Monday, June 28, 2010

The Electoral College: Opponent of Fraud

The push is on by some to have an end-run around the Electoral College. In addition to the various claims made on the Electoral College's behalf, we might add that it provides a decreased incentive for fraud.

In creating 51 different races (the states plus DC), the Electoral College provides a partial buffer against fraud: the most fraud can do in any one state is deliver that state's votes to the wrong candidate. While obviously that is a lamentable outcome, it does limit the extent of fraud and, moreover, makes the fraud only really valuable when the votes are hovering around the 50% mark (assuming a winner-take-all election, the most common system of apportionment in the US). Whether one candidate has 55% of the vote versus 60% of the vote doesn't affect the state's electoral result.

If, however, the Electoral College were abandoned in favor of a national referendum, suddenly there would be a big difference indeed between 55% and 60% of the vote. There would be an increased incentive for vote fraud, because fraud would, at any point, be valuable. Getting a 10,000 more votes in one state could offset being 10,000 votes behind in another.

I have a suspicion that the temptation for fraud can be bigger in those areas (whether towns, cities, or states) where one political party dominates: since that party controls all the levers of power, fraud is easier to effect and cover up. Currently, those areas have less incentive for fraud, since this fraud would be limited to the state. Removing that buffer of state boundaries would also remove one practical disincentive for fraud: fraud could provide national and not merely statewide benefits.

So the Electoral College may offer a way of isolating corruption in our voting system, helping our elections stay fairer and more transparent. There have been more close elections in US history than elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not win in the Electoral College, and, since close elections would be especially vulnerable to fraud, this would not be an inconsiderable advantage.


  1. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes--that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for president. The National Popular Vote bill does not try to abolish the Electoral College. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President (for example, ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote) have come about without federal constitutional amendments, by state legislative action.

    On June 14, 2010, after a detailed study of the issue in 2009 involving over 6,500 League members from over 200 local Leagues, the League of Women Voters endorsed the National Popular Vote bill at their annual convention in Atlanta.. "We support the use of the National Popular Vote Compact as one acceptable way to achieve the goal of the direct popular vote for election of the president until the abolition of the Electoral College is accomplished"

    The bill has been endorsed or voted for by 1,922 state legislators (in 50 states) who have sponsored and/or cast recorded votes in favor of the bill.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). The recent Washington Post, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University poll shows 72% support for direct nationwide election of the President. Support for a national popular vote is strong in virtually every state, partisan, and demographic group surveyed in recent polls in closely divided battleground states: Colorado-- 68%, Iowa --75%, Michigan-- 73%, Missouri-- 70%, New Hampshire-- 69%, Nevada-- 72%, New Mexico-- 76%, North Carolina-- 74%, Ohio-- 70%, Pennsylvania -- 78%, Virginia -- 74%, and Wisconsin -- 71%; in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): Alaska -- 70%, DC -- 76%, Delaware --75%, Maine -- 77%, Nebraska -- 74%, New Hampshire --69%, Nevada -- 72%, New Mexico -- 76%, Rhode Island -- 74%, and Vermont -- 75%; in Southern and border states: Arkansas --80%, Kentucky -- 80%, Mississippi --77%, Missouri -- 70%, North Carolina -- 74%, and Virginia -- 74%; and in other states polled: California -- 70%, Connecticut -- 74% , Massachusetts -- 73%, Minnesota -- 75%, New York -- 79%, Washington -- 77%, and West Virginia- 81%.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 30 state legislative chambers, in 20 small, medium-small, medium, and large states, including one house in Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon, and both houses in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington. These five states possess 61 electoral votes -- 23% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.


  2. The Founding Fathers only said in the U.S. Constitution about presidential elections (only after debating among 60 ballots for choosing a method): "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . ." The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as "plenary" and "exclusive."

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation's first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation's first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, Only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote.

    In 1789 only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all rule to award electoral votes.

    There is no valid argument that the winner-take-all rule is entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all rule (i.e., awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in a particular state) is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the debates of the Constitutional Convention, or the Federalist Papers. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all rule.

    As a result of changes in state laws enacted since 1789, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the state-by-state winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states. Maine and Nebraska currently award electoral votes by congressional district -- a reminder that an amendment to the U.S. Constitution is not required to change the way the President is elected.

    The normal process of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified in the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes.

  3. The potential for political fraud and mischief is not uniquely associated with either the current system or a national popular vote. In fact, the current system magnifies the incentive for fraud and mischief in closely divided battleground states because all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state.

    Under the current system, the national outcome can be affected by mischief in one of the closely divided battleground states (e.g., by overzealously or selectively purging voter rolls or by placing insufficient or defective voting equipment into the other party's precincts). The accidental use of the butterfly ballot by a Democratic election official in one county in Florida cost Gore an estimated 6,000 votes ― far more than the 537 popular votes that Gore needed to carry Florida and win the White House. However, even an accident involving 6,000 votes would have been a mere footnote if a nationwide count were used (where Gore's margin was 537,179).

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  5. It is obvious to me that the electoral college system such as it is currently used to elect a US president is seriously flawed and should be scrapped in favor of a simple referendum.

    Defenders of the electoral college system cite it as a bulwark against fraud because it confines vote stealing and other irregularities to the states in which the electoral districts originate. This confinement purportedly eliminates the need to analyze and investigate such irregularities on a larger scale, thus expediting the confirmation of true election results.

    This defense conveniently ignores the unfortunate fact that fraud and irregularity are facts of any electoral system and are often undetected or even covered up by corrupt authorities with vested interests in particular electoral outcomes. This is unlikely to change, but perhaps it could be mitigated by enhanced impartial observation of elections by external disinterested parties.

    Perhaps the most important and little-known fact about the current system is that it allows a candidate to lose the popular vote and simultaneously win the election (witness the 2000 Bush vs. Gore campaign). How can this be considered even remotely acceptable in a "democracy"?

    The answer seems obvious enough and is clearly the reason why this absurd state of affairs is never reported by the mainstream media. The electoral college system might be used not to impede the possibility of fraud but rather to institute and perpetuate such fraud.

    When the media report popularity numbers for a given candidate, they always present the figures of a simple referendum -- not according to the calculus of electoral district breakdowns. When Ross Perot ran for president he may have had as much as 20% of the popular vote but won not a single electoral district. Obviously, this absurd state of affairs is not in keeping with true principles of democratic representation which it supposedly claims.

    I would be interested to see the results of a study which shows the following: How little of the popular vote could a candidate receive and yet still conceivably win the election under the current system? My guess is that the numbers would be shocking, and if released openly to the American voting public, might even dismay a complacent, cynical and apathetic electorate.

    When Ralph Nader was presented with the accusation that he had "spoiled" the election for Al Gore he replied: "How can you spoil something that's already rotten to the core?"