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Reform the Electoral System Before It Malfunctions Again

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Bush-guitar

People on the left should not vote for third party candidates in 2016. But we also shouldn’t forget that we have a bad electoral system that can unnecessarily produce inaccurate results:

But the bigger problem is that supporting any Green candidate for president is all downside and no upside. The only possible effect Stein could have on the presidential election is to attract enough votes to allow Donald Trump to win, which would have horrible material consequences for countless important issues: civil rights and liberties, economic equality, the environment, women’s reproductive freedom, and on and on.

The idea that without third-party challenges the major parties will just take their supporters entirely for granted, and hence that third parties are necessary for major change to occur, sounds plausible in theory but is egregiously wrong in practice. Conservatives didn’t capture the Republican Party by mounting vanity general election candidates against the establishment. The Social Security Act of 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the national right to same-sex marriage were not the result of mass defections from the Democratic Party and effective third-party challenges from the left. Presidents inevitably disappoint their allies, and as Bernie Sanders recently noted, politics has to continue after Election Day. But some presidents are amenable to pressure from progressive groups and some aren’t, and activists who know what they’re doing do what they can to elect the former. In 2016, Hillary Clinton is in the former category and Donald Trump the latter.

Still, why should the consequences of voting your first choice be so potentially perverse? It is a function of the electoral system. To get a state’s Electoral College votes, a candidate does not need a majority, only one more vote than the runner-up. These simple plurality electoral systems have become increasingly discredited among liberal democracies, for good reason.

Plurality systems effectively ignore highly pertinent information. They treat all voters as having no preference between the candidates they don’t mark as their first choice, when we know that in most cases that isn’t true. (A person voting for Jill Stein will, in all likelihood, prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.) Because of strategic voting (e.g., liberals of all stripes voting to keep Trump out of office), plurality elections tend to produce acceptable, majority-supported winners—but not always. Electoral systems that take this information into account—and hence prevent the spoiler effect of third-party candidates—are available and could be instituted.

The problem with the electoral system is not Trump per se; after all, one of the most severe democratic malfunctions of the Electoral College gave us Lincoln. The problem is that it’s a lousy electoral system, and the majority should reliably get their choice. I myself don’t see much value in expressive voting for third-party candidates but an electoral system should accommodate those that do.

For those interested in electoral reform, The Center For Election Science is running a fundraising campaign. And, also, never forget.

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  • LeeEsq

    One of the more interesting online debates I read was between libertarians who wanted to abolish the Electoral College and go to majority voting for President and libertarians who wanted to retain it. The abolish it side made the common sense point that the Electoral College never functioned as intended from the first contested Presidential election onward. The writers of the Constitution really wanted people to elect Electors and the Electors to debate among themselves on who would be the best President. This never happened. The keep it side and some dumb argument about small states and we can make it work.

    • royko

      Well, we wouldn’t want to put those poor Wyomingans at the mercy of those illegitimate “urban” voters who would run up the vote totals and destroy our peaceful agrarian society.

      • Yankee

        You think you’re kidding, but the tyranny of the majority is a real thing.

        … this just in …

        • LosGatosCA

          I don’t see how a gun registration based set of policies is any more intrusive to the people in that article than having to take a driving test to get a license that then needs to be renewed.

          The choices aren’t strictly 1) no -little regulation with loopholes or 2) banning and confiscation

    • Scott Lemieux

      The Electoral College is just absolutely indefensible. Not only does nobody else us it anywhere (including any of the 50 states), had the Constitution been framed and ratified in 1800 there almost certainly would have been a direct popular vote. It was an anachronism within a decade.

      • econoclast

        One of the many false predictions I’ve made in my life was years ago when I confidently predicted the Electoral College wouldn’t survive a popular/elector split in outcomes.

        • Scott Lemieux

          I wonder if Kerry getting 200,000 more votes in Ohio might have made killing the EC more plausible. It seems to me that you’d need both parties to get screwed within a relatively tight time frame for it to happen.

          • Cheerful

            It will be even more interesting to see if it survives some future tie vote. I sometimes imagine that a H of R wouldn’t have the chutzpah to overturn a popular vote winner but then I wake up.

            • gorillagogo

              Another wrinkle–if the House majority switches parties during the election that produced the split. You know for a fact that Republicans would argue they should get to decide regardless of whether they were the party gaining or losing the majority

        • Warren Terra

          One of the many false predictions I’ve made in my life was years ago when I confidently predicted the Electoral College wouldn’t survive a popular/elector split in outcomes.

          To be completely fair, it only just made it past this bar, and didn’t quite if you actually count all the ballots in Florida using a reasonable standard.

        • JKTH

          One of the many false predictions I’ve made in my life was years ago when I confidently predicted the Electoral College wouldn’t survive a popular/elector split in outcomes.

          Probably just needs an addendum of “when a Republican loses.”

      • Cheerful

        But in 1800 at least one state I can think of, South Carolina, didn’t select electors by popular vote. I wonder if they had thought to just abolish it, instead of monkeying with it as they did, whether the substitution would have simply left it to states to decide how to award their electors, regulated, if at all, by the Republican government clause.

        In any case the Electoral College is an interesting example of group think. Sequestering 30-50 people in a room to hash out important matters for a few months may have confirmed to all involved that important matters could generally be hashed out by a small group of people in a room.

        • FlipYrWhig

          Sequestering 30-50 people in a room to hash out important matters for a few months may have confirmed to all involved that important matters could generally be hashed out by a small group of people in a room.

          Ooh, I bet you’re right about that…

        • IM

          Actually a number of states used state legislatures to elect electors.

          By 1840 or so most had switched to electing electors by popular vote. South Carolina as usual being the last hold out.

        • DrDick

          It is simply another manifestation of the fear of popular (as opposed to patrician) democracy among many of the authors of the Constitution. It also gave us the Senate and limited the vote to white male property owners.

        • Matt McIrvin

          I don’t think the Electoral College was ever a deliberative body that actually met in a room, though. Haven’t they always sent in their votes from their individual states?

