Tag Archives: Electoral College

Is the Electoral College doomed?

I certainly hope so. And so does The New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg, following New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing into law this week of the National Popular Vote Compact, making the state the 11th jurisdiction to do so and nudging the national movement closer to its ultimate goal (now at 61% of total electors needed). Here’s what the law does:

Here’s how it works: Suppose you could get a bunch of states to pledge that once there are enough of them to possess at least two hundred and seventy electoral votes—a majority of the Electoral College—they will thenceforth cast all their electoral votes for whatever candidate gets the most popular votes in the entire country. As soon as that happens, presto change-o: the next time you go to the polls, you’ll be voting in a true national election. No more ten or so battleground states, no more forty or so spectator states, just the United States—all of them, and all of the voters who live in them.

Unless you’ve been following this pretty closely, it will surprise you to learn that, before this week, ten states (counting D.C.) had already signed on. Now it’s eleven, and between them they have a hundred and sixty-five electoral votes—sixty-one per cent of the total needed to bring the compact into effect.

Hertzberg thinks the movement has a fighting chance:

But it’s not just the voters in those spectator states who are ignored. It’s also the politicians, including the state legislators—no matter which party they belong to, no matter whether their state is red or blue, no matter whether the sure winner in their state is the candidate of their party or the other party. Either way, they’re nobodies. The National Popular Vote plan would make them somebodies—and that, perhaps more than the high-minded stuff, is why N.P.V. has a pretty good chance of actually happening.

Nate Silver, meanwhile, is far more skeptical (his headline: “Why a Plan to Circumvent the Electoral College Is Probably Doomed“). He pays special attention to the swing states:

Soon after comes outright swing states, such as Ohio, New Hampshire and Colorado. These states, along with Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, collectively had a 98.6 percent chance of determining the Electoral College winner in 2012, according to the FiveThirtyEight tipping-point index as it wascalculated on election morning. In other words, these nine states are 70 times more powerful than the other 41 (which collectively had a 1.4 percent chance of determining the winner) combined. That’s part of the reason so many Americans object to the Electoral College. But states whose voters have a disproportionate amount of influence may be in no mood to give it up.

My personal view is that the Electoral College should be abolished (even if that means we’d have to change the name of this website). But based on the signatories to the compact, blue and red states seem to think of it as a zero-sum game. And the purple states, which might otherwise swing the balance, have the least incentive of all to sign on.

I’m onboard. But I wonder how a close national election — especially one that would’ve split the popular and electoral votes under the current rules (such as the 2000 election) — would play out under such a scenario. Would states whose voters selected the candidate that lost nationally grow disillusioned with the new system and revolt, by reverting to the old system and breaking apart the compact?

This leads directly into a second concern: although the movement technically needs only enough states to attain the 270-vote mark, in all likelihood it will need at least one or two additional states as a safety buffer. Without this, any state with sufficient electoral leverage (the bigger the state, the higher the risk) could take the rest of the country hostage by threatening to leave the compact.

I could imagine a situation, unlikely as it may seem, in which such a scenario may result in an even denser concentration of presidential candidates’ attention on one or two states in particular, in an effort to maintain — or vice versa, to abolish — their adherence to the compact, depending on each candidate’s standing in the national polls and in the electoral forecasts.

My instinct is that these unsavory outcomes are worth the risk of attempting to reform the status quo, which is terrible for much of the country.

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Watching the polls

Or more specifically, Nate Silver. The New York Times‘ resident stats wizard now has Barack Obama at an 85.1% chance of winning the election on Tuesday:

There are not really any recent precedents in which a candidate has led by something like 49 percent to 46 percent in the final polling average, as Mr. Obama does now in Ohio, and has wound up losing the state. That does not mean such misses cannot or will not occur: there have only been a few elections when we have had as much state polling data as we do now, which is why the model allows for the possibility of a 1980-type error based on how the national polls performed that year.

But the reasonably high level of confidence that the model expresses in Mr. Obama’s chances of winning Ohio and other states reflects the historical reality that the polling average normally does pretty well.

That brings us to Pennsylvania — where the forecast model puts Mr. Obama’s chances at better than 95 percent.

One poll of Pennsylvania on Saturday, from Susquehanna Polling and Research, showed a different result, with the two candidates tied at 47 percent. But in context, this is not such a great poll for Mr. Romney.

The polling firm has had a very strong Republican lean this cycle — about five percentage points relative to the consensus, a much larger lean than firms like Rasmussen Reports and Public Policy Polling that are often criticized for having partisan results. Susquehanna is the only pollster to have shown Mr. Romney ahead in Pennsylvania at any point in the race, as they did on one occasion in February and another in October (Mr. Romney led by four points in their previous poll of the state). Perhaps they will be proven right, but it is usually a bad bet to bank on the one poll rather than the many.

Still, Mr. Romney’s campaign is making a late play for Pennsylvania with advertising dollars and a visit there on Sunday.

That is probably a reasonable strategy, even though Mr. Romney’s chances of pulling out a victory in Pennsylvania are slim. What makes it reasonable is that Mr. Romney’s alternative paths to an Electoral College victory are not looking all that much stronger.

Nate Silver vs. the Mittmentum Mountaineers

As Election Day approaches and the nation continues to whip itself into a collective frenzy, there sometimes seems to be only one guy in all of our national media who hasn’t succumbed to the wild swing of emotions that has captured everyone else.

