even non-mathematicians should find comfortable. In the 2016 World Series, the Cubs and Indians each scored 27 runs. Why is it fair to say that the Cubs won?

The answer, of course, is that the Cubs won more games than the Indians, and the World Series defines the winner as the team that wins the most out of seven games. An Indians fan who objected to this definition after the Series would be nothing more than a sore loser.

In addition to not being “unfair,” the Electoral College has pragmatic benefits. For example, although some votes remain to be counted, it looks like neither Clinton nor Trump won a majority (as opposed to a plurality) of the popular vote. Moreover, Johnson and Stein each won more votes than the difference between the two major-party candidates. Thus we cannot know for sure which candidate would have secured the popular vote had Johnson or Stein dropped out. The possibility of a minor candidate’s departure changing the outcome is the last of the fairness criteria I mentioned earlier; if that actually happened, it would cause widespread dismay. As another example, the 2000 election came down to a few hundred votes in a single state, a fact that led to a polarizing legal battle. Can you imagine the consequences if the nationwide popular vote turned out to be that close?

Another benefit of the Electoral College is that it forces candidates to take voters’ different circumstances into account more than they otherwise would do. Different state governments can and do adopt different policies and promote different interests. Therefore, we can reasonably expect federal policies to affect residents of different states differently. For example, states that have legalized marijuana (even in part) interact with federal policies differently from other states. As another example, New Jersey has nearly 1,000 times as many people per square mile as Alaska. Surely residents of these states, with such wildly different circumstances, resources, and interests, require vastly different kinds of interactions with the federal government. Without the Electoral College, candidates would have no reason to seek votes from Alaskans at all.

As the Constitution originally was written, individual citizens voted directly only for members of the House of Representatives. The state legislatures decided how to pick both senators and electors—who, in turn, chose the president and vice-president. Thus the Electoral College was a kind of geographically distributed search committee. The idea, I think, was that the House should represent the voters, the Senate should represent the states, and the President should represent the nation as a whole. Moreover, the President had no power to create laws—only to veto them if they did not seem consonant with the national interest and did not have enough congressional support to override that veto.

In other words, Congress’s job was to pass laws acceptable both to most of the people (via the House) and to most of the states (via the Senate); the president’s job was to apply sanity checks (via veto power) and then to enforce the laws, not to make new ones. This point of view is what led to the people electing the House directly, to the state governments controlling how to elect the Senate and the electors, and to the number of electors being the sum of the number of people’s representatives and states’ representatives.

If the federal government’s work were actually distributed this way today, different states could better deal with residents’ different circumstances. Moreover, several states could agree to decide serious policy questions by trying several alternatives at once to see which worked best, rather than forcing a single choice on all.

I think that such distribution would yield a less polarized society because a blessed thing would happen:  presidential elections would not matter so much.

About the Author:

Andrew Koenig
Andrew Koenig is a computer scientist and author who is now mostly retired after 26 years at Bell Labs and its offshoots. He was one of the founders of the international standards committee for the C++ programming language, and author or coauthor of three books and a couple of hundred magazine articles. He lives in a semi-rural part of New Jersey, where these days he spends most of his energy on music and photography. He has never been formally affiliated with a political party, but was reading Milton Friedman in the 1960s. Photo by: Tom Maciejewski