What (if Anything) Should Be Done About Improving the System of Electing a President? (Part 3)

author: Arnold I. Barnett, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: David Hawking, Funnelback
author: Alexander S. Belenky, Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Alan Natapoff, UCLA Anderson School of Management
published: June 4, 2013,   recorded: October 2008,   views: 3037

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As David King puts it, “The Constitution has an on the one hand, on the other quality,” and the Electoral College seems a focal point for contrariness and ambivalence. King ticks off areas where the EC can be viewed alternatively: for instance, does it encourage healthy, broad-based campaigning and widespread voting, or promote targeted campaigning, and widespread voter fraud? Well acquainted with congressmen, King worries about the tension between short-term concerns (getting re-elected), and long-term interests. He believes that with the Electoral College, “you at least tip toward caring about winning multiple states…and the more states you try to win, the more candidates for office look to the long term and national best interest.”

Arnold Barnett offers a “pragmatic compromise” between a popular vote and the current Electoral College system, a potential cure for the current “funhouse mirror” of election politics based on weighted averages. Hold elections in individual states, and determine each candidate’s percentage. Says Barnett: “Each candidate’s national vote share would be a weighted average of vote shares in individual states. The weight of each state would be proportional to its share of electoral votes (i.e., the number of members of Congress).” The candidate with the highest weighted vote share would become president. Advantages of this system, says Barnett, include increasing the power of small states, and making currently irrelevant big states like New York relevant again. It would eliminate the worst consequences of winner take all (“Poster child: Florida 2000”); and there would be no danger of an election heading for the House of Representatives “where the president would be chosen under Strange Rules.”

Under the current system, not everyone has a say in presidential elections, Alexander Belenky believes, because a candidate with a very small percentage of the popular vote can actually become president. The Founding Fathers came up with a compromise to resolve problems in their day, and they “might be surprised to learn we still have this system.” Belenky suggests considering the will of the nation as a whole and the will of the states and DC as equal members of the Union as two decisive factors in determining the election outcome while retaining the Electoral College as a backup. Belenky suggests that the “winner-take-all” is the lesser evil compared to the proportional and the district (Maine-like) schemes of awarding state electoral votes and that its simple modification can make every state vote count, even under the Electoral College.

Alan Natapoff reaches for analogies from baseball and poker to describe voting systems, and ultimately relies on mathematics to shape his variation on the current EC system. Natapoff’s concept: Winner takes all by state, but rather than a fixed number of votes, states instead have the number of votes equal to the number of votes cast plus the proportional equivalent of the two electoral votes they have now. Winner takes all “magnifies the power of individual voters,” and works better than a simple national vote, unless the election is exquisitely close (with a margin less than 1 standard deviation). Concludes Natapoff: “We needn’t apologize for this system…it’s the ideal of a voting system…and it works.”

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