Friday, December 06, 2019

The Problem of the Electoral College

Since the 2016 election, when the current president won the election despite a nearly three million vote deficit in the popular vote, there has been a lot of outcry on the left that we need to eliminate the Electoral College. To be sure, there is some cause for concern. After all President trump won the Electoral College with the largest popular vote deficit -- in absolute numbers as well as percentage of the electorate as a whole -- in history.

However, calls to eliminate the Electoral College are far too simplistic and open up the floodgates to unintended (or perhaps "intended" on purely partisan grounds) consequences. To begin with, if the Electoral College is simply eliminated and we rely purely on the popular vote, it's a safe bet that no Republican will hold the White House again for I don't know how many years due to the fact that, according to voter rolls, there are simply more Democrats than Republicans. And while some may view this as a salutary situation, it actually is doing nothing more than taking the pendulum that is at one extreme and pushing it to the other as well as doing nothing to address the increasing, nearly paralyzing, polarization that exists in this country.

There has also been a lot of agitation, mostly from the left, about disparity in Congressional representation. The common example used is that Wyoming has only one Representative and two Senators to represent 579,315 people (note: all population numbers used in this articles are 2017 estimates obtained from the United States Census Bureau) people, whereas California has 53 Representatives and two Senators to represent 39,536,653 million people, or roughly one Representative for 745,974 Californians. However, for a true illustration one need only to look at Rhode Island and Montana, the two states at the extreme ends of the representation spectrum.

Rhode Island has two Representatives, representing a total population of 1,059,639 people, or 529,819 people for each Representative. Compare that to Montana, which has a population that is nearly identical (1,050,493, a difference of only 9,146 people) yet only has one Representative.

The reason this situation exists is because we are Constitutionally constrained to keep Congressional districts completely within a single state. This made perfect sense in the agrarian society of the late 1700s and early 1800s, when the vast majority of the population was spread out over millions of acres of farmland.

To give a sense of scale here, New York City has been the most populous city in the United States in every census. In 1790, the United States population as a whole was 3,929,214 and NYC was 33,131 -- 0.84% of the total population. Compare that to 2017 estimates of 325,150,000 for the country as a whole and 8,623,000 for NYC (2.65% of the total population), and we can see that cities have been gaining in influence. In addition, in 1790 the United States population was 5.1% urban, compared to 20000 (around 81%).

The problem is the constraints that have been placed on apportionment:

  • Each Representative must represent only people in his or her home state.
  • The total number of Members in the House of Representatives is capped at 435 due to the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. This was passed into law to address the fact that, if we had remained with the procedures described in the Constitution of one Member for every 30,000 people, we would have a House of Representatives with over 108,000 members.
  • Our current apportionment methodology is that of the total population of the United States divided as equally as possible among the 435 Representative seats, with a provision that each state is entitled to at least one seat.

Various other methods have been proposed, in ever-increasing mathematical complexity. And while these methods do address the problem -- somewhat -- they all far short of achieving true representational parity.

There is a single solution that will address both of these issues, and it does not involve elimination of the Electoral College. It will require a radical shift in how we apportion representation, and will also require that the functions of the two Houses of the Legislative Branch be redefined slightly.

Stick with me here.

The first thing that needs to be done is to define what it is we wish to accomplish. If our goal is to maintain partisan gridlock, then by all means we should continue on our current course. If, however, we aspire to make elections, free, fair, and more closely respondent to the population, then we need to take the following measures.

Eliminate "winner take all."
Under our current system, a presidential candidate wins all the Electoral College votes for a state, even if he or she only wins the popular vote by one vote. This servers to artificially inflate the influence of rural, sparsely populated areas of the country over urban areas ... or, to put it another way, it takes more votes to earn a single Electoral College vote in Montana than it does in Rhode Island, a disparity that can cause a candidate to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote.

There are two states that do not follow this framework and instead use proportional voting: Nebraska and Maine. In these states, a presidential candidate gets two Electoral College votes based on the statewide total, and one Electoral College vote for each Congressional district in which he or she wins a popular plurality. Incorporating this approach in the country at large is a fairly simple matter in that it does not change how vote are cast, only how they are counted.

Eliminate the requirement that a Representative only represent people from a single state.
If we do this, each Representative would represent roughly 747,500 people (based on 2017 population estimates) while maintaining the 435 Representatives mandated by the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929. For example, in the case a state like Wyoming, with less than this number, the Representative can "borrow" constituents from neighboring Montana to reach this number -- simultaneously bring Montana closer to parity as well.

Eliminate electors as separate entities.
In 2016, the following people were appointed to serve as presidential electors:

  • Bob Asher (convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and bribery in 1987; his co-conspirator, Bud Dwyer, committed suicide on live television a week before his sentencing by putting a pistol in his mouth and pulling the trigger during a press conference. He was 47 years old.)
  • Mary Barket
  • Robert Bozzuto
  • Theodore (Ted) Christian
  • Michael Downing
  • Margaret Ferraro
  • Robert Gleason (former chair of the Pennsylvania Republican party)
  • Christopher Gleason
  • Joyce Haas
  • Ash Khare
  • James McErlane
  • Elstina Pickett
  • Patricia Poprik
  • Andrew Reilly
  • Carol Sides
  • Glora "Lee" Snover
  • Richard Stewart
  • Lawrence Tabas
  • Christine Toretti (Republican National Committee member from Indiana, PA)
  • Carolyn Bunny Welsh (sheriff of Chester County)

Out of this list, the only person who is an elected official is Welsh, who was elected sheriff in 2000 and has held the office since.

By making the casting of an Electoral College vote part of the duties of members of Congress, and enforcing a legal requirement that they vote according to their district (for Representatives) or state (for Senators), we introduce a level of accountability that has not previously existed. For example, in Pennsylvania in 2016, the 17th Congressional District voted for donald trump, 53% to 43%, yet elected Democrat Matt Cartwright to the House of Representatives. Under this new scenario, if trump wins the PA-17 in 2020, Cartwright (who won re-election in 2018) would be legally required to cast an electoral vote for trump -- despite his personal feelings about the matter.

Obviously, this is a back-of-the-envelope idea, and I am sure that there is no shortage of flaws in the plan as it is stated here. However, it is someplace to start.

I gotta lie down.

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