Allocating Electors Proportionally

This is a follow-up post to the description of the current ballot initiative in Colorado posted yesterday. The voters on November 2, 2004 will act in place of the state legislature and vote on an initiative to change the manner in which the state chooses Presidential Electors from the winner-take-all method to a new system of allocating electors amongst the candidates in a manner approximately proportional to their respective popular vote percentages (there is additional complexity in the algorithm that deals with rounding errors).

To my knowledge, this methodology for choosing Presidential Electors has no precedent. There are several pros and cons to this method:

  • Pro: It could eliminate the need for a controversial recount for close state-wide elections (e.g. the Florida result in 2000 would not likely have been contested because the result would have split 13 Electoral Votes for Bush and 12 for Gore). However, a Con of this approach is the possibility of many recounts nationwide in multiple states over a few electoral votes may occur if the result is close nation-wide.
  • Pro: It allocates the electors in a manner that more closely represents the popular vote. This has the appeal of being fair.
  • Pro: The method reduces the “wasted vote” syndrome. Today, if a state is not competitive, those citizens casting votes for the minority party in that state are not contributing electorally nation-wide (e.g. Democrats in Utah or Republicans in Maryland). Additionally, minor party candidates have a much greater chance of being awarded Electoral Votes. However, a Con of this is the increased chance of the election being decided by the House of Representatives (due to no candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes).
  • Pro: With a proportional system nationwide, there is greater likelihood of candidates visiting and campaigning in states that are not currently competitive. A serious Con: in the case of Colorado, however, is that since this measure only goes into effect in one state, it effectively removes the battleground status of the state. Instead of competing for 9 EVs, the Kerry and Bush would be campaigning for one.
  • Pro: A nationwide proportional system reduces (but does not eliminate) the probability of a split verdict between the popular vote and the electoral vote (as was witnessed in 2000).

Another point that could be argued either for or against the proposed change is that winner-take-all method (usually) exaggerates the margin of victory. Typically, a landslide electoral victory can be achieved with a simple majority in the popular vote, giving the impression of a mandate and national unity. For example, in 1984 Ronald Reagan won 58.8% of the popular vote, but 97.6% of the Electoral Vote. Likewise Franklin Roosevelt won 57.4% of the popular vote in 1932, but 88.9% of the Electoral Vote.

Furthermore, the manner in which the initiative dictates that electors be added or subtracted from candidates when there are rounding errors should certainly be debated with regard to fairness. Its a very different algorithm than the method used to assign congressional seats.

Overall, I think the idea of choosing Presidential Electors proportional to a candidates’ performance in the popular vote is interesting, but for Colorado to enact the method on its own will essentially eliminate any influence the state currently has on the campaign.

3 thoughts on “Allocating Electors Proportionally

  1. James Green-Armytage

    If a state’s electors go proportional, it is a decided disadvantage for the party who usually takes that state. For example, if just California went proportional, it would be devastating to the Democratic ticket in the next few elections. If only Texas went proportional, it would be devastating to the Republican ticket. The tricky part is for the states to adopt the reform simultaneously so that it doesn’t give either side a huge advantage.

  2. Eric Choate

    The proposed Colorado system has a couple of interesting mathematical paradoxes in it that I think make it a poor choice. For instance, increasing the total number of electoral votes can decrease the number of votes that a candidate gets. Suppose the results of the popular votes are Bush 48%, Kerry 46%, Nader 6%. Nine electoral votes would be split Bush 4, Kerry 4, Nader 1. However, ten electoral votes would be split Bush 5, Kerry 5.

  3. Gunnar

    I can’t believe that you listed so many pros, while ignoring the huge CON! With a popular vote system, big states would dominate small states. In fact, the candidates would only campaign in the most densely populated states, like CA. No candidate would ever go to small states.

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