Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why the electoral college is a great idea

With the election looming, we see the quadrennial complaining about the electoral college. "The electoral college effectively disenfranchises most Americans" complains the New York Times  "Shafted by the electoral college" complains the usually excellent Steve Chapman at the Chicago Tribune.

Here's why I think the electoral college -- with (crucially) winner-take-all selection in the states, which is under attack -- is a great idea. (Even though I live in Illinois.) Look at the map. (Source here, I found it just by google searching, so no endorsement.)

With the electoral college, Governor Romney and President Obama have to get 51% majorities in enough states to get 270 votes, to win the white house.

Suppose we had a popular vote instead. Now, instead of fighting for 51% of Ohio, President Obama could instead try to raise his 60% of New York and Illinois to 70%, even if it meant 45% of Ohio. Or he could try to raise his 80% of New York city and Chicago to 90%, (made up number).  He doesn't need to persuade people, really, he just needs to  encourage more New Yorkers and Chicagoans to turn out.

Instead of fighting for 51% of Ohio, Governor Romney could raise his 60% of the south to 70%, or raise his 75% of Utah to 85%, or just work to get all those people out to the polls.

The Times bemoaned low turnout in non-battleground states. If you think there is a lot of money, obnoxious ads, and people bothering you now, just imagine if bringing out another voter in Utah could  counter one more voter in New York.

But here's the real issue. If you think politics are polarized now, just imagine what they will be with a straight popular vote.

What policies will the next Democrat advocate, if he can win by deepening his margin in New York City rather than try for 51% in  Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Nevada? What policies will the next Republican  choose if the path to victory can come from bigger victories in Salt Lake city and the rest of the Red states rather than have to  try for 51% of Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Nevada?  What kinds of candidates will parties select if these are the paths to victory?

You don't like letting the Bush tax cuts expire, raising the top rate from 35 to 40%? That's nothing. A policy to win New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and LA, while letting the rest of the country rot, would show you what real "class warfare" looks like!  Wealth tax. 90% income tax. Forget the muddled insurance "reform" of Obamacare -- single-payer "free" health care for all!

On the Republican side, the delicate dance over "social policy" would likely disappear -- appeal to the base for primaries, but  but move quickly to the middle before the election and then don't do anything. If the Republicans can win by going for 90% marjorities in rural areas and red states, what will happen to abortion, immigration, and civil liberties? And taxes that hit, oh, New York, Chicago, and Detroit are a good bet.

This isn't about beliefs. Our parties are coalitions. It's simple math of what policies assemble a winning coalition.

And "polarization" is only the beginning. Look again at that map. The blue states are all together and the red states are all together. We have polarization with strong geographic concentration -- a poisonous combination.

 Remember the "United States of Canada vs. Jesusland" map from 2004 (at left, from Wikipedia) Maybe they weren't kidding.

There were rumblings about secession in Texas over Obamacare. What would they have thought about the real "single-payer" system that so many on the left wanted? How would those people feel about a 70% income tax?

Do you think I'm being extreme? Look at Europe. England/Scotland, French/Flemish Belgium, Catalonia and Basque Spain all want to pull apart. The cold war is over. When you have polarization and geographic concentration, why stick together? It already happened once in the US.

A system in which each candidate has to get a small majority in a large number of states is a good system to keep a polarized democracy together. A straight popular vote, in which one could win by getting huge majorities in some areas and lose by huge majorities in other areas, is a disaster waiting to happen. We do this in sports, for similar good reasons: the world series winner is not just the total number of runs in the regular season.

It looks possible that Gov. Romney will lose the electoral college and win the popular vote. One may forgive liberals bemoaning the electoral college when George W. Bush won. But I hope that people who express reverence for the constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers will do so again even if they lose. It's a good system. If they lose, Republicans need to find a new coalition that delivers small, widespread majorities. We are not immune from the tides of history pulling other countries apart.

(PS, I know the idea is not original, but don't have the authoritative source. It's probably in the Federalist Papers somewhere. Feel free to comment.)

Update: Already there are some great comments.

As many point out, imagine a national recount in a close election. A popular vote means not only that every vote counts, it means that every vote can be recounted, contested, and challenged. Or, more ominously, imagine the chance for shenanigans when every vote across the country counts the same.

This is true, but not a deep problem. If we used the same level of security and technology for voting that we require for, say, boarding an airplane or taking $40 out of an ATM, we could have a secure and accurate popular vote. If that were the only concern, then the electoral college and state by state winner take all would have been very important for 18th to 20th century voting technology, but no longer really needed if we can ever bring voting technolgy up to about the 1990s.

