January 08, 2012

Horse 1265 - Thoughts on The Electoral College System

After the two major parties sort out who they're eventually going to put forwards as candidates for the Presidency in the United States, they'll then be put to the vote. The people of the United States though won't actually be voting for the President but rather they'll be voting for the "electors" which on a state by state basis submit votes to a nebulous entity called the Electoral College which will then decide the Presidency for them.

Basically in a nutshell, the Electoral College allocates votes on the basis of the number of members that each state has in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, plus 3 electors for the District of Columbia which has a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives and no Senators. All up there are 538 "electors" of which a majority of 270 is required to vote in a President. Sounds fun?

The really weird thing about all of this is that a candidate only needs to win in 11 specific states* to take the Presidency because so much weight is given to states like California and Texas. Since they are the most populace states, they have the most seats in the House of Representatives; ergo they have the most electors.

I had a thought about whether an identical system would work in Australia considering that the specific model for electing the President which came out of the 1998 Constitutional Convention was defeated in the Republic Referendum in 1999.

If we assume that the model is identical, with an Electoral College in place and allocating votes on the basis of the number of members that each state has in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, then the actual numbers look like this:

State = Reps + Senate

ACT = 2 + 2 = 4
NSW = 48 + 12 = 60
NT = 2 + 2 = 4
QLD = 30 + 12 = 42
SA = 11 + 12 = 23
TAS = 5 + 12 = 17
VIC = 37 + 12 = 49
WA = 15 + 12 = 27

All up we'd end up with 226 electors for Australia.

Immediately this causes a problem. Almost always, every election for an Australian president would be decided on the whims of New South Wales and Victoria, since they'd control 109 of the 226 votes.
If we read through the notes which led to the federation of the six colonies in 1901, the provision that referenda be passed "if in a majority of the States a majority of the electors voting approve the proposed law"
The people who framed the Australian Constitution decided to take the best of both worlds from both the parliament in Westminster and the US Congress. The Electoral College in the United States is very heavily influenced by the states with the most people in them. In Australia the parliament was specifically weighted so that the smaller states wouldn't be bullied by the bigger ones.

I wonder then what the justification of the Electoral College is in the 21st Century. Wouldn't it just be easier to elect a President by nationwide popular vote? You'd still have states like California and Texas dominating the final count, but at least the result would be more truly representative of the population.
And specifically by using the case of Australia, I think it very easily highlights the inherent problem with the system itself. Former PM Paul Keating called the Australian Senate "unrepresentative swill", so I wonder what he thinks of the Electoral College. Since no proposal the change the system has passed through the Congress, I guess it's the game which will continue to be played.

*The Twelfth Amendment to the United States Constitution states that "a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice". In regards that, 26 of 50 states must approve the president-elect, which itself poses a problem if the 26 littlest states decided to band together and vote someone in.

1 comment:

sierrapaul said...

The big problem with the electoral college is that it is winner-take-all in each state, so candidates pay attention only to those states that are close. A state like Utah, for example, would be a waste of time for candidates to campaign in since Utah would vote Republican even if Charlie Manson were the GOP nominee for President.

With direct popular vote, every vote would count equally, so candidates would spend time campaigning in states even where the race is not close.