3 Nov 2004 Bram   » (Master)

Electoral College Effects

Here is an interesting question - Given the electoral college system, does it favor the large or the small states? The very short answer is that it ridiculously disproportionately favors the small states, because they're flat-out given disproportionately large representation. And if that weren't the case then switching to a simple electoral majority would be uncontroversial, following the trend of a simple majority deciding within each state.

But if we pretend that this is an issue of real interest, what are the effects? Well, that depends. If we had a country of two states, one larger than the other, than the chances of one's vote mattering in the smaller state would be just about nil. In a country of three states two of which were just slightly larger than half the size of the largest state the small states would be far disproportionately represented.

In practice there are enough states that statistical effects overwhelm the weirdnesses of specific enumerable outcomes. We can adopt a much more simplistic model of there being many small states, and we compare two, one of which is roughly double the size of the other. If we assume that the race is a dead heat across the entire country, (a completely unrealistic assumption, as I'll get to in a minute), the chances of a voter swinging the half size state is approximately 1.4 times that of the double size state (because a standard deviation is proportional to the square root of the number of voters) and the chances of it swinging the overall election are about half, so the chances of a single vote from the smaller state swinging the election are about a third less.

But we don't have a homogeneous voting population, and very few races are dead heats across the entire country. In practice state lines jerrymander quite heavily against New York and California, whose votes in recent elections have been such a foregone conclusion that nobody bothers campaigning in them. With the two coasts being very populous and the economic centers of the country, and getting more so, this effect is likely to become even more pronounced in the future.

And then there's the question of, in a close race, which states do you give out more candy to? The ones which are close races, obviously, and the ones which you can more likely affect the outcomes of. Small states are much easier to win by buying off votes, because a much smaller number of votes can change their outcome. The likelihood of their swinging the overall election is negated here because we don't go into elections blind - campaigns poll to find out what states are up in the air, and ignore the ones which aren't.

Which states are close races varies from election to election, so there's a random crapshoot which decides who gets the most resources each time. The result is inevitable arbitrary disparities, which the only consistent thing being their arbitrariness, and strong incentivization for local officials to make their states be close, or at least appear to be close.

If this all sounds stupid and unpleasant, it's because it is. The only clear effect of a truly voter weighted electoral college would be that New York and California would be (still) jerrymandered against. All the other effects are random and generally bad for everybody.

Unfortunately the chances of the electoral college getting fixed via an orderly political process are just about nil. Fixing it would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by 2/3 of the states, and most of them are, unsurprisingly, small. The smallest states get several times their proportional say in the electoral college, and many times their propotional say in the senate, with a flat two senators from every state, so any constitutional amendment cleaning up the mess would be dead in the water.

The rules favoring small states, by the way, were set up at the time of the formation of the United States to get the south to join. Back then, the rules were even worse because slaves counted towards representation, even though they couldn't vote. It took the civil war, which was caused by the political imbalances favoring the less economically productive parts of the country and the separation being on neat geographic lines, for the mess to get cleaned up. Kind of like the situation today, except that it hasn't gotten to the point of internal warfare, at least not yet.

On that note, I feel obligated, this being election day, to encourage everyone to vote. Unless of course you'll be voting with a diebold machine, or your registration got mysteriously lost, as mine did. [Update - I showed up to vote and they did manage to find my registration in some obscure place, but my wife, whose registration was sent in at the same time and on the same day, had to cast a provisional ballot.]


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