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One Argument for the Electoral Vote System
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.
When I made that point on my blog, one commenter offered another advantage:
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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."
Even with the electoral vote system, the opportunity for vote stealing 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.
Two Modest Proposals
Practically everyone in our political system is in favor of compromise, at least for other people. I have two alternative compromises to suggest for dealing with the current debt ceiling controversy.
1: The Republicans think the budget should be balanced. The Democrats think the debt ceiling should be raised. The obvious compromise is for the administration to agree to cut expenditure by half the current deficit, the House to agree to raise the debt ceiling by the same amount.
2. Both sides agree to reduce spending by twenty-three percent, eliminating the deficit. There remains the question, ignored in my first proposal, of how the cuts are to be made, what will be funded by how much. The House gets to allocate half of the cuts, then the President gets to allocate the other half. The House can, in other words, decide to give the defense department 100% of its current allocation or 50% but not 110% and similarly, mutatis mutandis, for the President.
Neither represents my ideal solution, which would be a reduction in government spending of considerably more than 20% with a good many functions receiving an allocation of zero. But both look better than anything we are likely to get.
Redistricting: Two Geek Proposals
One of the oddities of the U.S. political system is that it is possible in principle for one party to win a majority of both houses of Congress and the presidential election with slightly over 25% of the votes, properly distributed. 50% +1 of the votes in 50%+1 of the congressional districts elect a majority of the house, 50%+1 in the twenty-six smallest population states elect a majority of the senate, and similarly, with more states, for winning the electoral college.
That uneven a distribution is unlikely to happen by chance but it is not always necessary to leave it to chance. Back in 1812 Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, signed a bill redrawing state senatorial districts in a way that favored his (Democratic-Republican) party. One of the districts looked rather like a dragon, leading critics to dub it a "gerrymander." The term survives, mostly as a verb describing the practice of redrawing electoral districts to favor those who redraw them. The tactic can be used by one party to increase the number of its candidates elected by concentrating as many as possible of the opposition voters in as few districts as possible and (somewhat riskier) creating as many districts as possible where their voters are a majority but not a large majority. It can be done on a bipartisan basis to guarantee incumbents of both parties safe seats.
The puzzle is not how to do it but how to keep it from being done. One solution:
A state gives some body—the legislature, the state Supreme Court, a non-partisan group—the authority to decide among redistricting proposals. Every proposal must take the form not of a map but of a computer program. Inputs include potentially relevant criteria such as town and county boundaries but may not include information on past voting or proxies for voting patterns such racial, educational, or professional characteristics of the population. There is an upper limit to how big the program may be.
That restriction will not prevent people from trying to create programs whose output favors their side, or the body choosing from favoring ones that they think favor theirs. It will, however, sharply restrict their ability to do so, since the information needed to do it well will not be available to the program. They can try various versions, look at the results, and choose the one they like best, but that is all they can do.1
When I offered that proposal on my blog, a commenter offered a simpler and more elegant alternative:
Allow people or organizations to submit their own redistricting proposals. If they can create one with a perimeter to surface area ratio of 10% lower than the official proposal, then it must be accepted. If multiple proposals qualify, pick the one with the lowest ratio.
The Rice Christian Cycle
Consider a political view that is out of fashion, conservatism or libertarianism c. 1960, say. Not many academics, not many authors, support it — but ones who do are committed supporters because nobody else would pay the costs of being identified with unpopular views. On average supporters are abler than their opponents, both because they have been exposed to both sides, the other being all around them, and because surviving intellectually when everyone thinks you are wrong is hard work. It is hard, on the other side, to learn to do a competent job of rebutting views you are rarely exposed to and, when you are, do not bother to take seriously. And it is hard, faced with the need to defend whatever the party in power finds it in its interest to do, to maintain an intellectually consistent position.
Some change, say the Reagan revolution, reverses the roles. Being a conservative is now the route to a good job in Washington, perhaps a profitable career. The number who choose to support that position increases sharply, their average quality decreases. Quite a lot of them are rice Christians — the equivalent, in the intellectual and political world, of Chinese who converted to Christianity because the missionaries had rice.
On the other side, things are moving in the opposite direction.
Not, I am sure, a full explanation of political cycles, but perhaps a partial explanation.
Who Do I Want to Win?
It is the natural question to ask before each election. The emotional answer is that I want the Democrats to do worse than whatever the polls predict. Humans naturally see the world as us vs them and, although the Republicans are not us,2 the Democrats are pretty clearly them.
My rational answer is that I prefer a divided government, since things the government does are likely to make the world worse, not better. The least bad outcome of the next election would probably be the Democrats with the White House, the Republicans with at least the Senate, better yet both houses.
But even if it happens, we are still not safe. I can't help remembering the story of Sen. Alan Simpson’s explanation of American politics to a group of visiting Russians:
In America, there are two parties, the evil party and the stupid party. I am a proud member of the stupid party. Once in a while, the two parties get together to do something that is both evil and stupid.
We call that bipartisanship.
For an improved version, giving employment to a few clever programmers, the shortest program whose output satisfies the legal requirements for districting must be chosen.