Saturday, November 19, 2016

One Argument for the Electoral Vote System

An advantage of the present system that I have not seen discussed is that it reduces the problem of vote fraud. Stealing votes is easiest in a state dominated by a single party, the sort of place where the Republican poll watchers probably work for the Democrats or vice versa. With the electoral college system, there is no point to stealing votes in such a state, since the dominant party is going to get all of its electoral votes anyway. With a straight majority vote system, on the other hand, each party has an incentive to steal all the votes it can wherever it can.

Even with the electoral vote system, the problem still exists in any state where one party controls a large area, such as a major city, but the other  has enough support elsewhere to make the overall result uncertain. I still remember, long ago when I lived in Chicago, being told that the reason the downstate votes had not come in yet was that they were waiting to see how many they had to steal to outweigh the efforts of the Chicago machine.


Topher said...

I think you have it exactly backwards. In the electoral college system some votes are worth more than others. This makes stealing them far more worthwhile. Stealing a few votes in a swing state is much easier than stealing a lot of votes all over the place (as a logistical problem if nothing else).

Work the numbers for Bush v. Gore. I could have rigged the election as was by changing 500 votes (or SCJ Kennedy's 1 vote). Rigging the popular election would have taken 500,000 votes (the other way).

Patrick said...

Another possible benefit is to reduce enforcement costs. If only certain swing states matter to an outcome, then each party can devote 90% of its resources to policing those states and only 10% to non-swing states, or whatever is the optimal balance. No one has to monitor the California vote, for example, since only enormous (and therefore easily detectable) fraud could flip it from blue to red in a typical election. Everyone watches Florida, the upper Midwest, and the handful of other close states, making fraud more easily detected.

To put it in terms of Topher's argument, by making certain votes worth more, it makes it worthwhile to monitor them closely. The increased scrutiny encouraged by swing states' increased vote value may more than offset the increased value of cheating there, which may then reduce the chance that fraud will change the election results.

This can be especially true if it is common knowledge what places are being scrutinized in a given election--if the swing states are the only ones that matter, then it doesn't matter that everyone knows that they're being scrutinized, since they're the only states that can change the outcome. Cheat there or don't cheat. On the other hand, in a popular election, it may be impossible to scrutinize every voting area. So identify the (commonly-known) places that are not scrutinized, and cheat enormously there. A further question is if there are large fixed costs (in being detected) to cheating in a given location, but low marginal costs (odds of being detected for a 100,000 vote cheat are not much larger than a 1,000 vote cheat). In such a case, popular vote may be easy to steal (because distributed enforcement leads to low fixed costs, as most places are unmonitored), but the electoral version is hard to steal (since concentrated enforcement means high fixed costs to cheat in every state that can be flipped).

Shaddox said...

This seems like damning with faint praise. The exact same argument could be made for a system where, say, the richest person from each state gathers at a publicly broadcast meeting and elects the next President.

In other words, the less directly democratic a system is, the less chance there is of voter fraud.

Shaddox said...

Topher, I think the argument is that in swing states both parties would probably be about equally effective at getting fraudulent votes, so it's a wash. But in a state that is largely in control of one party, that party would be significantly more effective at getting fraudulent votes.

MikeP said...

An advantage of the present system that I have not seen discussed is that it reduces the problem of vote fraud.

When I praised the Electoral College a couple weeks ago...

"Most obviously, it forces candidates to spread their campaigning and interest outside of just cities or outside of just a few states since, once the state is won, there is no more gain in pandering to them any more. But the Electoral College also eliminates the opportunity for corrupt state elections officials who might stuff the ballot box for their party: that too is useless once the state is won."

...I took this to be a well known benefit. But maybe it's not so well known.

Of course the greatest benefit of the Electoral College was demonstrated by Florida in 2000:

"The Electoral College forms a firewall against the nightmare of a nationwide recount."

Shaddox said...

MikeP: The Florida 2000 example seems unapt, since it demonstrated a nightmare recount that would have been unnecessary in a national popular vote election. And in general, it seems intuitively more likely for a single state with the deciding electoral votes to be sufficiently close to require a recount than for the entire country to be so close.

MikeP said...

The Florida vote came down to under 600 out of under 6,000,000 votes: 1 vote in 10,000. The fact that an election came down to 1 vote in 10,000 is good evidence that it can happen.

I see no reason to presume that the US popular vote can't come down to that same 1 vote in 10,000 -- i.e., 10,000 votes in 100,000,000. Why is the centering tendency of the normal distribution between Republican and Democrat voters any greater in a state than in the country as a whole? Indeed, the 1880 election of Garfield saw a popular vote margin of 1 in 5,000. And who's to say that 1 in 5,000 -- e.g., 1200 votes in Florida -- wouldn't trigger the same legal actions calling for recount and challenge?

