Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Electoral Graduate School

I dig electoral maps.  I get a lot of joy out of watching the states turn red or blue.  I love how this extremely important process is broken down into coloring-book form.  Of course, you could argue that recent elections have been so childish and pedantic that a coloring-book outcome is quite fitting.

Leading up to a presidential election, websites and media outlets project the voting in each state and produce predictive electoral maps based on polling and historical trends.  Their work reveals the states where the data suggests a close election result (these states are known as 'battleground states' or 'swing states').  Candidates wisely devote the most resources to these states, as swaying the votes of a small amount of voters could 'swing' the state and all its electoral votes.

This 'Moneyball' approach to campaigning makes a lot of sense.  Citizens in the battleground states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, etc.) are bombarded with political ads and campaign rallies.  When I lived in Philadelphia in 2004, candidate John Kerry seemed to be town every other day in the months leading up to the election.  Conversely, presidential candidates only stop in New York for fund-raisers or to do presidential stuff if they're, y'know, the president.

There is nothing politically relevant about these battleground states.  Folks in Ohio and Florida are not more thoughtful or insightful about their ballots.  Neither state has a population of people that are more 'representative' of the national populace.  It is simply a matter of randomness that these particular states have borders that contain the perfect mix of rural and urban, rich and poor, and liberal and conservative to consistently create a near 50/50 election result.

The focus on appealing to voters in battleground states creates some unwanted consequences:

1. Presidential candidates themselves (and their vice-presidential selections) are more likely to be put forth by a political party if they are from one of these swing states.  Therefore, a superior candidate from a non-swing state may be passed over for a slightly less appealing candidate from a swing state.

2. Candidates are more likely to promise (and follow-through on) programs that will provide a disproportionate benefit to voters in swing states.  As an example, Michigan and Ohio derive many jobs and rely heavily on the auto industry.  So, regardless of whether the auto bailout benefited the country as a whole, candidates know that supporting the bailout would win the favor of voters in these important swing states.

3. Voters in non-swing states cast votes that are very unlikely to affect the final result and therefore have less incentive to vote.  In states like New York, Alabama, California, and Texas, the results are all but locked-in even before candidates are selected.  For these voters, the decision to vote comes down to either a strong desire to express their opinion or a sense of civic duty.  For many, these two factors are not sufficient to overcome the inconvenience or cost of travelling to their polling place.

In my opinion, every potential voter should have the knowledge that their vote could influence the outcome of the election.  A vote from Texas should have the same weight as a vote in Florida.  More importantly, a voter in Texas should have the same motivation to vote as a voter in Florida.  Likewise, candidates should have an equal incentive to reach undecided voters in Texas as they do undecided voters in Florida.

Many argue to abandon the Electoral College in its entirely and simply count the popular vote.  I just do not believe that's practical (or fun).  You only have to remember the 2000 (Bush-Gore) election that called for a recount in Florida.  That recount was a disaster, but at least it was limited to one state.  If that recount had been nationwide, I don't think the final result could have been determined in an acceptable time frame and the financial cost would have been astronomical.

Thus, any proposed Electoral College fix should accomplish two goals: (1) provide all voters with the knowledge that their vote is as likely to affect the outcome as any other vote, and (2) limit the possibility of and contain the damage of a close or disputed ballot count such that the final outcome may be resolved fairly quickly.  

Here are three potential proposals and an assessment of how well they accomplish these two goals:

Plan 1: Allow states to divide their electoral votes based on percentage of votes received.  This accomplishes the first goal.  Ohio's 18 electoral votes are very likely to be split either 9-9 or 10-8 assuming a very close popular vote.  The incentive for a candidate to focus their energy here as opposed to elsewhere is gone.  For voters in non-swing states, they know that their vote may push important electoral votes towards their candidate, regardless of how their state as a whole votes.  Unfortunately, this proposal opens does not fulfill the second goal.  In a state like California, there were roughly ten million votes cast.  Dividing up the states 55 electoral votes, we see that every 18,000 or so votes would yield one electoral vote.  Lawyers for either side could reasonably argue that the ballot-counting was in error by this small amount, greatly increasing the odds that the election will be disputed and that a recount is needed.

Plan 2: Randomly redraw the electoral 'states' and not release the redrawn 'states' until immediately before the election.  The first goal is met for the most part.  Voters in Ohio may be in a redrawn 'state' with parts of Pennsylvania or Indiana.  Or, it could be divided in such a way to only include a small piece of the state.  For certain areas, voters may still believe their vote will not affect the election.  There are certain parts of the country that no redrawing will affect the overall result.  For instance, the areas in and around New York City would be very unlikely to go to a conservative candidate regardless of how the area is delineated, while any area in the Bible Belt would likely go the other way.  The second goal would be mostly accomplished, as the new 'states' should be no more unmanageable than the current states.  However, as voting rules are set out by state law, conflicts will undoubtedly arise if a close race is made up of votes from multiple states.

Plan 3: Randomly pair up the states.  The election would occur as it always does, but with one extra step.  After all votes are cast, each of the 50 states (sorry, DC) are thrown into a hat (not a literal hat, but if a literal hat, definitely one of those Uncle Sam top hats).  Two states are selected at random and the aggregate popular vote of the two states determines where combined electoral votes of the two states are allocated.  For example, lets say that Obama wins Ohio by 30,000 votes and Romney wins Georgia by 90,000 votes.  If those two states are randomly paired up, Romney would win all of Georgia's electoral votes AND all of Ohio's electoral votes.  The selections would continue until all fifty states are paired up.  Crazy, right?  Crazy awesome.  Based on the two part test, this one passes on both counts.  Regardless of how your individual state votes, each vote is important as voters do not know what pool of voters will be included in their count.  Also, recounts are no more likely.  While a recount of dual-state outcome would require two states to conduct a recount, there would only be twenty-five dual-state outcomes as opposed to the current fifty state outcomes.  Plus, every state would have equal recount risk, as opposed to just Florida, Ohio and the rest of the swing states.  The basic fact that all states may face a recount supports our first goal: that each vote is equally likely to affect the final outcome.

Plan 3 will never happen, despite how much I would want to watch the live state pairing selection show (would this be the highest rated show in history?) and the drama that would follow.  But this approach is superior to the current format.  After all, is anything more ridiculous than having a federal election determined by the people of Ohio?

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