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

August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.


Follow us


When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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