The most important point in the post is my fear that a popular vote would lead to more polarized candidates and parties, and that the polarization would pit region against region. Colin, below, takes me to task on the median voter theorem, which says that under some conditions the outcome of a popular vote is the preference of the median voter.

Good point. But every theorem has assumptions. The median voter theorem assumes that political outcomes can be placed on a one-dimensional line, and that preferences are "single peaked," people liking the outcome closest to their preference. Ask any libertarian where they stand on the left-right continuum and you get a long lecture. Our parties are coalitions of very strange bedfellows, not points on the median voter line.

My worries are about outcomes where there are many dimensions to what we care about -- foreign policy, economic policy, environment, social questions. Most of all, my worry is geographic concentration -- red states vs blue states, and candidates who win by getting 90% majorities in one or the other.  My worry is that the cost of getting a deeper majority in your own state is less than the cost of getting a slim majority in a battleground state. Costs are absent in the median voter theorem.

So the median voter theorem doesn't really answer the question.  But I'm not an expert in voting theorems, so I'm interested to hear from those who are what theorems do apply to this situation.

The point of an election is not really about selecting a winner and a loser, or a set of policies. It's about building a consensus, that the losers  agree to live together under the winner, and try again next time. A geographically broad set of 51% wins with a popular loss is more important to that goal than a 51% popular vote win based on overwhelming majorities in narrow areas, and overwhelming losses in the rest of the country.

We had a civil war. Yes, under the electoral college. It wasn't good enough. A popular vote would have been worse.


  1. The prairie provinces of Canada are consistently conservative. They would be red.

    1. Saskatchewan is the birthplace of Canadian medicare and of the N.D.P party. Even in Alberta, the most Conservative of the three, no politician would dare to make a serious threat to single payer medicare. The Prairies may be conservative by Canadian standards but they are well left of center by American standards.

    2. Alberta has toyed with opting out of the single payer system, that's a big deal in a nation where single payer medical is the state religion. I suspect overall Alberta is more conservative than any US state.

    3. Canadian red perhaps, not US red.

  2. The electoral college also serves a practical function of limiting chaos in the wake of close elections. In 2000 Florida was bad enough but the electoral college stood between that and a recount of the entire country. Winner takes all is the best. Even the notion popular with many conservatives to allocate electors by congressional district vote, as two states do, is fraught with danger as narrow losers would comb the nation demanding recounts of close district votes that could sway the results. We can accept Presidents who do not win the popular vote as affirmation that we live by the rule of law, not the rule of any one man.

  3. This video is informative on the topic:

  4. You don't have to have 50%+1 anywhere in the electoral college. You just need to have more votes then any other candidate. Furthermore, are urbanites and rural voters all of one mind? Surely, there is a preponderance of urban Democrats and rural Republicans, but what if the electoral system placed as much weight on the vote of Boston Republican as it did a Mississipi Democrat?

    The campaigns all ready try to mobilize their target areas, but they might actually have to pay attention to more people than Ohio auto workers and coal miners. There are probably not inconsiderable political minorities in most of the country, whether it be the Cities or the South.

  5. John, what if I told you that the median voter would be even more important under a straight popular vote?

    States are not red and blue, they are all different shades of purple. There is no untapped reserve of liberals in NY that aren't voting for Obama now that could be courted without losing him the national center. It's really that simple.

  6. I've often tried to defend the electoral college using a bungled Federalist 10 / majority faction argument but this is much better. Thanks Professor.

  7. It's heartening to see a defense of the Electoral College. It's also interesting to see what is happening as the swing states change, which they appear to be doing, according to some newscasts. They are running their sorry butts off trying to keep up.

  8. This is a great post. But I'd note that if campaigns spent their billions also on turning out now-inframarginal voters, the winner would have very different political capital, which is an outcome we economists always forget when we snigger that voting is for dummies (or pivotal people).

    This incentive would not necessarily come from simply respecting the popular vote and doing away with the electoral college though.

    I think a Ryan-Obama showdown on the budget would look very different if the Dem ticket beat the Rep one by tens of millions, not just barely. And even if you like the Rep priorities much-much more, you might acknowledge that a decisive Dem leadership is still preferable than eternal inconclusive bargaining.

    Now we have a sad situation where money is wasted on an arms race about the margins in marginal states, which is guaranteed to produce minimal political capital, bargaining power, legitimacy in the end.

  9. All the hype this election cycle brings one thought to mind. We need a regulated open free market on a futures exchange for elections. Puts all the noise to rest. Curbs a lot of spin.

  10. The electoral college was designed to give southern white male landowners more electors based on 3/5 of each slave. The winner take all aspect is custom, not constitutional.

