1 November 2004

Electoral college reform

How would the election change if the electoral college weren’t around?  A few alternatives are offered in this article in yesterday’s paper.

For one, I agree that the abolition of the electoral college would
probably result in more attention being paid to urban concerns. 
But why is that so bad?  It’s not that we shouldn’t pay attention
to rural portions of the country, but it’d be nice to see more
proportionality in that attention.  With the electoral college, we
have a number of swing states (Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico, to
name a few) that have sizeable rural populations that the candidates
spend a lot of time courting.  But since rural dwellers make up
about 2 percent of the national population, we need to hear less of
what matters to them.

Political scientists disagree on the wisdom of a popular-vote election;
some argue that it would destabilize the country by encouraging more
third-party candidates. But there is little doubt that it would force
candidates to pay attention to more voters in more places. Every voter
in the red and blue states would suddenly be worth just as much as a
dairy farmer in Wisconsin, and that may have implications for the
country’s policies and political culture.

I would doubt that most of us (political scientists) think that
third-party candidates would “destabilize” the country.  The
two-party lock is an institutionally tight one, and there are more
effective, more powerful structures that will keep this country a
two-party system by and large, even if the electoral college were

More importantly, the electoral college is highly unlikely to go away
anytime soon.  It’s a collective action problem.  It is in
everyone’s communal interest to get rid of the thing, but it is in no
one’s individual interest to abolish it.  No party or group can
gain by itself to push the reform or abolition of the college; it can
only work when all parties and groups make a joint move together. 
Otherwise, the first mover ends up reaping a larger share of the
disadvantages and a smaller share of the advantages than others. 
The problem is something like the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”: unless everbody
does the same thing at the same time, some actors will clearly benefit
at the direct expense of others.  And it’s easier by far to
“defect” in this case than to “cooperate.”

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