Nate Silver, of the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight blog, has been posting daily with updates from swing-state polls. And even while most of the media have gleefully jumped aboard the “momentum is shifting to Mitt Romney” train, Silver has calmly continued to insist on using real data, instead of relying on phantasmic predilections of victory based on rally turnouts in random Ohio towns. This latter course is essentially what national campaign reporters, always desperate for a more sensational story, have been doing, and it’s quite possible that the collective content of their coverage actually will help make the race closer. But if that happens, it will be due, ironically enough, to their own misreading (or woeful ignorance) of existing polls, not because they were right in the first place.

According to Silver, as of yesterday Barack Obama was leading in Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, was leading in Florida and North Carolina. If the races end up exactly that way in the end (see interactive map here), Obama will win with 303 electoral votes to Mitt Romney’s 235, easily surpassing the requisite 270 to win reelection. In fact, Obama could even lose the three additional states in which Nate Silver’s model gives him the smallest leads: Colorado (58% probability of winning), Virginia (60%), and New Hampshire (70%). (Remember, these figures represent the likelihood that Obama will win these states, not the percentage he’s receiving in head-to-head polls. Example: Obama is expected to win 58% of the actual vote in Massachusetts, but Silver estimates his probability of winning the state at 100% because there is virtually no possibility that the polls will shift significantly enough before the election to cause him to lose there.) In other words, even if Romney took those three states — Colorado, Virginia, and New Hampshire — as well as Florida and North Carolina, the final electoral vote count would nevertheless give 277 to Obama and 261 to Romney, thereby granting the president a second term. The media may be intent on creating a wild photo-finish, but Silver’s analysis suggests Obama’s still in a fairly good spot.

An election nightmare approacheth?

John Heilemann thinks there’s a decent chance we may be headed for some major turbulence after November 6th. He presents four possible situations in which the closing of the polls does not end the election. His fourth (and one that has been gaining traction, mostly by media types who seem to be secretly wishing it):

4. The Tie-Goes-to-the-Romney Scenario

Now we come to the most nightmarish possibility of all: Obama ekes out a popular-vote victory but he and Romney are deadlocked, 269-269, in terms of electoral votes. Sounds crazy, right? Yeah, of course, but all it would require is the following (entirely credible) chain of results: Romney wins the southern battleground trio and Ohio, Obama holds on to Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin but loses in New Hampshire. What would happen then? The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives, where the Constitution ordains that every state receive one vote as determined by the party makeup of its congressional delegation. Today, that would likely mean 32 Republican votes and 18 Democratic ones, a composition unlikely to change on November 6—and hence, voilà, President Romney.

To be crystalline, this would not be a nightmare because Romney would prevail. It would be a nightmare because he’d prevail in opposition to the popular vote and outside of the Electoral College—through an unprecedented process in which Idaho and Wyoming would have a weight equal to New York and California. For millions of Americans, and not just partisan extremists, it would call into question our entire system of selecting the dude in charge, and make the U.S. look like a superrich banana republic around the world. To be honest, though, it would only be barely worse than Scenarios 1, 2, and 3 in terms of rending the nation asunder. Which is why, on Election Night, you won’t find me rooting for either candidate but for clarity: a solid, sustainable victory for Obama or Romney in the popular and electoral votes—52-48, say, and north of 300 EVs to … whomever.

Which I know is probably a fantasy, but, hey, a boy can dream.

The most bizarre part of this possibility is the fact that Joe Biden would then be selected by the (almost certainly) Democratic-majority Senate to the vice presidency, creating a split executive branch. Even stranger still, unless I’m misreading the Twelfth Amendment, the appointment of both the president and the vice president must take place with a “quorum” of two-thirds of the states present and voting (but only a simple majority vote by those present is required for the election to become official). But if the state of the nation, following such a polarizing Election Day result, is truly as explosive as Heilemann fears, doesn’t that mean there would be a significant danger that the representatives of Democratic states would all refuse to show up en masse, thus just barely denying the likely 32 Republican states from establishing a quorum and, therefore, electing a president? What then?

When will the National Popular movement see some…movement?

I’m surprised there haven’t been more articles like this one:

Here’s how the plan would work. Individual states pass legislation to join an interstate compact, under which member states will award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. When states representing 270 electoral votes — the number needed to become president — have signed on, the plan goes into effect. Thus it’s in the power of state Legislatures and governors to catalyze the move.

So far, the bill has been introduced in 47 states. It has been passed into law in Illinois (21 electoral votes) New Jersey (15), Maryland (10 ), and, just last week, Hawaii (4), and is under active consideration in any number of others. In Massachusetts, the bill has a majority in both the House and the Senate, says Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts.

If the plan goes into effect, it would change the nature of campaigns in a big way. Right now, it doesn’t matter if a candidate wins a state by 10 votes or 10,000; once you have a majority, every additional vote is essentially wasted. Thus there’s little point of campaigning in states that lean strongly for either party.

Earlier this month, the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg continued his championing of the movement and noted a prominent new convert:

Al Gore, whose margin of popular victory in 2000 was four times bigger than John F. Kennedy’s in 1960 and only a little smaller than Richard Nixon’s in 1968, has never made a secret of his disagreement with the infamous Supreme Court decision that put his outvoted opponent in the White House. But Gore has been silent, as far as I know, about the over-all electoral system that makes it possible for the Presidency, alone among American elected offices, to be denied to the candidate who comes in first and awarded to the one who comes in second. Until now.

Last Thursday, while leading a panel discussion on Current—the cable network he founded, runs, and, during the conventions, anchors—Gore casually endorsed the National Popular Vote initiative, this blog’s favorite cause…

I’m pretty sure that Gore’s long hesitancy about backing the N.P.V. was due less to a reluctance to seem self-pitying (remember “Sore Loserman”?) than to a desire to keep the plan from becoming a purely partisan political football.