  11. Professor,

    As I interpret your post, your claim is the following: the distribution of the electorate in swing states has lower partisan variance than the country as a whole. Thus by making swing states decide the election, we move both candidates towards the middle since there is less incentive to turn out their base.

    Implicit in this argument is that it is better in general to have candidates that are close to the median rather than ones that reflect the electorate as a whole. I'm not sure why this is true.

    You also have to consider the possibility that the median voter in the marginal state differs from the median voter in the country as a whole. This could easily be the case if, for example, blue states had more Republicans on average than red states had Democrats.

    Finally, swing states differ from the country as a whole in ways other than variance. The representative swing state is something like Ohio, which is actually fairly socially conservative, but still has a substantial democratic base due to blue-collar union workers. So we may be reducing the variance on the right-left dimension, but if we consider other dimensions we are skewing politics towards the socially-conservative fiscally-liberal corner.

  12. Sueme Nona - You are only partly correct. It was also designed that way because the Founders did not want the type of parliamentary system they saw in Britain.

  13. Dear Prof. Cochrane,

    1. Politics in the U.S. is not more polarized than in the past. See the new paper "The Dynamics of Political Language" at Brookings Institute.

    2. If the liberal candidates go for 90% in Chicago, New York, and California, they still need to win the majority of the country. If they do win it that way, it just shows the country has shifted to the direction. Polarization or not, people will have chosen.

    Jay Chen

    1. This paper finds an increase in polarization over the past 30 years, but still short of the level of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The conclusion is similar to that of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal in the book Polarized America.

  14. "The point of an election is not really about selecting a winner and a loser, or a set of policies. It's about building a consensus, that the losers agree to live together under the winner,"

    You need to have that consensus before the election even starts. Apart from that pedantic quibble, I agree with you.

    The point that gets lost in complaints when the popular vote and the Electoral College give different results is that the Electoral College shapes the vote. You cannot assume that if you removed the Electoral College the popular vote would be the same. Potential voters take into account the working of the Electoral College in deciding whether or not to vote at all.

    We have seen the Romney campaign try to "shake the Etch a Sketch" and move to the middle in the closing weeks of the campaign. That is a good thing (unless you are a Tea Party supporter) and can be attributed in large part to the Electoral College.

  15. I don't see the argument. The same basic Game Theory plays out. Candidates will still be targeting the middle. And I don't see any problem with a vote in NM cancelling a vote in NYC.

  16. “A system in which each candidate has to get a small majority in a large number of states is a good system to keep a polarized democracy together.”

    The architects of the U.S. constitution were quite explicit that they were not constructing a democracy, but a republic. Among other things, the Founders were concerned about the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority”.

    James Madison, in Federalist Paper #10 comes closest to the idea you expressed in the above quote. In that paper, he argues that “factions” are inevitable but that what one should aim for in government is to reduce the negative effects of such “factions” when they inevitably arise. The Republican form of government, of which the Electoral College is a feature, was one of the tools designed to prevent the negative effects of “factions”.

    James Hamilton, on the other hand, in Federalist paper 68, was more concerned that direct elections might result in someone unsuitable becoming President. Hamilton perceived an Electoral College in which the Electors would actually have some discretion in how to cast their votes. Over time, this discretion has been removed as a practical matter because state law dictates how electors must cast their ballots.

    A quick look a the map reproduced here with the blue and red states amply demonstrates the possibility of how regional “factions” might operate to dominate other regions of the country, with negative polarizing effects.

    This idea of the importance of balancing regional differences was also implicit in the decision to grant each state two senators, regardless of population. This balance is also reflected in the electoral college wherein each state is granted electors equal to the number of senators and representatives.

    It strikes me that the reason for the electoral college has changed somewhat over time. I doubt anyone would take Hamilton’s concerns seriously today (not the part about someone not qualified becoming president—that happens all the time—but the idea that the Electors might be in a position to do something about it). Madison’s concerns are still valid.

    But, the most convincing argument for keeping the electoral college is that it has actually worked as designed for more than 200 years.

  17. Why not peacefully split into the United States of Canada and Jesusland? I would move to Jesusland for the weather and low taxes, but others could move to the USC for acid, amnesty, and abortion. (see

    1. "Why not peacefully split into the United States of Canada and Jesusland?"

      Splitting would not be a good idea from the point of Jesusland - they are subsidized by those parts of the US that would go and join Canada. Better to follow the Republican strategy of transferring power to the States and gutting the Federal government but keeping the Federal gravy train flowing.

    2. Good point - although I calculate the annual subsidy at less than $1000/capita for Jesusland. A lot of the subsidy is in government goods and services that they might be happier doing without.

