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The electoral college, Pwog palladium

By Michael J. Smith on Saturday November 17, 2007 11:37 AM

Apologies to readers for the lack of activity 'round here lately. The siteminder has been traveling more than usual (and enjoying it less).

There is some benefit to be had, however, in getting shucked out of my Upper West Side hideyhole like an oyster out of its shell, painful as the process may be for the oyster. My travels have extended to California, where I have become aware, sooner than I otherwise might (though not as soon as I should) of an interesting development in the arcane world of electoral procedure.

Here's how the New York Times introduces it. Note well the "framing" provided by the lede graf:

Republican donors are pumping new life into a proposed ballot initiative, considered all but dead by Democrats a month ago, that would alter the way electoral votes are apportioned in California to the benefit of Republican presidential candidates.
Another fiendish Republican plot! Aiiee! What more do you need to know?

If you're perversely curious enough about the details to keep reading, you'll need a bit of patience. The actual design of the infernal machine is not supplied until the fifth graf, after some snoozeworthy radar-scattering chaff about the funding and staffing of the initiative:

The initiative would ask voters to replace California’s winner-take-all system of allocating its 55 electoral college votes with one that parses the votes by Congressional district. It has attracted strong opposition from Democrats because it would transform California from a reliably Democratic state in presidential elections by handing the Republican nominee roughly 20 votes from safe Republican districts.
"Handing"! "Parsing!" You have to parse this loaded, propagandistic language a couple of times yourself before you realize that this initiative actually would make the notoriously and ludicrously undemocratic electoral-college machinery noticeably more democratic, with a small 'd'. It would tend to allocate the state's electoral votes in closer proportion to the popular vote. And thus, it is a deadly threat to the Democrats with the big 'D'.

The latter, needless to say, are crying foul at the top of their lungs. What passes for "left" talk radio -- a feeble, querulous crickets' chorus, like the Trojan alter-kakers tzitzing about Helen at the Scaean Gate -- is as hot with indignation as its thin pale blood will permit. The Party machinery is revved:


Until recently, Democrats were attempting something similar in North Carolina. But Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean quietly convinced the Tar Heel Democrats to stop, saying he did not want to set a precedent Republicans could use to justify their efforts in California....[W]hile Democrats might gain as many as 7 electoral votes in North Carolina, they could end up losing as many as 22 in California.
The Kosnik reaction is predictable but nevertheless amusing, if you have a cruel, Cervantean sense of humour. Here's one of the sputtering Sanchos by way of comic relief:
07-0032 - The California Theft Initiative - Links to Text and Useful Sites
by Zoltan
Fri Nov 16, 2007 at 07:23:13 AM PST

Many Kossacks have diaried on the GOP attempt to steal the 2008 presidential elections by unfairly securing about 20 electoral votes in California for the GOP in November, 2008, by means of ballot initiative 07-0032. Suffice it to say that, if passed, 07-0032 would allocate electoral votes in California on the basis of the winners of each congressional district, rather than on the basis of the overal winner in the state, which would almost certainly guarantee 20 otherwise unattainable electoral votes for the Republican nominee.

Comments (12)

Trust the koswacks to come out strongly against anything upsetting the stasis quo.

I'm on the other side of this one (and hey, give us a holler when you're Out Left).

Last year, the California legislature passed (and the gov vetoed) a bill (AB 2948) that, should it pass in enough states, would effectively convert the College into a popular vote:


The idea on the table fails on at least two counts.

First, consider the argument that, because California is "safe" for Democrats, voters for Republican (or other) presidential candidates are in some sense disenfranchised: it makes no difference how they vote, because it won't affect the outcome of the election. This is true, as far as it goes; in 2004, Kerry won CA by about 10 points, which is pretty safe. But 48 of CA's 53 CDs are more "safe" than the state as a whole. So the non-majority voters in those 48 districts would be worse off in this respect than they would be in the current system. (Of the remaining five districts, only three were actually close.)

Second, there's only one EC count that has any meaning at all: the national count. Any reform that makes the EC "more fair" must make it more fair nationally. It's rather a red herring to look at EC fairness (or lack thereof) on a state-by-state basis. And even if the proposed initiative were implemented nationwide, it would be subject to my first objection.

That's part of what made AB2948 attractive: if it were to be effective at all, it would be effective nationally. In effect, it abolishes the EC in favor of a popular vote. It's not perfect (it settles for a plurality winner, and I'd prefer some kind of ranked voting system), but it manages to do what it does without a constitutional amendment. (There's an argument to be made over whether it would be an unconstitutional compact between the states, but we can worry about that if and when it passes.)

The CD system would be just as bad an idea in, say, Texas, where it would advantage the Ds instead of the Rs. It won't happen in Texas, though; the opening in California is our initiative system, which has become a money-driven parody of popular democracy.

I don't have much use for either the Ds or the Rs, but this idea does nothing for democracy, and nothing to break the power of the two-party system--not even "heighten the contradiction".


All of JL's points above are well-taken, as usual.

What amuses me about the story is the way the Dems find themselves defending a glaringly undemocratic electoral system in its most extreme form. What is an American 'state', after all, but the literal locus classicus of a granfalloon? (Vonnegut's example was 'Hoosier'.)

The only advantage a congressional district has over a 'state' is that it's smaller, but that is not an inconsequential advantage.

