A Minute With...

Brian Gaines, expert on polling and elections

10/29/2012  8:00 am

Fewer than a dozen “battleground” states are once again getting all the attention in this year’s presidential election, and Illinois isn’t one of them. And once again it’s easy to imagine, recalling Bush vs. Gore in 2000, that a close vote in just one state could decide the election – possibly in favor of the candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide. Is this any way to run an election? Political scientist Brian Gaines, an expert on polling and elections, says what we have may be better than several alternatives, and there’s no perfect system. He discussed the pros and cons in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

First of all, let’s talk history. The 2000 election seemed such an extraordinary event in many ways, but it wasn’t the first time that one candidate got more popular votes, but lost in the Electoral College.

image of professor brian gainesTrue. That also happened in 1876 and 1888, when Republican candidates won the electoral vote, but lost the popular vote. In both of those cases, rampant suppression of the black vote in the South depressed the Republican popular vote, contributing to the split. In 1960, Richard Nixon won more popular votes than John Kennedy, but most sources obscure that point by counting as Kennedy votes the votes actually cast for Alabama Democratic electors supporting Harry Byrd, even though those electors openly opposed Kennedy from the beginning of the primary campaign onward.

For many people, that kind of outcome seems an injustice, no matter which party benefits, and a good argument for getting rid of the Electoral College system. But is it?

I don’t think so. First, note that presidents worldwide are elected in all sorts of complicated ways other than by a nationwide plurality-of-popular-vote rule. Some countries use a majoritarian run-off system, with multiple rounds of elections. In others, voters rank all candidates, and then votes are transferred from the last-place candidate to the candidates ranked next best by those who favored that candidate, in sequential rounds, until one candidate finally has a majority.  Some other countries also use geographic districts, as we do through the Electoral College.

Second, the simplest answer to the complaint of unfairness is that the candidates – and now, even most voters – know the rules all along. Rules that are arbitrary are not thereby unfair or biased; there simply is not one unique set of fair rules. Is it fair that baseball games are won by most-runs, not most-hits?

It is also not obvious how campaigns would change were the rules changed here, and one should be wary of any claim that a nationwide popular vote would definitely bring about some clearly good outcomes, such as higher turnout, candidates giving more attention to more states, etc.

Why is it so difficult to design a fair system?

Different voting systems emphasize different goals, from simplicity to permitting more elaborate expressions of preference – letting voters rank candidates, for example – to encouraging more candidacies or parties. There is no such thing as an electoral system that has every possible virtue, and no vice.

The 2000 election might have left some thinking the current U.S. system is tilted in favor of Republicans, but any such bias is sporadic: In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic candidates (Kerry and Obama, respectively) would probably have won had the popular vote split 50-50. Moreover, in October 2000, some predicted that Gore would win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. It didn’t happen, but it wasn’t a far-fetched scenario. In the long-term, the Electoral College is fair to the two major parties, and its short-term bias is unpredictable.

What’s the drawback to a system based only on winning the popular vote nationwide? Can you imagine a nightmare scenario under that system?

There is, in fact, a movement under way to establish national popular-vote plurality, via an interstate compact. Illinois is one of eight states, plus the District of Columbia, that have already passed laws to join. The members have agreed to award their electors to the candidate who wins the most votes nationwide, regardless of their statewide totals. The compact doesn’t go into effect until enough states join to ensure that they collectively are decisive – in other words, their electoral votes total 270 or more. At present, the members have only 132 electors.

If more states join and the compact becomes operational, what could go wrong? In an extremely close election, both parties would send armies of lawyers into every county hunting for lost votes, seeking recounts, and challenging administration and tabulation decisions. It would be a replay of Florida in 2000, but thousands of times over. In that scenario, settling on a winner in time for inauguration would be much harder than it was in 2000. An underappreciated feature of the current Electoral College system is that it confines the messy controversy that follows extremely close outcomes to just a few jurisdictions.


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