Indeed, there are two more features of the Electoral College that make a presidential decision based on a state recount even less likely than a national recount. First, the state in question must not only have a minuscule margin of votes: it must also be a deciding state in the Electoral College itself. And, second, half or more the states are pushed well off the center of the normal distribution between Republicans and Democrats and effectively cannot have recounts in races that are close in the Electoral College.

So I think intuition may fail here because we think fewer votes means more chance that the vote is close. However "close" means fractionally close, not numerically close. It seems clear that it is more likely that the national popular vote differs by a small fraction than that some state differs by that same small fraction and that state is a deciding state in the Electoral College.

Anonymous said...

One can indeed see the electoral college as a way to save on costs (both of fraud detection and of recounting once it's detected), but it seems like a terrible way to accomplish that goal. I'm confident that with more careful thinking about detection and remediation, we can get an affordable system that nonetheless reflects the actual preferences of the people.

I'm not particularly worried about "retail" vote fraud, where one person votes twice, or votes in the wrong precinct, or votes despite being ineligible to vote. This comes at a high cost if it's detected, a fairly high cost in time and energy even if it's not detected, and has a very low payoff unless you can get a lot of your friends who agree with you politically to do the same thing, without accidentally encouraging those who disagree with you politically to do the same thing. There's no evidence that this has ever happened to a large enough degree to change the outcome of a non-local election. At any rate, the obvious mechanisms to detect this kind of vote fraud are already in place: non-partisan or bipartisan polling-place observers, and various forms of identity checks (ranging from just a signature to a government-issued ID card).

I'm more worried about vote suppression: either a governmental or a non-governmental agency tries to prevent members of a particular demographic group (college students, your favorite racial minority, ex-convicts, whatever) from voting. This can be by preferentially challenging the eligibility of certain groups, unilaterally striking people off the voter rolls in ways that skew towards certain groups, arranging voting locations and times to be particularly inconvenient for certain groups, subjective "literacy tests", requiring forms of identification that are more readily available to one group than to another, etc. This definitely happens, and at a level that could potentially change the outcome of statewide (and therefore electoral-college) elections. But at least we usually know when this has happened.

I'm most worried about "wholesale" vote fraud, where the votes cast by actual human beings don't match the totals reported (whether precinct, state, or nationwide). This could be done by old-fashioned ballot-stuffing, or more likely by computer hacking. This may already be happening at a significant scale, and we would have no way of knowing. To detect this at reasonable cost, the obvious solution is to manually recount a small random sample of precincts, regardless of how close the election appears to be. If there's a significant discrepancy in this small random sample, manually recount a larger random sample. If there's a significant discrepancy in this larger random sample, manually recount every precinct (that seems susceptible to the same kind of attack -- e.g. if voting machines are procured and administered statewide, and there's a significant discrepancy in a random sample of this state, recount all the precincts in this state). And of course, you publish the totals from each precinct in downloadable form, so anybody with a calculator can confirm that the statewide numbers match the total of precinct numbers.

Of course, that's more or less independent of the Electoral College question, except that having an affordable and transparent system in place to detect fraud without unnecessary recounts would remove some of the arguments in favor of the Electoral College.

Roger said...

Without the Electoral College, we would not have had a winner on election night, and there would b credible arguments today that the election was stolen. No one would have won a majority of the popular vote, so we would have had a minority-vote President with the additional stigma of fraud claims.

Unknown said...

Not quite a reference to the fraud of manufactured votes, but one of the features mentioned /is/ that the voter turnout doesn't matter so if voters in a state that's safe for one side or another stay home or vote "early and often" the result isn't affected, only the "popular vote" totals.

The photo finish problem could be "fixed" by each state allocating their votes proportionally rather than "winner takes all". Allocating votes by Congressional District like Maine also improves matters but is still affected by Gerrymandering of District boundaries.

Anonymous said...

Voting is an unethical act, in and of itself. That’s because the state is pure, institutionalized coercion. If you believe that coercion is an improper way for people to relate to one another, then you shouldn’t engage in a process that formalizes and guarantees the use of coercion.

The modern state not only routinely coerces people into doing all sorts of things they don’t want to do - often very clearly against their own interests - but it necessarily does so, by its nature. People who want to know more about that should read our conversation on anarchy. This distinction is very important in a society with a government that is no longer limited by a constitution that restrains it from violating individual rights. And when you vote, you participate in, and endorse, this unethical system.

Anonymous said...

Read Lysander Spooner's No Treason: The Constitution of no Authority to learn that the paper document known as the "constitution" is not valid or binding on anyone. It will demolish your belief in the constitution - it did for me.

Anonymous said...

Of course E2E voting systems would be a better solution of this problem.

Anonymous said...

In his seminal book, "The Making of the President 1960," Theodore White makes exactly your point. Speaking of the possible fraud in Chicago and Texas, he says that a nationwide vote challenge would be a nightmare, "with vote-stealers matching their skills at the level of history"