Third Party Success Through the Electoral College

First posted at OCF, 12 Nov 2000.

Third Party Success Through the Electoral College


By adopting proportional selection of electors, we can eliminate the "wasted vote problem" and reduce the likelihood of a mismatch between the popular vote and the final winner.


For a while now, I've been toying with the idea of replacing our current election system with a version where we would randomly select, say, 1% of the registered voters to vote in the next election, and give them six months notice to actually learn about the issues. A lot of people I talk to tell me they don't like it because it's not democratic or some such. The reason I like the general idea is because it's really not worth the trouble to figure out whose opinions you like better for something like state assembly, where the news coverage stinks, and the candidates may not even bother publishing much information.

Recently, in the wake of the chance that Bush may win the election while losing the popular vote, and the obvious knee-jerk reaction (which would never succeed anyway) of eliminating the electoral college, I got to wondering why we had the electoral college at all. So I go to the source, and check out the Federalist No. 68. In it, I find hints of reasoning similar to the above. Hamilton's vision of the electoral college was for a number of people to be selected directly from the populace, who then gather and discuss who would be the best person for the job. "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation."

This, of course, bears little resemblance to the current system of a bunch of people who have already decided who they will vote for, and who will all vote for the same person, getting together to write out some forms and be done with it. What went wrong?

The Idea

The first idea I had was that allowing proportional allotment of the electors would prevent the kind of fights now going on in Florida. Since both candidates got near 50% of the vote, they would both end up with near half of the electors, and it's less likely that they would need to fight to the bitter end for that last one or two electors.

Then I started thinking about the details of how to do a "proportional" system. In Maine and Nebraska, the only states that split the electors, whoever wins the popular vote in the state gets the two votes corresponding to the senators, and whoever wins each congressional district wins that elector. It's better than nothing, and at least makes sense, but this still means that third parties have no power.

Consider the California results:

Gore: 53.7%
Bush: 41.5%
Nader: 3.9%
Other: .9%

California has 54 electoral votes. This election, they will all go to Gore. I don't have data for the presidential race by district, but we have 20 Republican representatives and 32 Democrats now, so it's a good guess that using a system like Maine or Nebraska we would get a breakdown similar to this. This clearly better represents the will of the people than does giving them all to Gore. But what about Nader? He received more than 2/54 of the vote in California, but doesn't get a single elector. If we give each candidate a number of electors equal to the percentage of the vote they won times 54, rounded down, we would get the following breakdown:

Gore: 28
Bush: 22
Nader: 2
Left Over: 2

Since we have to do something with the left overs, and since complicated math and law don't mix, we'll just give them to Gore. So the final tally is Gore with 30, Bush with 22, and Nader with 2. Okay, I'm now going to give up on real statistics and just make up the following scenario:

A: 265 Electors
B: 265 Electors
C: 8 Electors

Assuming that C's party prefers A to B, then C's electors can cast their votes for A, ensuring that the third party votes were not wasted, but also showing the media that C was a serious candidate.

Now assume that C's party is indifferent between A's and B's party, and that A's party controls the House and the Senate. C can now offer a major coup to B. Perhaps C's electors could cast their vote for B, in exchange for B's electors casting their vote for someone in their party other than B's running mate who is more desirable from the point of view of C's party. (E.g. A Bush/McCain administration rather than Bush/Cheney. I can't think of a good example for the Democrats.) This final outcome is probably much more representative of the general will of the people than any of the outcomes that would come about without this vote trading.

Those of you who have done any readings on mathematical analysis of voting will probably realize immediately that the following three situations are completely equivalent if the groups vote as blocks:

FactionSituation 1 Situation 2 Situation 3
A 34 2 26
B 33 49 25
C 33 49 49

In all cases, blocks A, B, and C all have equal power, because any two of them can do anything by themselves, and no single block can do anything. With more blocks, it just gets harder to easily see whether they are equal, or whether one is irrelevant, or what. So if we were to adopt proportional allotment of electors, one might initially think that any three way impasse would give equal power to the third party (who may only be supported by a small percentage of the population). This would not be the case, though, because if they can't come to a compromise, it will be decided by the House and the Senate, who are not likely to go with the third party. The psychological positions of the various factions would also come into play. A minor third party could claim victory if they are able to win a small concession (e.g. McCain instead of Cheney) from a major party, and would find their support increased in the next election after this success. On the other hand, a major party that granted a large concession (choosing a third party vice-president) to a minor party would be hated and distrusted by the people and would find their support collapse in the next election.

I expect if such a system were adopted, the idea of "major" vs. "minor" parties would completely disappear from the presidential race within a few elections. Instead, everyone would be able to vote for the candidate they actually liked, and coalitions would be built at the electoral colleges, and some compromise would be worked out. A third party vote would no longer be wasted in a large state, and you wouldn't even need to get that much of the vote in a not-so-large state. I remember Perot getting slightly less than 20% of the vote in 92. Twenty percent would be enough for at least one electoral vote in 37 states, so that vote would not have been wasted. And, of course, third parties would get more of the vote if people didn't think a third party vote was wasted.

Admittedly, getting the states to adopt such a system is a pretty tough chore. If a state has a clear majority for one of the major parties, the majority of the people like who the votes are going for, and wouldn't want to split them. The only hope is to ram it through a few states where the minority party and third party sympathizers could actually form a majority. Your best bet is in states that have the initiative process, since the legislature is always going to be dominated by the majority party. Once a few states adopt it (Florida would probably be real sympathetic right now) third parties can start growing in power and then more states will want to adopt the system.

Further Reading

On Voter Incentives to Become Informed
Robin Hanson's extremely technical analysis of the problem of it not being worth while to be a well informed voter. Sorry, only PostScript. I haven't read this, but it's on my reading list.
Federalist No 68
Hamilton's "The Mode of Electing the President" is the most direct discussion of the electoral college. Also available in many print editions.