Watching the debate over the Electoral College unfold in these pages has made one thing clear: Those proposing the “National Popular Vote” don’t fully understand how it works. Because of that, if they succeed, their proposal will diminish the voting power of every person in the state.
The issue comes around every decade or so. After all, killing the Electoral College seems like a good idea on a gut level. Why shouldn’t we choose the president directly? Why do we need electors from each state to mediate between the voting box and the Oval Office?
We don’t. But as students of politics know, the tyranny of the majority is a very real danger, and it’s one that raw popular voting promotes, as we’ve seen when it produced leaders like Hitler and Milosevic. The Greeks called it ochlocracy, or mob rule, and it’s something political thinkers from John Stuart Mill to John Locke to James Madison have wrestled with.
Ironically, it’s also something the Electoral College (as it has evolved) prevents, by forcing presidential candidates to take minority voting blocks into account. It does this by mathematically increasing the voting power of every person in the country (except in Maine and Nebraska — we’ll get to that).
Alan Natapoff is a research scientist at MIT who in 1996 published a paper in the journal Public Choice using “inverse game theory” to show how the system works. The essence is this: By breaking down a massive national election into 50 smaller blocks of votes, each person (or group) has a statistically greater chance of tipping the state election, and therefore a greater chance of tipping the national election: Each vote is more powerful and more sought after by the candidates.
Proponents of the National Popular Vote feel it will increase the power of their vote. But the opposite is true. Your vote, in other words, is far more likely to tip an election of 1.3 million votes for Minnesota’s 10 electors than it is of tipping a raw national election of 127 million. In a pool of 100 million voters, the chance that your vote will turn an election is practically zero. In the Electoral College system, with states divided into “winner take all” blocks, your chances are much greater. Maine and Nebraska have both split their electoral votes, and the presidential candidates seldom show up there.
The choice is between equality and competitiveness. And while quality seems like a no-brainer, (equal) majority raw voting didn’t work out so well in Germany and in Serbia. The question is this: Would you rather have a politician compete for your vote or be able to ignore it equally once votes had been stockpiled elsewhere? The more competitive a system is, the more democratic it is. And the Electoral College makes it more competitive.
On the surface, throwing away the Electoral College seems like a good idea. But under the surface, it’s a major check on the power of the presidency. The system has worked remarkably well for 200 years, and proponents of the National Popular Vote have not been able to clearly articulate any advantage this change would bring to voters. In reality, it’s a facile solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. A vote for it would create an election in which we are all losers.
Frank Bures is a writer for Thirty Two Magazine. He studied political science at St. Olaf College.