Are we having a fair election?'

A few weeks ago I was helping our daughter to prepare a power point presentation about the upcoming US presidential elections. We spent a lot of time trying to understand the Electoral College system and thinking how to explain this to the other 9-year olds.

US Electoral College is not something straightforward and every four years I have to be reminded how it works. It is not intuitive - the majority doesn't always rule, as had happened four times in the past with the most recent in the year 2000 when George Bush won the presidency while loosing by 543,816 votes to Al Gore. It doesn't look fair at all - candidate can concentrate his campaign on the 11-12 largest states only, winning these states and not even bothering to get a single vote in the rest 4/5th of the country. These largest states will provide the required 270 electoral votes.

Silly us, why then we use this ridiculous system? I have searched the net for answers.  It is believed that the founders feared trusting local folk with direct election of the president. Presidential campaigns have not been such lavishly funded and well-organized processes back in the late 18th century  Lack of media and limited travel capabilities led to candidates being known mainly locally.  How much that local New Jersey candidate may know about matters in the South? And what Southerner may have heard about this Jersey candidate without a Cable, radio and a car? It was proposed to choose a few educated and well-respected noblemen who will make this important decision on peoples behalf: electors. They will make sure to study the candidates. And in order to force the presidential candidates to address such electors across the whole country, they agreed to require the winner to get the majority of the all electors' votes. This would also limit the number of candidates making the process simpler. Now it starts to make sense, but mainly in these specific historical settings.  Nowadays, our candidates cross the country on a daily basis, we know more about them than we may want to. Do we still need such a complex system?

Turns out my daughter and I were not the only ones troubled with the electoral math. A recent MIT conference was devoted to this topic. Mathematicians and political scientists debated what is fair and why. It was noted that smaller states have an advantage in the current system as they get more electors per capita.  It was pointed that the process of each state uniting behind a single candidate has an important political meaning.  Few alternatives were proposed - an obvious popular vote, a bit cumbersome ranking system with each person marking the degree of his preferences for each candidate, and a system in which votes would be awarded by multiplying each state's popular vote percentage by its number of electoral votes. You can read more in the MIT news here, I was just glad someone else was worrying about that.

Yesterday my daughter shared with me that they had a free lesson. While the teacher was busy discussing something with the boys, she told the girls to pick a game to play in the school yard.  A few games were proposed and the girls voted who wants what. The problem, as my daughter stressed, that there is a group of four girls that always vote together. Shall one of them really want a specific game, they all vote for it. And guess what, their game always won!  Does it remind you of anything? It is not a direct analogy with the Electoral College system but perhaps there are cases when uniting behind one choice does make sense.


  1. I don't think of the presidential election as one big election. I think of it was 51 little elections of differing weights. As a practical matter, could you imagine if the presidential election was decided my the nation's popular vote and it was close? We'd have to recount every vote. That would be an nightmare! With the system we have now, this is avoided.

    Every voting system has it's pluses and minuses. No system is perfect. This has been proven! See Arrow's impossibility theorem. I think the system we have is good enough, despite it's quirks.

    1. Good point. I still think it's weird. On the other hand you can still get into a problem. Look what happened to Gore in Florida. This thing avoids nothing.

    2. Thad there is one other problem that exists in the states that does not in Canada. The college does not lend itself to minority governments or third coalitions. Canada has 4 major parties and 1 other that will become important as time goes on. We've had a few coalitions and they work well. No need to recount anything. Two parties join and we're done. No recounts. It happens in individual ridings where the vote is very close, but that's a localized event.

    3. Thad - I like your view of the Electoral College. This makes it also easy to explain. 51 separate elections. And the re-counting argument. However, if the re-counting is done in parallel and elections are computerized, it should not be such a big deal.

  2. The electorial College.

    Thank goodness Canada has nothing like this. One vote goes to one party and that party's leader becomes the PM with a majority of the popular vote. Done simple except when there's a minority government.

    I have tried explaining Electorial College a number of times in a Canadian classroom. Usually I'm greeted with glassy eyes. They can't believe anything like that exists.

    The problem is with who comes out and votes. Suppose there are two states in the US each with 1 million people and 5 electorial votes. In the first state, only 200 of the eligable voters out of a million possible voters come out to vote (yes Sandy hit them and hit them hard). Suppose 101 of these voters went for Obama. He gets all six of the electorial votes.