      • ploeg

        They actually had the chance to do away with the Electoral College in 1800 because of the Jefferson-Burr controversy. They tweaked it instead.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Well, I’ll be damned, well, I’ll be damned…

      • EliHawk

        Well, some states used to use the Electoral College system, until it was made unconstitutional. It’s one reason Georgia has 159 counties.

      • kenfair

        The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is the best way to eliminate the effect of the Electoral College without having to amend the Constitution.

        One point I will make is that, in fact, it does make sense in some limited circumstances to vote third-party. I voted for Nader in 2000. This was not because I wanted him to win, but because the outcome in my state (Texas) was a foregone conclusion, and because I wanted the Green Party to have easier ballot access in lower-tier races where sometimes only they and not the Democrats fielded a candidate.

        • Dilan Esper

          There are actually plenty of good reasons to vote third party, including the one Scott dismisses. The 2000 Nader campaign is one of many reasons the Democrats have moved left, but it is a part of that story. As the Wallace campaign in 1968 is part of the story of how the Republicans got so racist. And the Perot voters probably had something to do with why Clinton balanced the budget and ran supluses.

          I do want to say, though, that this is one of Scott’s better posts on this, because he acknowledges that third party voters have legitimate rights and favors reforms that would help third parties play a constructive role.

          • DrDick

            The 2000 Nader campaign is one of many reasons the Democrats have moved left

            Oh bull! This is complete nonsense with nothing to support it. In point of fact, the Democrats completely ignored Nader supporters and their issues afterwards.

          • NonyNony

            The 2000 Nader campaign is one of many reasons the Democrats have moved left

            If by this you mean that the 2000 Nader campaign saddled us with George W Bush – who proceeded to drive the country into the ground via poor management so robustly that even a nincompoop had to admit that electing another Republican was a bad idea – then I guess I can kind of see your point.

            But it seems more like the Nader vote in 2000 forced the Democrats to wake up and realize that leftist white people were an unreliable voting group and that they’d better GOTV among groups other than white leftists if they wanted to win.

            (I mean, in 2004 they nominated Kerry. You really want to tell me that John Kerry was an attempt to appeal to Nader 2000 voters?)

      • Turangalila

        …had the Constitution been framed and ratified in 1800 there almost certainly would have been a direct popular vote.

        Can you link some historical evidence for this assertion? It’s a new one on me.

        The 12th Amendment would seem to indicate otherwise, but maybe I’m missing something?

  • Well, amending the constitution of the U.S. and the 50 states plus D.C. seems a rather daunting project. Otherwise okay, sure, let’s have a parliamentary system with proportional representation or something. We might end up like Britain, or we might end up like Italy. Whatever.

    • Scott Lemieux

      amending the constitution of the U.S.

      No amendment is necessary.

      • Why not? The electoral college is specified in the constitution. The individual states could elect electors proportionately but they would all have to do it. And they all have plurality voting.

        If states did it one at a time you’d have huge problem, obviously, because the Dem leaning states would be far more likely to go first, thereby leaving us truly and royally screwed.

        • Warren Terra

          There is an organization called National Popular Vote who have a bill that answers all the obvious objections: states pass the bill individually, and the bill basically states that once enough states have passed the bill that their electoral college votes constitute a majority, that state will name its electors to unanimously vote in favor of the candidate who won the national popular vote.

          Because it doesn’t take effect until there’s critical mass, it solves your problem of unilateral disarmament. Because the states can decide on electors however the heck they want, it’s (probably) legal.

          But of course the problem is convincing states to pass it …

          • KadeKo

            Npv was never something I cared for in more than theory. And that’s before the vote suppression tidal wave of the last 7 years.

            Simply put, if it’s such a good idea, why haven’t all the larger red states signed on? When will TX and GA sign over their EVe to a Dem this way?

            • Philip

              There are lots of good ideas the GOP opposes basically because they are good ideas.

          • Colin Day

            What happens if you such a majority of states, and then reapportionment moves it back to a minority?

        • Scott Lemieux

          I’m talking about ending plurality voting, not winner-take-all. The latter can’t be done unilaterally but the former can.

          • Colin Day

            Don’t Maine and Nebraska already assign electors by Congressional district?

            • MattT

              Which, it should be pointed out, is really the worst of both worlds. It provides an additional reward for gerrymandering and an additional penalty for concentrations of Democratic voters in urban areas. If say, Ohio, had this system, Clinton could win the state by 5 points and Trump would almost certainly still get more delegates. It hasn’t ever mattered much, since I think the only time the overall state loser picked up an EV this way was Obama in NE in 08, but there’s a reason the only people trying to expand this are Republican state legislatures in states that vote Democratic at the presidential level.

              • catclub

                I am surprised this has not caught on more in the past few years. There are many states with Democratic majorities for President that have GOP state government, but none I can think of with GOP majorities for president with Democratic party state government.

                (I think: Virginia, NC, OHIO, PA, Wisc, Mich, Iowa, FLA, CO? )

                • MattT

                  Several of those have Democratic governors to go with GOP statehouses. Also, those are all to some level “swing states” that get disproportionate attention in the presidential race. My guess is that the big thing that’s stopped it is a parochial concern over losing influence as a swing state. Consistent with this, the state on that list that’s come closest to actually doing this, MI, is the one that’s usually regarded as the least contested.

                • efgoldman

                  I am surprised this has not caught on more in the past few years.

                  Snyder tried it in Michigan a few years ago. Even with a compliant TeaHadi legislature, they couldn’t get it thru.

                • PA considered it.

                  It’s really the next big move after voter ID based suppression.

                • witlesschum

                  Too be perhaps too fair to Snyder, he actually said he wasn’t interested when some of the crazier wingnuts in the legislature (including the two that got run out of town by their own caucus) proposed this. It never got any traction, so who knows what he’d have actually done.

              • Matt McIrvin

                It’s probably going to happen again: Maine is nearly certain to split its electoral votes this time. District 2 is extraordinarily Trumpy.

          • Tracy Lightcap

            I’m glad you made this point. I’ve spent years in U.S. government classes pointing out that First Past The Post voting is not required by the Constitution. It reserves the power of conducting elections to the states. Getting this across to students is as hard as pulling their molars in class without anesthetic.

