America Needs a New Electoral System: And Here’s One That Would Work

We’re heading into another national election — well, actually not.  We’re heading into another 12-state election.  RealClearPolitics has 12 states with 147 electoral votes in the tossup column (New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, and Nevada).  At least a couple  of these — Wisconsin, Arizona — are really leaning to one side or the other.  And “leaning” is a polite way of saying “will almost certainly support”.   So this election will be fought in the 12 states mentioned above, or more likely 8 to 10 of them; the rest of us will watch from a distance.

This is bad for America, bad for our politics, and bad for our policies.  Our Cuba policy, to take one example, hurts us and almost certainly has held back democratization in Cuba.  But it’s still popular among the Cuban emigrants in Little Havana, and no Presidential candidate or President will kick away Florida’s 27 electoral votes: ergo, the policy stays.  We need a new electoral system, and this entry proposes one: the Threshold Proportional Vote System.

Under this system, each major candidate is awarded a portion of the electoral votes in a state proportional to the percentage of the vote he received in that state, so long as he achieves a minimum threshold of support.  The threshold is vital.   Majorities should be rewarded, and super-majorities should command overwhelming electoral vote totals.

The formula we advocate gives each of the top two  candidates in a state  electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote each got, so long as a candidate got a minimum of 40% of the votes cast for the top two candidates (that’s the threshold), with a linear scale between 40% and 60%: the formula is the 5 * (percentage of the popular vote – 40%).  A candidate who got 53% of the vote in a state would get 65% of its electoral votes; her opponent, with 47%, would get only 35% of the electoral votes.   At 60% of the vote, a candidate gets all the state’s electoral votes; at 40% or below, none.  This rewards candidates who win states, but offers some votes to strong minorities in a state.

To see how this works, let’s consider California, with 55 Electoral Votes, and see how they’d break under the current winner-take-all system and the Threshold Proportional Vote System.

Winner Vote % Loser Vote % Current System TPV System
Winner EV Loser EV Winner EV Loser EV
60 40 55 0 55 0
58 42 55 0 50 5
56 44 55 0 44 11
54 46 55 0 39 16
52 48 55 0 33 22
50.1 49.9 55 0 28 27

To see why this is a good idea, let’s look at some properties we’d like for any reformed electoral system:

  • It needs to force the candidates into a national campaign — otherwise, there is no point in doing it.
  • It has to be fair, and broadly follow the popular vote.
  • It has to  be implementable in our current framework.  This means if it needs a Constitutional amendment, it needs to be popular enough to win the support of 2/3 of both houses and 3/4 of the states.
  • It can’t favor one party over another; not only are reforms that are blatantly partisan wrong, as a practical matter any real reform requires the support of both major parties.
  • It should avoid, where possible, high stakes driven by small changes.  For example, in 2000, Florida’s 25 electoral votes turned on a few hundreds of votes in a few Florida counties.
  • It should reinforce the two-party consensus-driven system that has largely served America well for 223 years.
  • It should exaggerate margins.  Virtually all successful democracies have electoral systems with this property; modest popular vote victories become sweeping mandates.
  • It should lead to a decisive victory.  Under the 12th Amendment, if no candidate wins a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives picks a President from the top three candidates, with each state having one vote.  This has happened only once since the passage of the Amendment, and led to the crippled Administration of John Quincy Adams.

The Threshold Proportional Vote system meets all of these requirements:

  • It’ll force the candidates into campaigning in any state that adopts it.  Only DC, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Alaska have voted more than 60% for one party in every election since 2000.
  • This is at least as far as our current system, and experimentally tracks the popular vote slightly better; see the next  post.
  • States can adopt this by legislative action today, and in the battleground states it will largely be a wash for each party.  But a Constitutional amendment is also feasible; unlike the movement for a national popular vote, this method preserves the currently electoral advantage of the small states — and no method that does not has any hope of passage.
  • As we’ll see later, this method slightly favored the Republicans in 2004 and 2008, and slightly favored the Democrats in 2000.  In neither case was the difference substantial; this doesn’t hurt or help either party.
  • The Bush v. Gore contest  in 2000 would have been over one, not 25, electoral votes.  Florida essentially tied in 2000; under this system, the count would have been 13-12 one way or another.
  • We’ve deliberately chosen a method where only the top two candidates in a state can win some of  its electoral votes (if this seems unfair, remember it’s only one, now); and by choosing a steep slope, it exaggerates margins: a 1% increase in popular vote translates into a 5% increase in a candidate’s state electoral votes.

OK, great idea.  So what’s wrong with it?

Some of the strengths of this proposal are also its weaknesses, at least from the perspective of political campaigns and interest groups.  There’s an advantage to candidates in the current system: they can focus their money and effort in a relatively small set of states and markets.  A truly national campaign would cost more and be a much more strategic effort.  Right now, candidates can afford to ignore California, because the Democratic candidate is guaranteed 55%-60% of the vote in the state; under the current system,  no electoral votes are at stake.  But under the Threshold Proportional Vote system, the 5% of the vote up for grabs translates into 25% or so of California’s electoral votes — 14 electoral votes, or so.    That’s equivalent to winning Colorado and New Mexico under the current system, and nobody is going to walk away from that.  Under the Threshold Proportional Vote system, every state is a tossup; the whole map is the battleground.  This is also bad for interest groups in the current swing states.  Right now, they exercise outsize influence on the political process, because they represent the favored few who can make a majority in a tight election.  In the Threshold Proportional Vote system, every vote is truly equal.

A more subtle problem is that the Threshold Proportional Vote system requires accurate counts, even for decided elections.  This is particularly the case for large states like California, with many steps between 50% and 60%; today, whether the winning candidate gets 54.9% or 55.1% of the vote doesn’t matter much; under the Threshold Proportional Vote system,  it could mean the difference of an electoral vote.  But other countries (notably Israel) use proportional vote systems, without being beset by counting controversies.

One way to avoid this is to use a tranched rather than smooth system, to make recounts unlikely.  Under a tranched system, a fixed number of electors would be awarded at specific percentages of the popular vote.  If the tranches are adequately spaced, recounts become unlikely.

States have various thresholds for automatic recounts, but 0.5% of the vote is very common.  Choosing a tranche threshold of 2.5% (awarding electors to a candidate at 50%, 52.5%, 55%, 57.5%, and 60%) would lead to a recount in about two in five elections.  Choosing three tranches (50%, 55%, and 60%) would lead to a recount in about one in five.  Of course, bear in mind that the frequency of recounts and the stakes in a recount are inversely related: the more tranche points, the fewer votes at stake in each contest.

In the next post, we’ll look at how the Threshold Proportional Vote system would  work in practice.

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