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

July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


July 22 • 12:00 PM

On the Destinations of Species

It’s almost always easier to cross international borders if you’re something other than human.


July 22 • 10:51 AM

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.


July 22 • 10:47 AM

Irrational Choice Theory: The LeBron James Migration From Miami to Cleveland

Return migrants to Cleveland have been coming home in large numbers for quite some time. It makes perfect sense.


July 22 • 9:32 AM

This Time, Scalia Was Right

President Obama’s recess appointments were wrong and, worse, dangerous.


July 22 • 8:00 AM

On Vegas Strip, Blackjack Rule Change Is Sleight of Hand

Casino operators are changing blackjack payouts to give the house an even greater advantage. Is this a sign that Vegas is on its way back from the recession, or that the Strip’s biggest players are trying to squeeze some more cash out of visitors before the well runs dry?


July 22 • 6:00 AM

Label Me Confused

How the words on a bag of food create more questions than answers.


July 22 • 5:07 AM

Doubly Victimized: The Shocking Prevalence of Violence Against Homeless Women

An especially vulnerable population is surveyed by researchers.


July 22 • 4:00 AM

New Evidence That Blacks Are Aging Faster Than Whites

A large study finds American blacks are, biologically, three years older than their white chronological counterparts.



July 21 • 4:00 PM

Do You Have to Learn How to Get High?

All drugs are socially constructed.


July 21 • 2:14 PM

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.


July 21 • 2:00 PM

Why Are Obstetricians Among the Top Billers for Group Psychotherapy in Illinois?

Illinois leads the country in group psychotherapy sessions in Medicare, and some top billers aren’t mental health specialists. The state’s Medicaid program has cracked down, but federal officials have not.



July 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, MacArthur Genius?

Noah Davis talks to Yoky Matsuoka about youth tennis, wanting to be an airhead, and what it’s like to win a Genius Grant.


July 21 • 11:23 AM

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?


July 21 • 10:00 AM

How Small-D Democratic Should Our Political Parties Be?

We need to decide how primaries should work in this country before they get completely out of hand and the voters are left out entirely.


July 21 • 8:00 AM

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don’t actually walk like primates at all.


July 21 • 6:00 AM

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

The new American economy in three tablespoons of blood, a Walmart gift card, and a former mill town’s DNA.


July 21 • 5:00 AM

Celebrating Independence: Scenes From 59 Days Around the World

While national identities are often used to separate people, a husband-and-wife Facebook photography project aims to build connections.


July 21 • 4:00 AM

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

People Are Clueless About Placebos

Doctors know that sometimes the best medicine is no medicine at all. But how do patients feel about getting duped into recovery?

No, Walking on All 4 Limbs Is Not a Sign of Human ‘Devolution’

New quantitative analysis reveals that people with Uner Tan Syndrome don't actually walk like primates at all.

Why Didn’t California’s Handheld Phone Ban Reduce Motor Accidents?

Are handheld cell phones as dangerous as they have been made out to be?

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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