            Good exercise in getting them to think outside the box, however.

            • Getting this across to students is as hard as pulling their molars in class without anesthetic.

              It must be fun to be on your IRB!

    • wjts

      I’m sure Gregor will be along shortly to explain in greater detail, but switching the House to proportional representation and changing the ballot wouldn’t require a constitutional amendment or any change to state-level laws, only a law passed by both houses of Congress. So it’s no more difficult than, say, a single-payer health care system or card check.

      • Cash & Cable

        The Constitution gives states the power to choose the method by which they select their electors. So while I understand that you could switch the House to PR, I don’t see how you reform the electoral college without a Constitutional amendment or changing all the various state laws. [ETA: I just saw that Lemieux said the same thing in his piece].

        • wjts

          Yes, getting rid of the electoral college would require a Constitutional amendment. But electing, um, electors using approval voting wouldn’t and would, I suppose, allow third-party voters to send their VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE without acting as a spoiler in the elector, um, election.

        • sonamib

          IIRC Gregor’s arguments*, it could be done with an interstate compact. Basically, states would agree to assign their electors to the winner of the popular vote. This agreement would only become valid if enough states** had signed the compact. Technically the electoral college is still there, but it just becomes irrelevant.

          *See, Gregor, we do watch and learn from your comments!

          **Enough = more than half of the electoral college.

          • Cash & Cable

            But wouldn’t you still need the Federal Election Commission to switch from a FPTP system to an approval-based voting system? Otherwise, the compact does little to mitigate the problem of third-party spoilers.

            • sonamib

              TBF the compact would have prevented Bush from winning in 2000. That’s not nothing!

              But I have no idea about how to introduce approval voting. You’ll need to wait for someone more knowledgeable than me.

              • Johnny Sack

                Yeah right. Suddenly every red state would say “lol jk”

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Nope. Interstate compacts are in the constitution; they’re binding. States can’t just say “lol jk”. They can withdraw with due notice, but in this case that would probably mean a year before the election in question; before the partisan advantage is clear.

                  (Yes I’m here now and thanks Scott! This is great!)

                • NonyNony

                  They can withdraw with due notice, but in this case that would probably mean a year before the election in question; before the partisan advantage is clear.

                  What’s the penalty if they refuse? As in what’s the penalty if the state just says “nope – our votes go to this guy despite what the compact says”?

                • Johnny Sack

                  Yeah, I’m well aware of the legal regime, thank you. Trouble is, the law is not what is written down but what judges say it is.

                  If the compact is ignored, the remedy (assuming someone has standing) will be sought via suit. And if you draw wing nut circuit judges, and you have wing nuts on SCOTUS, all of a sudden a new constitutional principle is discovered (or in this case, an extension of “it’s ok to ignore the law if it helps elect a republican.”)

                • Gregor Sansa

                  Wingnut SCOTUS days are numbered. I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like Scalia again.

                • wjts

                  I don’t think we’ll ever see another one like Scalia again.

                  Not until the next Republican Supreme Court appointee, no.

                • (((Malaclypse)))

                  Not until the next Republican Supreme Court appointee, no.

                  The next Republican Supreme Court nominee will make us long for reasonable moderates like Scalia.

                • Matt McIrvin

                  The thing that concerns me about the National Popular Vote compact is that it depends on the national popular vote being known, which requires cooperation from the states that didn’t join. Couldn’t they just keep their popular vote secret to mess up the whole thing? Or is there already some constitutional reason they have to disclose it?

                • Gregor Sansa

                  The people of the state have a right to know the voting totals. If voting totals are held secret, there is nothing stopping the outcome from being falsified. I think there’s a pretty strong legal argument that that would violate rights; things like the republican government clause of the constitution.

            • wjts

              The FEC is, I think, only responsible for overseeing the financing of campaigns, not the mechanisms or conduct of elections. I don’t really know enough about the relevant laws to be opining here, but my impression is that states can probably opt to use approval (or whatever) voting for choosing electors and it may be the case that Congress could require that method.

          • This agreement would only become valid if enough states** had signed the compact.

            Can one sitting of a state legislature bind future sittings in that way?

            • Colin Day

              Wouldn’t those future sittings be able to repeal the compact?

              • Gregor Sansa

                With due notice.

    • twbb

      “We might end up like Britain, or we might end up like Italy. Whatever.”

      So either way we end up worse?

  • royko

    I shudder to think of the level of electoral debacle that would be necessary to make this happen.

    • LosGatosCA

      OTOH, if we collectively reached the level of enlightenment that led to this being possible, the country would be in such great shape that the whole discussion would be moot.

      ETA: I mean the Republicans/small state interests will never be to reform any fucking thing about elections except make it worse

      • Gregor Sansa

        I think you’ll be surprised what’s possible once the SCOTUS is sane.

  • WigFlipper

    If third-partiers actually believe in their theory of defection, then they should oppose a majority electoral system. Even if they would attract more voters, they would lose the threat of throwing the election, which seems to be the only reason the mainstream party would listen to them.

    • Gregor Sansa

      That’s silly. The defection theory is basically “I refuse to believe I’m trapped”. Give people another out that actually works, and it would take not just a moron but a moron to the power of moron in order to cling to the old false hope. With notably rare exceptions, most voters stop at moron at worst.

      • WigFlipper

        Sure, I agree that that’s how it would work out in practice, which is best for everyone involved. But it would also discredit one of the main (and ludicrous) apologies for third party voting.

      • LosGatosCA

        I think this election has the possibility of proving that moron cubed is not only real but not even the upper limit.

        Stupidity in all its forms is an infinitely renewable resource.

        And peak wingnut is a lie.

  • xq

    People here mostly seem to favor approval voting, as Scott does in the article. But isn’t there a potential problem in that lots of 3rd party voters do so because they strongly oppose both major party nominees–and therefore may not vote to approve them even if given that option? While if you allowed voters to rank candidates, or maybe even forced them to do so, they could express how much they hate Clinton by ranking her below Johnson and Stein, while still giving the information that, yes, they ultimately would rather have her become president than Trump.

