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Back to work

Monday, August 30, 2004
It is very nice to be home. We got back from Italy after a 24-hour travel marathon. It was a great deal of fun, but I missed my cats. And I also felt guilty about not being able to post here every day.

There are a few things floating around the internet while I waa gone that I want to talk about. One is the proposal to move to an instant run-off voting system (see here). I've spoken at length about the the wisdom of moving towards a multi-party system, which would be the effect of such a system (see my May 29 post in the Archives for the full discussion). An excerpt what I wrote on this subject:

The second Nader argument is that we should scrap the 2-party system and move to a genuine multiparty system like in Europe. This is only going to happen if we changed the electoral structure to a multi-member district proportional representation system. We could do this, of course- all it would take is change in state and federal law. The way we do it now is not in the constitution. So the 2 major parties would disaggregate into their constituent elements. You would have christian, corporate and libertarian parties on the right, and civil liberties, environmental, and labor parties on the left.

This is a really, really bad idea. Anyone who has taken PoliSci 101 knows about how the separation of powers and checks and balances make it almost impossible to pass legislation. One of the few things that help you overcome gridlock is unified party control. What would happen if you overlaid a multiparty system on top of our legislative structure? People should know that Europe has basically unicameral systems, so the checks and balances work themselves out when parties form coalitions after the election. So we would be adding ANOTHER layer of checks and balances onto an already unwieldly system. And you know what? This would just benefit the right, not the left, since they right is full of people who are already benefiting from the current social arrangements, and it would be easier for them to play us off against each other. So to really go multi-party, you'd have to abolish the Presidency and the Senate. Good luck with that.

Finally, 3rd parties are just unnecessary. In one sense, we already have a multi-party system. Both parties are coalitions of what would be separate parties in Europe. In Europe, the ally after the elections. And it's almost always coalitions of the right or left, just like here. Here we do it before the elections and on a more permanent basis, giving the alliance a brand name. You would still have give and take between factions over policy, so I'm not sure what you'd gain. Also, the voters would have to vote for a party rather than a person, which they may not like doing.

Finally, if someone does have a distinct position they are pushing, it makes more sense to mobilize within one of the two pre-existing parties. You can contest primaries and maybe get your faction the nomination. Even if you lose, if you do well enough the nominee will have to meet you part of the way. And a faction gains tons of influence when they deliver votes and activists. Just look at the labor movement or the religious conservatives. They could have formed their own parties, but they took the smarter path and now have tremendous influence within the major parties. If Nader had been serious, he would have challenged Gore or Kerry in the primaries and then he would have had credibility for himself and his movement. But I don't think Nader is serious.

So if you are in Detroit, vote against the resolution!

The second issue I want to discuss is the electoral college. The New York Times Editorial Board has trotted out the idea of abolishing it, to be replaced by direct popular vote. The column lays out all the sins of the EC: that is violates the one man/one vote standard (by over-representing small states), disenfrachises voters (if they don't live in swing states), and can result in undemocratic outcomes (where the popular vote winner loses the EC).

But the NYT approach is superficial and unsystematic. They fail to diagnose the sources of these problems, or carefully evaluate the alternatives. I'll try and do better. The difficulties with the EC stem from two institutional features: the winner-take-all allocation of electoral college votes, which is a product of state law, and the over-representation of small states, which is part of the Constitution. The former feature makes for the swing-state phenomenon, the latter the bonus for rural voters, and they combine to make it possible for a popular vote loser to be elected.

The NYT proposal to move to a direct popular vote seems to address both problems, but it creates new ones and ignores a major difficulty. Abolishing the college would mean that re-counts would have to be nation-wide (think Florida for the whole country), and would undermine the two-party system (see above). But the insuperable difficulty is that getting rid of the electoral college is impossible. Small states would have to ratify any constitutional amendment, which would be against their self-interest. So forget about it- it is NEVER going to happen. The small-state bonus is here to stay.

But we can tackle the winner-take-all feature, since it would only take a change in state law. A truly terrible idea is the Maine-Nebraska plan, which allocates electoral college votes by congressional district. Because of gerrymandering, this proposal would make it more likely that the national popular vote winner would lose. If this system had been in place in 1976, Gerald Ford would have won even though Carter won the national vote by 2 percentage points.

Colorado is considering another proposal. In that state, a referendum is on the ballot to allocate electoral votes by the candidate's proportion of the vote. So if Bush wins 51-49, then he gets 5 votes rather than 4. This would eliminate the winner-take-all problem, and if a threshold was added, it would preserve the 2-party system. Unfortunately, eliminating the winner-take-all feature would strengthen the influence of small states. I conducted an analysis of 2000 and discovered (much to my surprise) that George Bush would have been elected under this system.

So what do we do? I'm really not sure. The best combination might be to move to the Colorado plan nationwide while adopting Schlesinger's proposal for a constitutional amendment which would give the popular vote winner a bonus in the Electoral College. This would be a roundabout way of neutralizing that small state advantage, but it might be easier to convince the small states of because it would explicitly address the real concern with the electoral college: that the national popular vote winner might lose. But I don't think the prospects even for this change are realistic. It is most likely that we are stuck with the system we have. Which means that Democrats need to work to overcome their disadvantage in rural areas- otherwise the Electoral College and the Senate will continue to be gerrymandered in favor of Republicans.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:23 PM
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