Menus Subscribe Search

An End Run on the Electoral College

• August 03, 2010 • 11:35 AM

The system used to elect presidents of the United States is pretty bizarre, and six states so far are bucking Electoral College tradition to improve it.

The Massachusetts state Legislature last week passed a law designed to circumvent what many consider the dysfunction of the Electoral College. Under the bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would go to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, whether that candidate also wins the local vote in Massachusetts or not.

The bill has a clever trigger mechanism — it would only go into effect if a majority of states (representing 270 electoral votes) adopt identical laws. No sane state would want to go this alone, in essence sacrificing its residents’ votes to make a point about true democracy.

The bill’s backers — who seem pleased they’ve come up with a legal alternative to dismantling the Electoral College by constitutional amendment — are slowly on their way. If Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signs the law, his state will become the sixth (spanning 73 electoral votes) to line up for the experiment.

Some Republican leaders in the Bay State have cried foul. And the idea does suffer from a mild ideological tinge, if only because it recalls Democrats’ bitter disappointment in the 2000 election. (So far all of the backers have been blue states.)

But according to the bill’s grandfather, a doctorate in computer science with an expertise in genetic programming, this idea is less about who wins on Election Day than what occurs before then. Sure, John Koza says, it’s problematic that the American system periodically puts second-place candidates in the White House (and he’s not just talking about George W. Bush — this has happened in four of 56 presidential elections).
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]
The bigger problem, he says, is that our existing system encourages candidates to ignore entire swaths of the country. And polling suggests both Democrats and Republicans agree with this.

“What struck us in the 2004 election was how extreme the concentration on the battleground states had become,” Koza said. In the last six elections, and particularly the last three, he’s watched candidates hold two-thirds of their campaign stops and spend two-thirds of their money in as few as six states.

In any given election, he adds, 98 percent of campaign money is spent in 15 or 16 states, leaving the vast majority of the country — and its concerns — out of the game.

“Of course, candidates concentrate on those states during the election,” he said. “Then they get elected and they’re thinking of re-election, and they concentrate on those same states while they’re governing.”

Koza wants to change this via interstate compact. States have the exclusive power to decide how to award their delegates to the Electoral College. Nothing in the Constitution requires them to use the winner-take-all formula that has become the norm. And so changing that formula would not require a constitutional amendment, as many people assume.

“I thought that, too, and I lost a bet when I was in college, a very embarrassing bet to a pre-law student,” Koza said. “The winner-take-all system, not only is it not in the Constitution, but it was only used by three state in the first election. So it was not the choice of the founders.”

Koza, then, dismisses the most common objection to his plan — that somehow, this seems like a sneaky subversion of the Constitution. (The idea could, however, be subject to litigation on the finer points of congressional approval of interstate compacts.) He also frequently hears fears that his system would undermine federalism, the balance of power between the states and the federal government.

“A state is no weaker or stronger if they count votes one way versus another,” he said. Besides, the states would retain the right to change their systems at any time – as Massachusetts, for one, has done throughout its history.

Most unnerving, though, is the prospect that voters in Massachusetts, for example, could wind up overwhelmingly supporting one candidate, only to have their state’s entire electoral trove awarded to the other guy. Such scenarios, even if rare, may only bolster the popular gripe that “my vote doesn’t count.”

“The opposition tries to make an issue of that,” Koza said. “The truth is that’s the entire point of the bill — to get away from the state-by-state outcome controlling the White House. If you want candidates to treat every vote equally around the country, if you want them to campaign around the country, then you need a national popular vote.”

Think of it this way, he adds: Do you care how your county voted for governor, or do you just care if your candidate won the office?

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.