      It is a lot of money, but a low regulation, low tax Jesusland might make up for it with higher output. It would be an interesting experiment.

  18. Dear Prof. Cochrane,

    I'm Italian, but despite my electoral system is very different from yours, I understand your point, however I don't think that without electoral colleges the U.S. would just have more polarized election (and eventually a secession), but there would also be more parties.
    In fact, without the incentives of a First-past-the-post electoral system there is no reason not to vote your favorite candidate, because even if he doesn't reach the majority of the votes he would be elected anyway (I'm assuming the new system would be more proportional), this would make the Democrats split in (I guess) a far left and a center left, and the republican in a conservative party, a libertarian and, maybe, the Tea party would go on its own.

    Christian Rollo

  19. Thanks for this interesting post.

    One counter-argument could be that an electoral college system gives incentives for politicians to give special attention to swing states. For example, the auto-bailout is frequently cited as a reason for Obama's robust polling lead in Ohio. Or (arguably) one reason why George W. Bush introduced steel tariffs could have been due to the concentration of that industry in several swing states.

    Different people have different views on whether policies such as these are worthwhile (I suspect I know your view of both..). But it is unarguable that the electoral college system gives additional political incentives to favour some states over others, irrespective of the 'true' economic costs/benefits of any policy.

  20. "A straight popular vote, in which one could win by getting huge majorities in some areas and lose by huge majorities in other areas, is a disaster waiting to happen."

    At least the second part of your prediction is stronger in the current system since votes in states you loose do not count at all. This is exactly what happens if the presidential election concentrates on the states where they have a chance to win.

    As of today it seams there are more states clearly won by Democrats than by Republicans, thus, the Republicans can be more extreme in their positions.

    That the states which are more mixed are a better indicator for a good compromise might be true, since living together usually increases the understanding for each other. However, within states voting blocks are also very much separated. Ultimately it could be possible that a state is undecided between republicans and democrats because it has completely different views than the rest of the country. This would give a minority a weight in the election it does not deserve.

    btw. econtalk about the Geography of Voting:

  21. Your comment brings up one of the central issues, which I didn't get to in the post. The geographical concentration of red and blue reflects the fact that people tend very much to political opinions of their neighbors. That's why geography matters. Even in a state, people in chicago don't talk to people who live in downstate cornfields that much. That's why building a geographically wide consensus is important, which is what the electoral college -- with all its many faults (such as ethanol subsidies) -- produces.

  22. "the world series winner is not just the total number of runs in the regular season."

    So why not treat each state as one game, and the candidate who wins the most states wins the Presidency. Why weight each state by its population at all? If we should weight each person's vote by where they live, how should we choose that weight? What is the model?

    [This seems like a Cochrane-style argument to me, maybe because I am presenting the chapter on Portfolio Theory on your website to my class in two weeks.)

  23. Great argument but disagree completely.

    The numbers might add up and they might not. But even if they do add up. You have understand that it doesn't mean anything because we are not living 250 years ago.

    What was the difference?

    Are national pride vs. our state pride. Up to the civil war people were considered a Virginian, or a Pennsylvanian, not and American Citizen. So there was the need for more of a representation the nation in all political aspects.

    Now instead of the normal B.S. response of "states rights" (right to place discriminative laws into place) which states do not have rights they have jobs or they certain privileges. Back then you might move if you lived close to a state, or for settling purposes to acquire new land. But besides that you do not move. PA was your nation. VA was your nation. RI was your nation.

    So that so called representation by state is kind of stupid in the electoral college. There is a reason why the only state representation by population that is truly needed is House of Representatives. Even the Senate was created to represent every state equal with two representatives and by the state assembly. Now we vote on it by the people.

    Even though Hamilton, Madison and John Jay did support the electoral college in the Federalist Papers that is because they had no other option. And you can read that in the Madison Notes of the Constitution. The electoral college was the first to be chosen, and the first to be dismissed as a way to vote. Then after exhausting the options that they said, hey we have nothing better.

    As far as the civil war goes. I don't think that it would be worse with a popular vote. That is pure speculation. A historian would tell you the only thing keeping the North and South together was politics. The ability that a Republican could get elected in the South and vice versa, but that turned out not to be true. Who really knows? And how could it get worse. That was the second threat of a civil war (under Jackson there could of been another based off of taxation, and he just threatened them and Carolinas stepped down) and the nation after the second one did go into a civil war.

    Your numbers are great and your point is great if we consider are nation our state and that we stayed in one place. I moved from PA to NJ to NY after college, and who knows where I will end up. My mom OH to VA to PA. Dad NY to PA. My wife and her family CA to PA to NJ to PA to AR to PA and her to OH. Here parents didn't live in OH but moved to GA and then to WI. So we are now living in a mobile society.

