Approval Voting: Rational, Constitutional Electoral Reform

by Paul Hager © 2001

[Talk given in forum entitled "Electoral College and Alternative Systems of Voting", 14 January 2001, sponsored by Monroe County Green Party.]

The 2000 Presidential election was the first time in 112 years that the candidate who won the popular vote didn't win the Electoral College. Predictably, there were immediate calls to eliminate the Electoral College in favor of direct popular election of the President.

In today's discussion, I will argue for an electoral reform that is fundamentally fair and accurately represents minority interests, and can be implemented on a state-by-state basis without changing the Constitution. I will argue against outright elimination of the Electoral College as well as the method of proportional appointment of electors used by Maine and Nebraska.

As virtually everyone now knows, Article II, Section 1, clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution leaves it to state legislatures to determine the manner in which electors are appointed. By the middle of the 19th century, most (but not all) states appointed electors by popular vote. Thus, for a substantial portion of American history, we have chosen the President by indirect popular vote. It has been argued that indirect election of our President is an anomaly among representative democracies and is therefore suspect. However, the parliamentary systems favored by most of the other developed countries have a Prime Minister who wields executive power but is elected indirectly -- chosen by the majority party or coalition. A similar method of selecting our President was considered by the Framers but was rejected in favor of the Electoral College for reasons of separation of powers.

The Framers also considered direct election of the President, and rejected it as well. It behooves us to look more closely at their reasoning. Their chief concern was the likelihood a populous state or region would select the President and thus become dominant. The Electoral College was intended to protect federalism and minority interests by increasing the voting power of small states. In fact, our whole federal system is built upon the notion that majoritarianism is inherently dangerous and that a government that is too responsive to powerful factions will become despotic. The separation of powers and the frequent use of super-majorities rather than simple majorities are intended to control factional excess and make a tyranny of the majority more difficult to achieve. The Electoral College is yet another manifestation of that thinking.

The Electoral College has served our country well. It requires that presidential candidates have a sufficient popular vote to be able to govern. "Sufficient' does not mean majority, since many Presidents have won with less than a majority of the popular vote (for example, Clinton in 1992 won with around 43% of the vote). Winning the Electoral College confers legitimacy on minority Presidents, which has contributed to the United States' enviable political stability.

The Electoral College also imposes a requirement on a successful candidate that the popular vote be sufficiently distributed to obtain a majority, which prevents regional domination. Very few Presidents have won the Electoral College with victories in a minority of the states. George W. Bush pieced together his victory by winning 31 states (over 60%). Had Gore won, it would have been with the lowest percentage of states in history. (In comparison, Kennedy had 46% of the states in 1960 and Carter had 47% in 1976.) It is worth noting that around 1/3 of Al Gore's popular vote margin over George W. Bush came from Washington, D.C alone where Gore got 86% of the popular vote.

The winner-take-all method of appointing electors that is used by 48 states means that candidates only have to win 50% + 1 vote in a two person race. Additional votes gain nothing. This avoids the problem of "majority fraud" -- running up the vote. For example, in the 1888 Harrison-Cleveland contest, Grover Cleveland ran up huge majorities in a handful of southern states at a time when ballot box stuffing was a high art. While there is no objective reason to assume that vote fraud played a role in the 2000 election, if there were an incentive to run up the vote in a national election, fraud might well follow in its wake.

Another advantage of winner-take-all is that even the votes of small minorities can make the difference between winning or losing all of a state's Electoral votes. For example, in Florida and a handful of other states, Green Party voters were decisive in the outcome. A future Democrat candidate and the present Bush administration must consider whether or not they need to incline in that direction in the future. Without the Electoral College and winner-take-all, the Green Party would have been irrelevant to the outcome.

Physicist Alan Natapoff did a mathematical analysis of the Electoral College system that was published in the journal Public Choice in 1996. Natapoff analyzed "voting power" in an idealized country, first on the basis of direct popular vote and then with a country divided into districts, with victory being determined by the number of districts won. It can be seen that the latter situation is analogous to the Electoral College. Natapoff demonstrated that it is much more likely that an individual's vote will be decisive in a country broken into districts than with a direct popular vote. Although the actual distribution of votes in the Electoral College differs from Natapoff's idealized model, the Electoral College still operates to magnify individual voter power. We need look no farther than Florida in the 2000 election where only 500-odd votes determined the national winner. Natapoff demonstrated mathematically that the Electoral College forces majorities to win the consent of minorities both within states and across the country.

The biggest problem that exists with our current system of voting for both President and for lesser offices is that it is very difficult to break the hold of the Republican-Democrat duopoly. We all know about the "wasted vote syndrome." By far the best solution is to adopt a system called approval voting. In this system, people may vote for as many candidates as they like. In other words, people vote for every candidate they "approve" of. For example, Gore voters who liked Nader could have voted for both and both votes would have counted.

Approval voting can be expected to increase voter turnout because voters are no longer required to make a single choice between the lesser of two evils. Mathematical analysis of voting systems has validated this fact and demonstrated that approval voting rewards candidates who are preferred by the most people. At the same time, minority candidates would receive votes commensurate with their actual support. Currently, approval voting is used by a number of professional organizations and the United Nations uses this method to select the Secretary General.

Approval voting is easy to understand and is simple to implement (in comparison with systems such as preference voting or Borda count). There is no need for extensive modifications to existing voting machines/devices. There is no impediment other than political inertia to individual state legislatures adopting approval voting for appointment of electors and, indeed, for all federal and state offices.

Given the power wielded by the President, it is imperative that (s)he win the support of a broad national constituency that honors the concerns of minorities. The Electoral College guarantees that this will be true. If we want to make future elections even more responsive to minority interests, the solution is for states to adopt approval voting.