    Now suppose that in the other state 100,000 voters come out and this time Romney gets 51000 votes. The electorial college would see them as tied and award each of them 6 electoral votes, but the popular vote is vastly different. Romney is clearly the winner, but that has to be shown by the other 48 states.

    It is clearly a miscarriage of some kind. I hope I've stated this correctly, because it is the way I explain it.

    1. Interesting example. This is exactly why someone at the MIT conference proposed to multiply the # of electoral votes (in your example 5) by the popular vote percentage for each state. The first state would produce a much smaller number than the second in this case.

      In practice I assume that voters presence doesn't vary drastically from state-to-state.

    2. By the way, a number of US liberal pop-stars such as Cher and Susan Sarandon announced that they may move to Canada if Romney wins the elections.

  3. Sorry all the number of electors have to be the same. Either all 5's or all 6's

  4. Maria has summed it up nicely. We have a Federal government, not really a national government except for the military, taxes and some side stuff. It's a federation of states, fifty of them now. I'm against it and I have been for a very long time, but clearly many citizens do care strongly about THEIR states' rights.

    But as much as I am unsatisfied with the electoral college, I am more upset about the continual gerrymandering, redistricting, and local election frauds.

    Oh. And the lying. Political lying (by candidates) should really be a capital offense.

  5. posted by TracyZ

    I don't object to the idea of the electoral college, and of giving smaller states slightly more representation than they would have based on straight population.

    However, times have changed in the 200+ years since the electoral college was established and states are not as adversarial to each other as they once were.

    I think it would help promote democracy and the sense that every vote counts is the electoral college votes for a particular state didn't have to go all to one presidential candidate or another, and could be assigned proportionally based on the popular vote. Though most states lean more democratic or more republican, the current system of winner take all means that:
    - presidential candidates focus only on the battleground states, and the rest of the country is ignores
    - republican voters in a state where more people vote democratic, and democratic voters in a republican state, are basically disenfranchised, and their votes don't matter, because the majority rules.
    - the current system also discourages voting among people who are in the majority, because they feel as though their state is going to vote a certain way with or without their vote.

    By assigning the electoral votes proportionally, each person in each state (and not just the battleground states) could feel as though their individual vote mattered.

    Even with this proposed revised electoral college system or if the country ever went to a straight popular vote, I think that candidates would still focus on the most populous states where the most potential voters are. North Dakota will never have as much political power as California, Texas, or New York, for example, but maybe they wouldn't be quite as ignored either.

    Not for large elections -- it's complicated -- but for some elections (such as smaller, local elections) my preferred voting method is instant runoff voting ( In instant runoff voting, each voter ranks the candidates for an elected office, and then the votes are assigned to the candidate (they first get their first place votes, and then if no candidate has a majority, then "the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and ballots indicating that candidate first are added to the totals of the candidate ranked second (if done). This process continues until one candidate wins by obtaining more than half the remaining votes." I like instant run-off voting because it means that people who vote for a candidate with little chance of winning in get to indicate their degree of support for that candidate and by ranking them, for the other candidates too. I also like the idea that the winner has a majority of votes. Elections where the winner has less than a majority number of votes seem a bit odd to me -- how can they be the winner when less than half the people wanted them? I still remember too, a mayoral election in Providence, RI in the early 1990s in which three candidates ran for mayor, and each got about one-third of the vote: 33.1%, 33.3%, 33.6%, the candidate with 33.6% won. With instant runoff-voting, and considering more of the voters' 2nd place votes, the winner might have been different.

    Vote counting methods and the mathematics and strategies behind them are fascinating to me. I think often of a lesson on voting methods I was given in college (as part of a math class). In the hypothetical election, there were four candidates running. There were four different methods of counting the votes, and under each method, a different candidate emerged as the winner.

    Thanks for starting this discussion.

  6. posted by TracyZ

    For this election, I have been thinking too about the impact of Hurricane Sandy and how some parts of NY and NJ (and maybe elsewhere) are still without power. Voting gets more complicated in this situation (though of course, people in some parts of the world vote with much more challenging circumstances and travel far and stand in line for hours to do so.) Still I wonder what kind of turnout the places hit hardest by Sandy will have, especially if with the current electoral college system, they feel their vote doesn't count much.

  7. The electorial college should be scrapped because under current conditions 3rd parties are impossible. America desparately needs a third party and they need to experience a minority government. The greatest challenge in the world today is the economy and its fragileness. Hopefully that third party can divide a 14 digit number by a 9 digit number. The motto of the third party ought to be let the banks crubble or NEVER AGAIN.

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