    Is there good evidence that under an approval voting system the third party voters who are motivated by their dislike of the major party nominees would vote for one of them along with their favored third party option?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Good question. I definitely think this is the strongest argument for ranked voting.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        If you look at online discussions among Greens these days, many seriously buy the argument that Clinton would be worse than Trump because she’s more competent. They also feel that they’re getting told to vote for Clinton and they hate that apparently. I would not necessarily bet that most Stein voters would rank Clinton ahead of Trump, especially if not forced to rank all the candidates and, perhaps, even if forced to to do (’cause they so object to feeling like they’ve been told to do things). I’d predict that, despite support among Greens for electoral reform, actual electoral reform would get attacked as further fixing elections for the 1%.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Actual election reform would bring a flood of non-crazies into the Green party, diluting the crazy substantially.

        • Matt McIrvin

          The discussions I’ve seen about this always end up at “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”

      • Gregor Sansa

        Yes, this is the weakest point about approval. So, a few responses.

        First off: even with this weak point, approval is still strictly better than plurality. In approval, third party voters can be hardasses like this, but at least they don’t have to be; they can, if they choose, show their support for their true favorite without abandoning the compromise.

        Second: “ranked voting” isn’t a system. The ranked systems are IRV or Condorcet.

        IRV is vulnerable to center squeeze, where a centrist is eliminated prematurely. This is what blew up in Egypt electing Morsi. (That was traditional runoff not IRV, but in this case the result is the same.)

        Condorcet gets great results. But it’s really hard to present those results. Instead of saying “X wins by Y% to Z%”, you have to give a whole matrix (or triangle, at least) of two-way results; not at all user-friendly.

        Third: my suggestion for the simplest fix to this problem is “U/P” voting, which I’ve pitched here 3 or 4 times so far. Here’s how it works. For each candidate, you can downvote (rate “Unacceptable”); upvote (rate “Preferred”); or neither. Any candidate with a majority of downvotes, and/or with fewer than half the upvotes of the most-upvoted candidate, is disqualified, unless that would disqualify everyone. Of the remaining candidates, the one with the most upvotes wins.

        This is still pretty simple (simpler than either IRV or Condorcet); much simpler to vote; quite robust to strategy (though no voting system can be perfectly so); and gets good results across all the common voting scenarios (including things like Bush/Gore/Nader or Trump/Clinton/Johnson/Stein).

        • Philip

          Isn’t this subject to the same big strategic voting weakness of “only upvote my candidate, downvote everyone else”? (I don’t have time to actually work through examples/do the math right now)

          • Gregor Sansa

            The key example is when you have A1 and A2 with 25% and 35% running against Z with 40%. Safest thing for A1 and A2 to do is not to downvote each other. Z is eliminated and A2 wins.

            Yes, A1 voters could start a war by downvoting A2. But it’s a war they’d probably lose, and they’d be risking letting Z win.

            If A1 is Nader and the percentages are 3, 48, and 49, it still works. As long as less than 1/3 of Nader voters downvote Gore, and over 2/3 of them downvote Bush, the system works and Gore wins.

            It’s safer and more expressive than approval voting. Can you still make up a scenario where it breaks? Yes; that’s true of any voting system. (Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem, etc.)

            If you want an even better system, the only way to go is delegation a la SODA. Probably too complicated; and anyway, one step at a time. Let’s start with approval; a huge step up.

          • Matt McIrvin

            I guess it would get some people out to the polls by encouraging them to come and downvote everybody (though it might mean that everyone gets disqualified by the downvote rule all the time, meaning it has no real effect).

            • Gregor Sansa

              You could have an additional rule that anybody who had been disqualified by downvotes in a previous election would have a note to that effect next to their name on the ballot. It would function as a soft term limit for anybody who won in a year when everybody was disqualified.

              (Obama 2008 had a clear majority who liked him pretty well, so he would not have been hit by this limit. Clinton this year probably won’t, so she probably would. I think a rule that meant a real Democratic primary in 2020 but not in 2012 would be a good thing for the party and the country in both cases.)

        • Matt McIrvin

          I’m guessing that in a US presidential election, the “unless this would disqualify everyone” rule would nearly always kick in, making the downvotes effectively pointless.

          Most people would upvote their preferred major-party candidate, downvote with extreme prejudice their non-preferred major-party candidate, and leave all the Naders and Steins and Vermin Supremes blank because they probably never heard of those people. A bunch of minor-party voters and fuck-everyone cynics would probably downvote all the big names. It would probably take an extraordinary candidate to not have a majority of downvotes, unless they were relatively obscure, in which case the minimum threshold on upvotes would get them.

          Which I guess just leaves this as equivalent to approval voting.

          • Gregor Sansa

            At worst, it’s approval voting. But there are definitely realistic cases where it’s better. In other words, your cynicism is sometimes but not always justified.

    • FlipYrWhig

      In practice, though, can you force people to use all of their ranks? To wit, to set things up so that a ballot that doesn’t have all the options ranked doesn’t count at all? Seems like trouble waiting to happen.

      • xq

        Yeah, thinking about it a little more, disqualifying people’s ballots because they don’t use all their ranks would cause more problems than it would solve. Bad idea! I think the rest of my post still holds though. I don’t see a lot of the Clinton-haters voting for Clinton alongside Stein, but they might be more willing to do so if given the option to express that she was 3rd place out of 4.

        • Gregor Sansa

          They actually do disqualify ballots for failing to fully rank, in Australia. But you can vote a party line by checking just one box. Result: pretty much everyone votes a party line. Functions basically like a the worst of closed-list merged with some bad stuff from STV. Still better than a nonproportional system, but party insiders are basically impossible to unseat, and ballots are complicated and easy to spoil. Not a good system.

          For single-winner elections, in general, voting systems which force you to rank lead to strategic (insincere) ranks, which can lead to absolutely HORRIBLE results. Borda is one example; the only system which can actually be worse than plurality. Much better to make it strategically advantageous to cooperate, as with systems like U/P.

          • Val

            I usually just lurk here (btw it is a funny and interesting blog, thank you) but as an Australian, wanted to clarify this as I don’t think anyone else has.

