I plan to write more Over There about the Electoral College (I think), but I did want to touch on a Washington Post piece arguing that two arguments in favor of it are bunk. I believe he’s wrong on the second one:

Some critics say that allowing voters to directly elect the president would splinter the two-party system. It would encourage many candidates to contest the general election, thus producing a winner with only a small share of the vote.

This is also wrong. In a system of direct election, potential candidates risk their political futures by running against the official party nominees. And there is no compensation. You win nothing by coming in third. So there is little incentive to run.

By contrast, the electoral college encourages third parties, especially those with regional bases, because by winning a few states they may deny either major-party candidate a majority of the electoral vote. You can come in third and still win a prize. Such a result was certainly the goal of Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968. Imagine giving these racist candidates leverage to negotiate with the leading candidates before the electoral votes were officially cast.

Now, I would favor replacing the electoral college with a national popular vote (and yes, did so prior to this election). But a plurality-based national popular vote really is a problem, and precisely for the reason being “debunked.”

There are two kinds of third-party candidates. First, there is the regional third-party candidate and the national. He points out Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, but those are somewhat outdated exceptions. The closest we’ve had since is Evan McMullin, and he never got as much attention as Gary Johnson this cycle. McMullin did make the argument that if the election can be thrown to the House then he can win it in the House, but that was never a viable argument. Rather, winning Utah was mostly seen as a benchmark of success. There are other benchmarks for the other kind of candidate.

The second kind of candidate is the more common kind: The national third-party candidate. Gary Johnson, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, and more. All of these people are more recent than Edwards’s example. None of them had all that much success, but a part of that is attributable to the electoral college itself. At some point, though, it becomes apparent that the bar for winning is so high for them so as to be impossible. They could win the popular vote but still lose the election because how do they get to 270? Contrast this with governor races, where candidates can and do get a plurality and often get much larger chunks of the vote when they don’t. It’s easier to run for governor than president, of course, but the complete absence of a path to the White House scares off potential investorscontributors and volunteers that would make a national campaign possible.

A long time ago, conservatives and anti-Trump Republicans were looking for a candidate to run a third party candidate. None was found. I don’t know if it would have been any different under a national popular vote, but I do think it might have been. There would have been a clearer path to the White House that wouldn’t have relied on renegade electors. But as my mind drifted I thought of the potential challenges for a third party, and one of the biggest by far was the Electoral College. As Edwards points out, it’s not responsible for the two-party system, but it does provide yet another firewall.

Which is, incidentally, a reason not to like the Electoral College. I support a two-party system but want the parties to be able to challenge it. The Electoral College makes that so daunting that it’s unlikely any serious effort will be made (at least at the presidential level. A First-Past-The-Post system makes it easier. Which is good! Except that it would encourage outcome distortions, which is bad!

So, contra Edwards, we actually do need some manner of dealing the plurality problem. That can be done with a separate runoff or ordered ballots or something else. Maine, which elects its governor the same way Edwards wants to elect our president, just voted to implement ordered ballots (IRV) precisely to deal with the problem he says plurality victors don’t cause.


Category: Elsewhere

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

4 Responses to The Plurality Problem

  1. gregiank says:

    I’m a little dubious of arguments for the EC based on aiming for certain results. It’s easy to predict them but i doubt how well the predictions work in the long run. National elections are to varied and the party systems change. I don’t know if having the EC supports or hurts third parties in the long run. I think we should be for or against the EC based solely on how we want peoples votes to be represented and whether we want some votes to be worth slightly less due to the way the EC counts them.

    • trumwill says:

      Well, when we’re talking about “certain results” as in “Hillary Clinton is president” or “Donald Trump is president” (or really just “Democrat” and “Republican”) then I agree. From a systems standpoint, it matters whether it helps or hurts third parties when it comes to efficient outcomes (whether they favor R or D). If you have a FPTP system, you don’t want third parties. I mean, having them temporarily in a period of transition can be good, but you ultimately want a new party to either replace or merge with an old party. Otherwise, it leads to undesirable outcomes. Not “undesirable” in terms of who is elected, but how they are elected.

      One recent example being 2010 UK election, where 60% of the country voted for center-left parties and installed a center-right government. That’s the sort of thing you want to avoid.

      Ideally, by way of having a system that can handle it (through runoffs of one sort or another). But if you don’t have a system that can handle it, you don’t want to encourage it.

  2. SFG says:

    Technically there was Egg McMuffin.

    The real biggest argument for the EC is that because of the 2-senator-per-state bump, rural states are overweighted (technically states with low population are overweighted), which is good for the GOP. The last 2 times we’ve had EC-PV splits it’s gone to the Republicans.

    • trumwill says:

      Disproportionate representation caused the outcome in 2000, but had no effect in 2016. If you take 58 electoral votes from Trump and 44 from Clinton, Trump still wins.

      There was McMullin, but I don’t think his rationale was really built on winning a state. I mean, it was a goal, but so is “Getting 5% of the vote.”

      As an aside, there are two states that he might have changed the outcome of, and neither was the state he was aiming to win.

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