Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Electoral College Daze

The Electoral College, the system by which presidents are elected in the United States, is over 200 years old--according to an editorial in yesterday's New York Times, it's time for a change. The Times argues for the end to the Electoral College on two grounds: (1) that it runs counter to the democratic principle of "one person, one vote," and (2) that it distorts the incentives of both politicians and voters. The first argument is normative-- it deals with how the voting system should work. The second is positive--it deals with how the electoral college affects elections and policy. Economists devote a great deal of research to the second point.

Economists assume that people respond to incentives, and incentives explain much of the behavior we see in competitive marketplaces. It may seem odd that economists should try to model politics. But the political marketplace is similar to any other: sellers (politicians) are competing for support from buyers (voters). Just like sellers everywhere, they research consumer preferences (polls, focus groups) and they advertise their product in an effort to woo as many buyers as possible.

How does the Electoral College play into this? The central problem of a presidential campaign is how to use three major scarce resources--time, money, and political position. Candidates increase their chances of winning by allocating their resources in the most effective way possible. Under the Electoral College system all of a state's electoral votes go to the candidate who wins the most votes in the state. If a state is reliably in one political corner or another, candidates get little marginal benefit from using resources to campaign in that state. For example, neither presidential campaign spent very much time or money in Texas (the home state of George W. Bush) during 2004.

The editorial also points out that the Electoral College system dampens voter turnout, because voters in non-competitive states feel (correctly) that their vote has a minimal chance of affecting the outcome.

1. Think of the television show "Survivor," in which contestants vote each other out of the game. How do the voting rules in that game affect people's decisions about whom to vote for?

2. Presidential candidates actually have to be elected twice: once in the primary by members of their own party, and once in the general election by the whole country. How do they allocate their scarce resources of time, money, and policy positions differently for those two elections? How have changes in the rules by which parties select their candidates affected the kind of candidates who succeed in the primary phase? Would a change in the rules for the general election affect the kind of candidates each party nominated?

3. The Times editorial proposes replacing the Electoral College with straight majority-rule voting. Is that the most efficient way to elect a president? Is it the fairest?

Topics: Political economy, Voting rules

For interested students, there have been many research papers published in the last few years, many of which are quite readable. Economists Nicola Persico and Alessandro Lizzeri showed in a 2001 paper in the American Economic Review how an Electoral College system results in the underprovision of public goods, because politicians don't find it electorally useful to propose public works projects in noncompetitive states. On the other hand, Andrew Gelman, Jonathan Katz, and Francis Tuerlinckx found that voter turnout may actually be higher under the Electoral College because individuals have a higher chance of affecting their own state's outcome than the outcome of the country at large--and under the Electoral College, a shift in an entire state's vote can be decisive.

Also, for a neat interactive map of how the Electoral College works, click here, then click on "electoral votes."


  • At 8:43 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger --Karen H said…

    It may be a more efficient way of voting for a president, but may not be the most fair. If a smaller scale model of a non-electoral process is any indication, what ends up happening is that the most populous areas have their interests catered to, while those less populous do not. You end up with urban areas' interests promoted, while the rural area go wanting.

    I've seen this on the local level; urbanites will vote on land-use legislation that does not affect them, but will affect those who live in rural areas. The legislation passes, and those who live rural areas have to live with the consequences, and their wealth decreases because they cannot use their land as they had in the past to produce income.

    Without the Electoral College a similar thing may happen as politicians focus on the urban areas for votes at the expense of the rural areas.


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