            The above the line, tick one box, option only ever applied in the Senate (upper house). In the House of Representatives you have to tick all boxes or it doesn’t get counted, but there’s usually only five or six candidates for each electorate, so it’s not too hard. In the Senate, you are voting (in a normal election) for six senators, for the whole state and may get 40 or so candidates, which makes it very difficult. That’s why they introduced the tick one box above the line and vote the way your party has decided option.

            However that was being gamed by preference deals amongst minor parties (senators were being elected with teeny vote numbers as a result) so they changed it and you can now vote for only six (in any order you choose) below the line, which will make it much easier.

            (I say ‘normal election’ because we’ve just used the system in a double dissolution election where we elect 12 senators, but that’s very unusual. Too technical, won’t go into it further)

            It all gets a bit mind-numbing lay technical when you get into it, I guess, but short message I think you should definitely look at some kind of preferential or proportional system – first past the post is nuts

      • With electronic voting machines it’s easy enough to program the machine to not accept the ballot without all candidates being ranked thereby forcing the voter to complete the ranking task.
        With other systems it’s a bit trickier. Is there some rule that could be applied to unranked candidates on a ballot rather than rejecting the entire ballot?

    • sonamib

      While if you allowed voters to rank candidates, or maybe even forced them to do so, they could express how much they hate Clinton by ranking her below Johnson and Stein, while still giving the information that, yes, they ultimately would rather have her become president than Trump.

      But how would you force people to rank candidates? Do you throw out a ballot if there are at least two unranked candidates?

      Edit : I see FlipYrWhig had the same concerns.

      • FlipYrWhig

        Every time we try to reform balloting in our Department of [Redacted], we founder on people’s incomprehension of the alternatives. I’ve always kind of liked the systems by which everyone has a fixed number of chits to divide up among candidates and can push all of them over to the single candidate she likes best. But if the outcome were to be something that a segment of the electorate didn’t like, it’d be very hard to explain-slash-justify it.

        • Gregor Sansa

          That’s called “limited voting”, and it’s a semiproportional system. Advantages: simple to explain and administer; and tends to gives a more proportional outcome than just FPTP, when you’re electing more than one seat at once. Disadvantages: has no guarantees of any kind of proportionality so can in some cases go badly wrong; helps not at all if you’re just electing one officeholder; explaining strategy can be tricky.

          If you want a truly proportional, and simple, system for a multiwinner election, use delegated STV. Each candidate predeclares a full ranked ballot with themself at the top; then, when you vote for somebody, you automatically fill in the rest of your ballot with the thing they’ve declared. Use STV on the resulting ballots. This is easy for the voters, but for finding results you’ll probably want a computer; STV programs are widely available.

    • Colin Day

      Isn’t America’s voter turnout bad enough without making people do more work?

      • xq

        Then let’s take out all the offices and propositions that get zero attention and really don’t belong on the ballot. People actually care about the presidential election. I think they’d be willing to do slightly more work to express their views on it.

      • Pat

        I think that a bigger problem is when counties and towns have poorly advertised elections on apparently random work days throughout the year. Those elections have very low participation rates and so are often controlled by local power blocks, like churches and civic organizations.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    Scott, the Center for Election Science link seems to be botched

    • Gregor Sansa

      I think he “fixed” it by pointing to the standard “donate” page. I appreciate any link very much, but… the actual current fundraiser, for an approval-voting vs. plurality comparison national poll on the current presidential election, is here. Scott, when you can get around to fixing that again, eternal thanks.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Further pimping: the kind of polling that this fundraiser will enable is really important.

        As I said in another thread, people vote to for two principal reasons: to help pick a winner, and to express their idea of which candidate is best. Call those two purposes the instrumental and expressive purposes. The biggest problem with plurality voting is that it can’t do both things at once; in fact, when you try, it breaks down badly. There’s only two ways that could be fixed. The first would be to convince every single voter in every single election to give up on expressive voting; but in practice, this is impossible. The second is reforming the voting system itself; moving to something like approval voting. In the meantime, the best we can do is use polling to at least *show* how voting could be expressive and to get an idea of what it would reveal if it were.

        So, please click on the link above and donate. Or here it is again.

  • Frank Wilhoit

    It is very simple. If you want to use first-past-the-post, then there must be exactly two candidates on the ballot. If you want to be able to have more than two candidates on the ballot, then you must use something other than first-past-the-post.

    None of this matters where the process of reporting election results cannot be trusted.

  • PeakVT

    If this country was sane enough to circumvent the electoral college via legislation, be it federal or state-based, it would be sane enough to re-write the whole damn thing (slightly dated version, a new one is the works).

    This is not a sane country. It is merely less insane than most of the others.

    • ForkyMcSpoon

      Rewriting the whole damn thing requires a supermajority.

      Circumventing the EC with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would only require states equaling a majority of electoral college votes.

      I get your point, but the threshold for the NPVIC is a bit lower.

      It’s likely that after a few elections with that, the resistance to simply amending the Constitution would dissipate a bit, particularly if we could formalize the popular vote in some better way (a problem with the NPVIC comes with say, procedures for a recount – which states will do it and which states won’t? Are they following the same rules? It seems that the states that aren’t party to the NPVIC won’t necessarily behave as they should in that regard.)

  • Brett

    We could get the ball rolling on a major change-up in governmental structure with state-level pushes as well. Not just the compact – some states allow constitutional amendment referenda, which means you could shift the state government towards a parliamentary set-up that way if you had the support.

    • Philip

      Oh god please no, things are bad enough with the CA ballot measure system without people getting ideas like this

      • Brett

        You don’t want proportional representation parliament in California? That’d be great if you’re progressive. And since California is freaking huge and diverse, it’d be a good trial run for reforms to push at a prospective constitutional convention.

        • Philip

          I don’t want anything at all by ballot measures/referenda. They inevitably have screwups, and they’re impossible to amend without another referendum.

          • Gregor Sansa

            Only in California. In most other states, they can be fixed by legislation. CA is stupid that way.

            • Philip

              Yeah, I meant here specifically.

