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July 28, 2010


Hertzberg says if proliferation of political parties were a problem, you'd expect to see it in at least one of the four largest states. You'd think that as a New Yorker he'd be aware that the Liberal Party was on the ballot in New York from 1944 to 2002 and that the Conservative Party has been on the ballot in New York from 1962 to the present. These were/are serious parties with significant followings. While it's true that often candidates ran on both a major party slate and on the Liberal or Conservative Party slate, to my recollection that hasn't always been the case.

I'm not opposed to Presidential elections bypassing the Electoral College. What I am opposed to is Henrik Hertzberg ignoring inconvenient facts.

Ross's argument sounds pretty silly, for the reasons given by Brendan. Furthermore, it's not even clear that that the 2 party system is automatically better than a multi-party system.

I think a better theoretical argument against popular vote is that it would encourage cheating by the states. E.g., a strongly Republican state would have the incentive to have as many votes as possible, even fraudulent ones, so as to maximize that state's contribution to the national Republican total.

Brendan -

Your headline ("The weakness of pro-Electoral College arguments")
implies that all (or at least several) pro-electoral college arguments are weak, but the post only deals with one argument. While I agree this one is weak (despite the unconvincing arguments presented by Hertzberg), that hardly means other arguments are.


While Hertzberg and you demonstrate that there is little evidence that removal of the electoral college will lead to a proliferation of multiple candidates, the examples cited are all within the US.

This argument and these examples ignore the fact that many other countries end up with more than 2 dominant parties competing for the executive position, so the question must be asked if there might be something in the electoral college system that somehow diminishes this tendency. I have no idea if that is so, but seems a reasonable question and casts doubts on the hard assertion that the argument is simply untrue.

BTW, in my post immediately preceding, I missed the second argument Hertzberg presents, so…. nevermind on that point.

I'm no political scientist but I find Duverger's Law to be inconsistent with quite a lot of empirical evidence. For example, the recent elections in the Philippines saw at least three presidential candidates being serious contenders (Aquino, Villar and Estrada) and while the eventual winner (Aquino) won comfortably, he still fell short of a simple majority. Interestingly, his running mate lost the election for vice president to the candidate who supported Villar.

A law couched in terms of 'strong tendencies' is something of an oxymoron and means it's still necessary to examine each individual situation on its own merits.

I think a better theoretical argument against popular vote is that it would encourage cheating by the states. E.g., a strongly Republican state would have the incentive to have as many votes as possible, even fraudulent ones, so as to maximize that state's contribution to the national Republican total.

Of course, given that turnout in U.S. presidential elections is around 50% of the eligible voter pool, the easiest way for states to increase their percentages would be to create incentives for actual voters to get to the polls.

You're also forgetting that we do have a pretty good idea of the voting age population in each state, so creating fraudulent ballots has a fundamental limit, and that all states would be motivated to catch other states cheating.

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). In the 7,645 statewide elections during the 26-year period from 1980 to 2006, the average change in the 23 statewide recounts was a mere 274 votes.

Senator Birch Bayh (D–Indiana) summed up the concerns about possible fraud in a nationwide popular election for President in a Senate speech by saying in 1979, "one of the things we can do to limit fraud is to limit the benefits to be gained by fraud. Under a direct popular vote system, one fraudulent vote wins one vote in the return. In the electoral college system, one fraudulent vote could mean 45 electoral votes, 28 electoral votes."

I had been meaning to make this point, but instead I will say: What kohler said. Nice work.

This proposal is headed to the governor's desk in Massachusetts (presumably to be signed into law)- what is its status in Michigan? It would be a very effective remedy to the sort of abandonment Michigan Republicans suffered at the hands of the McCain campaign in 2008, when it was decided their resources would be better spent in Ohio.

Note that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has special problems that would not apply to a Constitutional AMendment for a Presidential popular vote.
It is unenforceable....

The NPVIC is based on the similarly illogical premise that lawmakers with plenary powers can enact a law so strong that they can't repeal it. In truth, because a state legislature's power in this matter is plenary, it would be an entirely legitimate exercise of its authority to drop out of the compact anytime before the deadline for selecting electors--be it July 21 of an election year or Nov. 9....

The NPVIC could make such a crisis even out of an undisputed election. In 1888, Grover Cleveland lost his bid for a second consecutive term despite outpolling Benjamin Harrison nationally. But there was no Florida in 1888; the outcome in every state was unquestioned. If the NPVIC were in effect, Cleveland would have won--unless a Harrison state, exercising its plenary power, ditched the compact and selected the Harrison electors instead. Then, chaos....

Since the NPVIC would be legally unenforceable, only political pressure ...

Recall the partisan behavior of the FL Supreme Court in 2000. They overruled an election on questionable grounds. When their decision didn't produce a Gore victory, they quickly overruled their own decision and called for a different recount.

Now imagine that a single state could tip the election if their SC overruled their participation in the NPVIC. Would you trust their SC not to do this?

The only way for a third party to have a shot at the presidency would be for the electors to be awarded proportionally, and for them to all meet together and choose the president, with all the deal-making and multiple ballots needed.

Actually, I think this would be superior to NPV, precisely because NPV would freeze the two-party system in concrete. The two-party system is the biggest thing wrong with American politics.

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