    So the truth is that we need a society that is not based on representation of states (we have that in different ways). We need a system that represents the citizenary as a whole. Every time someone win s such as (John Quincy Adams or even the George W. Bush guy) by the electoral vote the representation is not cool the over all citizenary did not vote for that person. Also when a electoral vote person votes for the guy that the states voted for. He or she is losing that representation of the people.

    So really at the end of the day. With out the popular vote, and having a electoral college pick it (and its happened less than a hand full of times) there is a risk that the citizens will not get true representation.

    And what was a cool and important reason for the revolution?

    "No taxation without Representation!"

  24. Hello, great article and comments. Could you elaborate on why all but two states are winner take all for the electoral votes? Wouldn't NEs and MEs approach to delegating electoral votes based on voting district turn out be more reflective of the actual vote? It would force candidates to run in every state and no longer simply ignore a 'locked' state. CA and Texas and New York would no longer have the collective power of tilting or securing an election. If there are 100,000 citizens in a state, and Candidate A gets 50,001 vote and Candidate B gets 49,999 of the votes - then Candidate A gets the whole state - that just doesn't seem fair nor is it really reflective that the state is now solid red or solid blue.

  25. If Presidents were elected by popular vote, wouldn't there be much less probability of a vote recount to begin with? For example, I assume that with a 500,000 popular vote difference such as in the 2000 Presidential election there probably wouldn't have been a vote recount, don't you think?

  26. So, should state elections function this way as well? Should we be lobbying our states to have an electoral college system such that each county represents a given number of electoral votes?

  27. I wish to recommend an article entitled "Math against tyranny" that addresses the subject of the electoral college. The author is described as having developed a mathematical proof that says the electoral college system is better than that of direct national voting. I have not read the author's works, only the reporting of them in the popular press, so perhaps he has not achieved this. I recommend the article anyway.

  28. I think that the Electoral College is stupid, but the real problem in our nation is NOT the Electoral College and the presidential election, the real problem is gerrymandering in the congressional districts for the House of Representatives. Most congressional districts are, unfortunately, designed within the states by the party in power for the purpose of keeping that party in power in the state's congressional delegation. This often leads to districts in which it is virtually impossible to unseat an incumbent, especially for a challenger of the other party. This encourages incumbents to cater to their base, taking on ever-extreme positions and eschewing compromise. Little gets done, and we have gridlock. It is time to remove the drawing of congressional district boundaries from party hacks and give this job to non-partisan commissions. Is this perfect? No, of course not. But it is possible for good, well-meaning people to get together and draw these district boundaries in a way that maximizes competitiveness and encourages the election of more moderate, less polarizing candidates.

  29. Just because the Electoral College gives disproportionate weight to voters in small states and swing states doesn’t mean it changes the calculation in favor of persuasion rather than turnout. You imagine that it would be feasible get 70% of votes in friendly states merely by pumping up turnout. This is just absurd. In reality, energizing turnout like that is very hard. Merely being ideologically extreme doesn’t seem to help much (as demonstrated by vote patterns in the 2020 Democratic primaries, where turnout for Bernie Sanders fell short of expectations), and it typically comes with a significant loss in moderate support. The primary barriers to young voter turnout (and young voters are the lowest-turnout group) are practical, not ideological (see new book "Making Young Voters").

    To your main point about polarization, you make two mistakes. First, you have no basis for assuming that marginal votes in ideologically extreme states are similarly extreme. The 60-70th percentile of safe state voters are probably just as moderate as the 45-55th percentile of swing state voters. For instance, while California has a reputation for being a very left-wing state, it only has this reputation thanks to about 60% of the population being left. Extending the vote margin beyond this would require appealing to lots of moderates and then right-wingers, who do exist in large numbers in the state.

    The second flaw is that you only look at the potential incentive for politicians to play electoral offense in safe states, when there would also be an equal and opposite incentive to play electoral defense. It’s true that a Democratic candidate would have more incentive to take large majorities of states like California. But Republican candidates would now face a serious incentive to try to hold onto as much of a minority in California as possible. So candidates would not be incentivized to generally be more ideologically extreme, as doing so would threaten their ability to play this kind of defense.

    Finally, appealing to the "wisdom of the Founding Fathers" in defense of this system is simply unserious.

  30. A lot of great points! What do you think about the accusation that the Electoral College is inherently racist? Two issues that could be made in support of that accusation are the 3/5 clause and the higher distribution of the African-American population in larger states.


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