            • Michael Cain

              Not only California. 15 other states allow amendments by direct initiative. It’s easier to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in Colorado than it is in California.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      This is part of why I can’t take electoral reform advocates seriously — they make virtually no efforts at actually reforming the electoral systems that are most susceptible to “reform.”

      • Gregor Sansa

        How you figure? I’ve testified in NH, I’ve spearheaded successful reform in the Hugo awards and the Webby awards, I’ve helped the (imperfect, but better than ex ante) reforms in SF and Oakland, I’ve pushed for stuff in CO and AZ and AK, I’m supporting the (also flawed but better than current) thing in ME. Maybe your tactical genius is even better but your “not taking us seriously” is not the best way to show that.

  • joel hanes

    In the last two words of the OP, “never forget”, we get a link to a Beutler piece from TNR, about the need to remember W and how the nation came to be saddled with him.

    Beutler seems himself to have forgotten one of the most egregious parts of that story, the partisan “purging” of the Florida voter registration roles by Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

    • Cash & Cable

      Awful as the purge was, Beutler is focused on the false equivalencies between the two parties in the run-up to 2000 and the consequences of that election, instead of the GOP skullduggery that gave Bush an easier path to victory.

    • witlesschum

      Read a Jacobin peace reminding us about the Brooks Brothers riot. That’s a charming footnote that often gets glossed over.

  • (((Hogan)))

    A sane, sober person voting for Jill Stein will, in all likelihood, prefer Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.

    • rea

      If they were sane and sober . . .

    • Colin Day

      A sane, sober person voting for Jill Stein? Besides Jill Stein?

      • Pat

        Jill Stein is sane?

        • Colin Day

          Point taken.

  • Peterr

    For those looking to “send a message” to the major parties, in a way that truly does just that, there are two ways to do so with much greater impact. If you don’t like what the Democratic party is doing, run for office yourself or get behind someone in the primaries that will address what concerns you. I’m not talking about running for president, but local school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. Fight your battles in the trenches, and folks in the towers will notice.

    The second way to send a message is to fight those same battles at those same levels via a third party. For instance, if the Greens put their energy into winning seats in the Colorado legislature, and knocked off a couple of GOP and Democratic incumbents, that would get the attention of the state and national party leaders in ways that a Jill Stein presidential campaign never will. If the Greens won a couple of seats on the Chicago Board of Aldermen, you can bet your tail that Rahm Emanuel’s Democratic party would take notice.

    The conservatives in Kansas who were pissed at the go-along-to-get-along insiders in the party (yes, even almost-sainted Bob Dole), who compromised too much with the Dems for their right wing taste, made change happen not by suddenly electing Sam Brownback at the top of the state ticket. They won local race after local race, pushing the state GOP further and further right. Only after they’d taken the legislature and all kinds of local offices did they have the clout, organization, and focus to get a governor they liked elected.

    • Phil Perspective

      If the Greens won a couple of seats on the Chicago Board of Aldermen, you can bet your tail that Rahm Emanuel’s Democratic party would take notice.

      The conservatives in Kansas who were pissed at the go-along-to-get-along insiders in the party (yes, even almost-sainted Bob Dole), who compromised too much with the Dems for their right wing taste, made change happen not by suddenly electing Sam Brownback at the top of the state ticket. They won local race after local race, pushing the state GOP further and further right. Only after they’d taken the legislature and all kinds of local offices did they have the clout, organization, and focus to get a governor they liked elected.

      You do see the problem here, right? Really rich people supported moving Kansas farther to the right. Really rich people also support/supported Rahmbo. People rich enough to spend money on high-priced lawyers who will challenge petition signatures and the such.

    • Aexia

      Seattle is a super liberal city and one of the deepest wells of support for Bernie Sanders anywhere in the country. A full-blown socialist got elected to a city-wide council seat. Ballot access is easy – just pay $3K or get 3K signatures. The primary is top 2 so there are no concerns about spoilers in the general.

      So when the Congressman for the area, Jim McDermott (whose record is pretty much indistinguishable from Sanders’), retired, you’d think the Greens would’ve put someone up for the seat. Nope.

      You’d think they’d have put people up for the seats that got opened up during the mad scramble. Nope.

      They’re not running anyone in Washington state this year.

      The Greens are a Potemkin political party.

      In contrast, Bernie Sanders endorsed a liberal *Democrat* in the race and she made it easily through the primary and is the favorite to win in November.

  • leftwingfox

    There’s also the issue of separating personal failings from policy failings. The Republican party has come to the point where if I had to choose between an openly corrupt Democratic nominee and an honest Republican, I’d choose the Democratic nominee, because the policies we get from Republicans are so catastrophic these days.

    This gets to the primary level as well: corrupt incumbents tend to attract multiple candidates to the ballot who believe they have a chance against someone so bad. With plurality, they just split the vote.

  • NeonTrotsky

    Interestingly enough, my county has a measure on the ballot to switch to ranked preference voting which I believe is a good idea. From a burly practical perspective it means that minor parties end up sapping a lot less votes when it matters most, but also that they actually have a chance at winning some elections. It’s not perfect but its better than what we have. Unfortunately the measure in question would only apply to county offices, which are literally only the county commissioners and sheriff.

    • Gregor Sansa

      You’re talking about IRV. Yes, that’s better than plurality. Where are you? Interesting.

      • NeonTrotsky

        Benton County Oregon

  • 1. Abolish the Electoral College (or keep it as a purely symbolic spare wheel, the votes decided according to the state-by-state popular vote).
    2. National voting registration, imposed as a duty on the states.
    3. Paper ballots and postal voting everywhere.
    4. While you are about it, set the terms of Senators and House representatives at four years, elected at the same time as the President. This does not eliminate the risk of gridlock from cohabitation, but it reduces it greatly. This worked in France.

    When you’ve done all that, look at proportional voting.

    • NonyNony

      You forgot “increase the number of representatives to make them actually representational”.

    • Brett

      Proportional would probably be harder than going parliamentary in the US. A lot of US voters still identify as “independents” even though they always vote for one party or the other, so they wouldn’t be thrilled with a system that’s basically “vote for this party’s candidate list or that”.