Certainly the step of allocating CA's electoral votes by CD would be at best modestly incremental -- but hey, isn't that what the DP is supposed to be all about? The little corals grow and die, and before you know it, we're all breathing air!

I can give you some numbers. In California in 2004, some 45% of the electorate (actual, not eligible, voters) were "unrepresented" in the College, in the sense that they voted for somebody other than Kerry, while all of CA's electoral votes went to him.

If the allocation had been made by CD, the "unrepresented" rate would have dropped to 38%. If this is the correct measure, then "modestly incremental" sounds about right.

It would not, of course, have changed the outcome of the election. I don't have the numbers at hand to know what the EC would have looked like if the entire country had chosen electors by CD.

I'm not sure I buy your claim that the fact that a CD is (usually) smaller than a state is a significant advantage. Wherein lies the advantage? If I (as a voter) am on the short end of the stick, big or little, I'm not represented in the EC count. Sure, the probability that my vote will be the swing vote in my district/state increases, but not enough for me to care. A CD is granfalloonier than a state.

The campaign consequences would be interesting. Campaigns would presumably be looking for swing districts rather than swing states (and likewise ignoring safe districts and states). Going after California's three swing districts would be a challenge, I suppose, especially for targeted media buys.

Here's the other reform I mentioned: http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/


i bow to the deep structure of jl's mind set

once again .....

electoral formalism
raises its u-tile head here

bentham by the numbers
is still bentham
still laputa science

or should i say still more so
laputa science

logic boxing
of any sort ... even kick boxing
brings out
the sublime
fiend worshiper in me

i wish to escape up my ass hole


JL notes:

I'm not sure I buy your claim that the fact that a CD is (usually) smaller than a state is a significant advantage. Wherein lies the advantage? If I (as a voter) am on the short end of the stick, big or little, I'm not represented in the EC count. Sure, the probability that my vote will be the swing vote in my district/state increases, but not enough for me to care. A CD is granfalloonier than a state.
Smaller is better only to the extent that finer-grained is better than coarser-grained. Allocating electoral votes by CD is crummy but allocating by state (in the usual case) is surely, self-evidently worse.

It would be interesting, in a wonkey sort of way, to read up on the process that led, in comparatively recent times, to the near-universal adoption of winner-take-all on a per-state basis, Maine and whatsit, Nebraska? being the only current exceptions. This arrangement must have suited both parties, and I seriously doubt that consideration of the social optimum played any role.

OP cautions against "electoral formalism". I agree of course. The proposed California scheme doesn't seem much better to me, if it's even better at all, than the current arrangement, but surely nobody can have a good word to say for the current arrangement -- except, of course, Howard Dean and his comet's-tail of Kosnatics.

tim d:

actually one step in the right direction (that direction being the abolition of the electoral college) would be the scheme whereby which the states would award their electoral college votes to whomever wins the popular vote (although that wouldn't have helped the Dems last time, now would it?)...


i have the ultimate
a constitutional amendment
allowing vote selling
at least i'd get some spondulicks
for my ritual dis-consent
father smiff
i suspect your dead right
and for the reasons jl gives

smaller units with a plurality takes all
a co existence of two parties
safe rear areas for regrouping
the lost
dixie jimbo south
was such a "rear area "
for the demlickers

ah yes
to each his bastions
from each his aisle cross

in the present case
states out of a nation
creates " greater party stability "
in the refinement
districts out of states
the LR prosepect
much the same
as lundy demos


Pondering this topic after I shot (from the hip as usual) my last response to JL, it occurred to me that there is one way in which CDs may arguably be worse granfalloons than "states", namely that CDs are infinitely gerrymander-able while state boundaries are fixed. This factor might well offset the finer grain.

But I reserve the right to keep laughing at Dean and the Kosdonks.


local control is the missing key in the drawing of congo districts
compare to school districts

top down politics
is two party politics

in amerika
state legislatures
marking out CDs
are a perfect example
and the process partisan as all hell
tends to over load the minority party
into super majority districts of their own

"make em waste their votes"

which does the lesser hemi party
a favor
come any particularly
adverse tide
but leaves themselves
the states present
bull goose party exposed
to smaller indy shifts
in their carefully salted districts

my mentor bill vickrey
published an automatic algorithim
for redistricting
back in the 60's

where fine grain looks more small d
is the one on one with the voters bit
people machines over money machines etc
but even
at the congo level
even without the gerry curls
its already too big for
an insurgency
without a bankroll

and as for larger multi unit races
senator gub prez ????
with winner take all
no final two run offs ....

the tendency to greater majority positions
as the unit gets smaller
is an artifact of
almost all random 2d three color distributions
but throw in
birds of a feather clumping
ie neighborhoods
which gets even more intense
the finer the grain

of course its ultimate reductio
is one head
i wonder if single heads
are more voter stable then say
congo districts ????

I favor the winner-take-all (to the victor goes the spoils) system. In an election, somebody will always be disfranchised, namely, whoever votes for a candidate that doesn't win the election. Why stop with awarding electoral votes by congressional district? Why not apportion electoral votes according to precinct results? Or why not one-voter-one-vote, doing away with electoral votes altogether? That would be fine, but whoever votes for anyone who doesn't get the most votes is still left without representation, so to speak. No matter how you do it, it's going to be first past the post. Xymphora does a pretty good job addressing the first past the post system: 1, 2, 3, 4.

(Looks like I had to type in the verification code after previewing).


before i die i want to see katie couric say "coalition government"

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