A Smart Idea for the Electoral College?


By Peter Coy Ever since the 2000 Presidential Election, political scientists have been lining up to take their shot at the Electoral College, which is what really elects chief executives under the Constitution, rather than a plurality of the popular vote. It's antiquated, they say. It's undemocratic. It's dangerous in close elections.

Many academics and political experts applaud an initiative in Colorado on the November, 2004, ballot that would allot the Centennial State's electors in proportion to the popular vote, instead of a winner-take-all system. "Other states should follow its [Colorado's] lead as soon as possible for the health of our electoral system," argues Michael Munger, chairman of Duke University's political science department.

MARGINAL DIFFERENCE. Then there's Alan Natapoff, an MIT physicist who has also studied the Electoral College for more than 30 years. Natapoff thinks the Colorado ballot initiative would actually dilute the influence of one voter/one vote democracy. He argues that the Electoral College frequently affords individual citizens more power than they have under direct popular voting.

Why? Take Colorado. Right now, it's classified as a swing state, albeit leaning toward President George W. Bush. But since it's in play, both Bush and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry are wooing Colorado voters and focusing on issues that are important to Coloradans, in pursuit of those nine Electoral College votes.

If Colorado dropped its winner-take-all system and allocated electors based on the popular vote, candidates would lose interest in the state, Natapoff argues. That's because narrowly winning the state (vs. narrowly losing it) would make a difference of only one elector in the Electoral College instead of nine. Sames goes for all the states classified as swing states this year.

MINIMAL CLOUT. In short, the stakes in Colorado would become much smaller. And the issues of Colorado voters would vanish from the candidates' radar screens. It's a point that Colorado Governor Bill Owens, a Republican, has been trying to get across to the state's voters.

Maine and Nebraska are the only two states that don't automatically give the statewide winner all of their electoral votes. They give two electors to the statewide winner and one to the winner in each congressional district. Neither state has enhanced its clout in national elections with the changes.

Natapoff argues that the goal of an electoral system should be to empower individual voters and to produce a winner who will be at least acceptable to the losing side. And he says the Electoral College, while flawed, does a better job of that than direct voting would.

SIZE STILL MATTERS. Indeed, the Electoral College succeeds for the same reason as baseball's World Series, Natapoff's theory holds. It turns a national contest into a series of hard-fought, state-by-state battles -- in the same way that every at-bat matters in a close game in the Fall Classic. Each voter in a hotly contested swing state matters in a close election, empowering them in ways that are lost when a tally of millions of voters produces a statistical plurality.

Is it unfair that the candidate who wins the most votes nationally can still lose in the Electoral College? Baseball fans don't seem to feel that way about the World Series. In the 1960 World Series, the Yankees scored twice as many runs as the Pirates, but the Pirates still won, and nobody thought that was unfair, Natapoff observes.

Natapoff doesn't even mind that the Electoral College gives a disproportionate number of electors to states with small populations. According to his math, a small swing state is much less likely than a large swing state to determine an election -- so much less likely that the candidates don't spend much time campaigning in them. Big states still matter more per voter.

TARGETING TURNOUT. This doesn't mean the Electoral College has no flaws. Under it, states that are either safely Democratic (New York) or safely Republican (Texas) get ignored by the candidates because no amount of campaigning will switch their electors to the other party.

Natapoff acknowledges that problem, but he thinks he has an idea that would alleviate it. Under his plan, the number of electors for each state would be determined by the total number of votes cast for all candidates rather than by the state's population. So more voter turnout per state, more electors per state.

Natapoff acknowledges that this proposal has its own problem: Theoretically, a vote for Bush in a blue state like New York might end up helping Kerry, boosting the total number of electors from the Empire State that go to Washington to cast the decisive vote for the next President. It would still be winner-take-all for all states. So why wouldn't Bush supporters simply stay home or cast blank ballots, rather than give Kerry help?

DIFFERENT OUTCOME. Optimistically, Natapoff says his system would force candidates to move toward the political center so that even people who oppose them would be willing to cast ballots. He likens it to a player with a winning hand in poker trying to keep other players in the game so he can win a bigger pot.

Natapoff even has an answer for what to do in states (like Florida in 2000) where the vote totals are extremely close, and the incentive for cheating by both sides is enormous. He'd use statistics to minimize or amplify electoral clout. If a candidate won by, say, only one vote, he'd get just half of the state's electors. If he won handily, he'd get all of the electors.

In between, his share of the electors would be determined by a formula drawn from the shape of the bell curve. Applying this formula to the close votes in Florida and New Mexico in 2000 would have given the Presidency to Al Gore, Natapoff says.

By day, as a physicist at MIT's Man-Vehicle Laboratory, Natapoff studies the behavior of astronauts in space. His Electoral College sideline may appear equally extraterrestrial, but his ideas are intriguing. He may have discovered a way to save the world's most unpopular college. Coy is Economics editor for BusinessWeek in New York


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