      • Gregor Sansa

        That’s not the only way to do proportional. I’ll come back and explain my favorite system when I have a moment, but the upshot is that you can vote for independent candidates, and they can win; but if their support is too fragmented, they don’t win, and they get to decide which party to send your vote to, so your vote isn’t wasted. It’s kinda like Germany’s minimum threshold system, but with fewer wasted votes.

        • wjts

          I’ll come back and explain my favorite system when I have a moment…

          Must you hijack every thread with off-topic comments on voting re… oh, wait.

        • Gregor Sansa

          OK, here goes. I’ll talk about how it would work for the US House of Representatives; you can generalize to other cases easily.

          Each state would actually have one big election, but you’d keep the same districts as today for the purpose of printing ballots. Each district’s ballots would put the “local” candidates first, in bigger type. The system would be basically “open list”, where you vote for a single candidate, then if that person gets eliminated your vote gets transferred to all the surviving candidates in the same party. Start out by eliminating en masse anybody with less than a third of a district of votes direct votes. From there on, eliminate in ascending order of votes.

          A simple example will help. Say you have a state with 4 seats. There would be 4 districts. In order to win a seat, a candidate would need 20% of the vote (that is 1/(s+1), where s is 4. This is known as a Droop quota.) Each district has just 25% of the total vote. Say the parties are A, B, and C; the district 1 candidate for party A is called A1; and the votes are as follows:

          District 1: 14% A1, 7% B1, 5% C2
          District 2: 10% A2, 5% A1, 5% B2, 5% C2
          District 3: 12% A3, 9% B3, 4% C2
          District 4: 9% A4, 9% B4, 7% C4

          Totals:
          A1: 19%; A2: 10%; A3: 12%, A4 9%
          B1: 7%, B2: 5%, B3 9%, B4 9%
          C2: 14%, C4: 7%.

          First eliminate anybody with fewer than 8.33%. So new totals are:

          A1: 19%; A2: 10%; A3: 12%, A4 9%
          B3 12%, B4 12%
          C2: 21%

          C2 has over 20% and wins a seat. 1% gets transferred to the candidate C4 had designated; say, B3. Next A4 is eliminated. New totals:

          A1: 22%; A2: 13%; A3: 15%
          B3 13%, B4 12%

          A1 wins, then B2 is eliminated, B2 wins, the excess 5% goes to the designee(s) of the excess B voters- say, A2. That would leave A3 eliminated and A2 winning. Final winners are A1, A2, B2, C2.

          Note that if there had been one party-C candidate in each district, they would have been eliminated up-front, and the C votes would have gone as designated; probably, to party B.

          • Gregor Sansa

            Note that A2 is unpopular in their own party but won on the strength of support transferred from party B. You could easily tweak the numbers so it would come out the other way, and A2 would lose despite being from a strong A-party district.

            • wjts

              So a more opaque system under which, say, people living in Pittsburgh could potentially decide who represents Scranton in the House and still has the potential to elect representatives whose views are dramatically different from the majority of the residents of the district they’re supposed to represent. I’m not seeing the improvement.

              • Gregor Sansa

                Once elected, each representative would get a territory, such that each district was in the territory of one rep from each winning party. At that point, a Democrat in a Republican district would actually have a representative they’d helped elect.

                Still don’t see the appeal?

                • wjts

                  No, I don’t. In fact, that seems both nonsensical and impractical.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  “Nonsensical”: as opposed to the current system? So gerrymandering makes perfect sense?

                  Basically, there are trade-offs in any voting system. Our current system puts so much priority on geographical representation that actual political representation goes out the window. Over 40% of voters are “represented” by somebody they actively oppose.

                  The system I’ve described has aspects of geographic representation, but it also gives proportionality, using a simple-to-vote ballot. In order to do that, it has to loosen, but not entiely break, the geographic ties.

                  The example I gave was intended to illustrate the steps of the process. It was not made to show off its strengths. (Also, at the end, I should have said that B3 not B2 was the B-party winner.) But even in this case, it’s a pretty good outcome.

                  “impractical”: I honestly don’t know what you mean. Are you saying that voters would be unable to choose a candidate to vote for? Lazy voters can choose the candidate from their party and district; more-engaged voters can choose their favorite candidate statewide. Or are you saying that the counting process would be infeasible? More-complicated counting processes are used smoothly in dozens of large countries around the world. Or… what?

  • CrunchyFrog

    This is a good article and I agree with the main point. But I would strongly advise against replacing the electoral college UNLESS there is a move simultaneously to establish a national election system run by the Federal government.

    As things stand if we simply went to straight popular vote every state would be a swing state, each with their own electoral quirks. Today no one gives a rat’s ass how many people are voting in Sister Wife, Utah or Armpit, Oklahoma because those are solidly red states whose electoral votes always go GOP. But suppose that in 2012, for example, the Presidency were decided by popular vote. Why, you’d find that in places like Sister Wife and Armpit people would emerge from their graves to vote Romney – and this would happen in hundreds of thousands of precincts across the country.

    Even if it weren’t outright fraud, you can bet that in red states they’d go even further to depress the count of Democratic votes via vote caging, use of high error rate voting machines in Democratic areas, etc. In 2012 no one cared whether Texas went 55% for Romney or 65%. Under a national popular vote model you can bet that the margins for the Republican in red states would grow impressively – possibly enough to throw a close – but not too close – election like 2012 to the Republican.

    No, for national popular vote you need uniform national voting laws and implementations, with oversight from an independent agency. This probably would be a good thing overall.

    • Gregor Sansa

      I agree, though I’d point out that “strong national standards” does not necessarily mean “the Feds run the show everywhere”. We need the former, but perhaps not all the way to the latter.

      • CrunchyFrog

        I don’t see any other option. If you leave it up to the locals there will be variations. And the locals in, say (oh I dunno, let’s pick a state at random) Mississippi will tend to vary things to help a certain party and screw people who are part of groups that tend to not vote for that party. The only way to ensure fair standards across the board including the neanderthal zones of America is federal control.

        • Gregor Sansa

          Federal control in places the locals can’t be trusted. Such as the erstwhile VRA preclearance states. That doesn’t necessarily mean federal control everywhere.

