Why I Love the Electoral College
By Garett Jones
Categories: Public Choice Theory
There’s some evidence that democracy itself makes people happier, but largely I see democracy as a means to an end. One among those ends is “reducing social conflict.”
The electoral college, set forth in the U.S. Constitution, is a great tool for reducing social conflict across regions of the United States. You might think that’s a crazy claim–don’t we see maps of red and blue, and aren’t the red places–the places supporting the Republican–mostly in the South and Midwest? Indeed, and that pattern across regions is key to explaining how the electoral college defuses some social tension.
As it stands now, the states implicitly vote for the President. Each state is granted a number of electors (equal to the number of House members plus Senators), so populous states states get more weight. In almost every state, every single elector votes for the candidate who wins the plurality of that state’s popular vote.
That means candidates only care about winning a plurality of the votes in each state—winning California by one vote is just as good as winning by two million. Of course, there’s always some uncertainty about how things will turn out, so candidates love a cushion, but it’s safe to say that if your state is polling 65% for a particular presidential candidate, neither candidate is likely to campaign there any time soon.
And that’s great news for social peace. We rarely hear too much about regional issues in the U.S. other than farmers vs. everyone else. But if the presidency was decided by majority rule, I’m sure we’d hear a lot more about regional differences. Could a presidential candidate get 75% of the votes in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida by promising broad-based Gulf Coast subsidies and a few other goodies? Could a candidate get 85% of California’s and New York’s votes partly by offering housing subsidies for people facing high housing costs?
I don’t know: But if we got rid of the electoral college and had a popularly elected president we’d sure have a chance to find out.
As it stands, presidential candidates are trying to appeal to the median voter in each state across a large number of states. That’s how you get to be president. This reduces regional tensions because candidates are never trying to get 90% of the votes in a state. When you’re pitting 90% of one region of the country against 90% of another region of the country, you’re substantially raising the probability of social conflict.
Too many civil wars are based on regional differences for this to be no big deal. And you don’t need to get to the point of civil war to get bad outcomes–mere regional transfer programs, switching across regions every four or eight years, would be quite bad enough.
Right now, U.S. presidential candidates have zero interest in winning 100% of a state’s votes. But I’m guessing the campaign consultants could find some underexplored regional tensions if the incentives were right.
Here’s hoping they don’t get that opportunity.