  • pkeeler167

    I think that it has been smart that in the USA, we form our coalitions before the election. We had one Civil War fought when two large geographic regions could not compromise. Having a Parliamentary system would see dozens of regional parties and might have led to much more strife in the past, if not the future. Probably the Union would have dissolved along regional boundaries long ago.

    The problem with these Third Party candidates is that they know they can’t even get close to winning. Why do they do it? It is not, to move one of the major parties ideologically. It is for vanity or personal enrichment (Nader probably both). Jill Stein is most likely collecting money and spending it just like Ben Carson, Trump, Palin, Nader, etc.

    If a 3rd party candidate really wanted to be a protest candidate to move a party’s ideology, they would put up the same Electors as the major party candidate. As I understand it, and it might be different in different states, a vote for Hillary is not a vote for Hillary. But for Electors, pledged to vote for Hillary. If Stein simply had the same Electors, pledged to vote for Hillary, then you could vote for Stein and Hillary would still get the Electoral Votes. But no 3rd party candidate does this, because they are not protest candidacies, but money collecting operations. In New York, this happens somewhat with Third Parties putting up the same candidate as the major party. But there are no Electors at the State level.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      I’m pretty sure it requires an elector’s consent to designate them to serve on behalf of your party and electors chosen by the Democrats or Republicans would almost certainly refuse to also serve as electors for another party.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    The way out (if there is one) is approval voting. In this method, for every single member seat (it doesn’t work as well with multi-member districts), each party puts as many candidates as it wishes on the ballot. Each voter gets to case as many votes as they wish; i.e. if there are 15 candidates that the voter thinks are equally qualified, she could vote for all 15. Oth, if she thought all but one were snowbirds, she would vote for that candidate. You then count up the votes and the candidate with the most votes (it’s a plurality system) wins the seat.

    The idea here is to force an implicit Condorcet vote. When a voter casts his vote, it is reasoned that he has compared all the candidates against one another and decided that the ones he voted for are all equally qualified according to the standards he is using. The candidate that gets the most votes must have been preferred by the most voters. QED.

    This method doesn’t require ranking (except implicitly) and isn’t that much different from what we do already. It discourages most strategic voting (what’s the point?) and is easy to tally up. Further, it is already used in many organizations, but not, so far, by any U.S. political entities. Too bad, that. It would work in all levels of election, imho. And, as Scott points out above, it would not require a Constitutional amendment to put in place. We can keep using the Electoral College, but we might see more elections go the the House.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Preach it!

      Also note that approval voting was used in Greece between about 1860 and 1920. You can google it and get a picture of a greek guy with a moustache pointing at the ballot box.

    • Aexia

      I’m a big fan of approval voting for many of the reasons you’ve pointed out. It’s easy to explain and easy to implement. Other systems might be slightly more “accurate” (for whatever that means exactly) but they utterly fail at the ease of use aspect. Vote for everyone you support. No more additional brain power needed.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Would this be better enough than what we have to make any difference at all? Green voters, for instance, may prefer the Democrat to win over the Republican, but they still really don’t like the Democrat. They might bestir themselves to express a ranked preference but not “approval”.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Certainly, it would have made a difference in 2000. Would it fix some hypothetical even-harder-than-2000 situation? Perhaps not, and for cases like that, you might want a system such as U/P, which I’ve defined above. But approval still fixes a large number of serious problems and creates basically zero new ones. Not doing it because you’re worried about whether it’s perfect is insane.

  • catclub

    NONYNONY asked:

    What’s the penalty if they refuse? As in what’s the penalty if the state just says “nope – our votes go to this guy despite what the compact says”?

    I think it is lots of even better paid lawyers, and extensive litigation. I don’t think you can throw the offending state in Prison.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Article I, Section 10 of the United States Constitution provides that “No State shall, without the Consent of Congress… enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State.” This means that interstate compacts are binding and enforceable by injunctions and/or SCOTUS.

      • catclub

        That still does not get at “what is the penalty if they refuse?”

        Throw them in jail? Fine them? Send in the National Guard – but where exactly?

        • Gregor Sansa

          Texas wants to find out how far they can ignore the courts on voting. Eventually, they will get slapped down in a way that sticks, but yes, they can be annoying in the meantime.

  • thispaceforsale

    The founders decision to go with the electoral college does make sense considering there was no party system at the time, and an alternative to the ec would have transferred power away from states, or followed the spectacularly terrible articles of confederation.
    Very bad things have happened politically, over the years. Is the electoral college the cause though? Sure, it doesn’t respect the will of the majority- but this is a conscious decision undertaken by the states to make their systems winner-take-all and in doing so, transfer more importance to themselves.
    Transforming low information americans into high information americans, and irrational, self-destructive behavior into rational, self-interested behavior would seem the real goals. But if that was possible…

  • Gregor Sansa

    By the way: great article, Scott! Well done, and again, thanks!

    • Scott Lemieux

      Thanks!

  • Bitter Scribe

    one of the most severe democratic malfunctions of the Electoral College gave us Lincoln

    Huh?

    1860 presidential vote:
    Lincoln, 1.87 million PV/180 EV
    Douglas, 1.38 m PV/12 EV
    Breckenridge, 850K PV/72 EV
    Bell, 589K PV/39 EV

    How is that a “malfunction,” except for the inconsequential fact that Breckenridge got more electoral votes than Douglas?

    • Scott Lemieux

      Douglas would almost certainly have won under any non-plurality electoral system. Lincoln would have been the second choice of vanishingly few Breckenridge or Bell voters.

      • Gregor Sansa

        I think “almost certainly” is going a bit too far. It’s possible that one of the other two was actually the Condorcet winner. It’s even possible that Lincoln might have been; it’s hard to see how, but easy to see that there’s a lot we don’t know.

        Still, all-in-all, I agree with Scott; Lincoln probably wouldn’t have won a non-plurality election.

      • Bitter Scribe

        You’re blaming the “plurality” nature of American elections on the Electoral College. I don’t see why. The candidate with the most popular votes got the most electoral votes, which is how it’s supposed to work. The fact that he didn’t get a majority of the total vote has nothing to do with the Electoral College.

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