The Scientific Case for Eliminating the Electoral College by Angela Rieck

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There have been five United States presidential elections where the “elected” President did not win the popular vote but was chosen by our electoral college system.

In my lifetime, this has occurred twice: the 2000 election of George W Bush and the recent 2016 election.  The former resulted in an expensive and ill-advised war that cost trillions of dollars, destabilized a significant part of the world and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries on both sides.  The 2016 election has resulted in our current contentious environment.

The other instances have not been much better. The very first presidential election was “awarded” to John Quincy Adams by the House of Representatives, despite only winning 32% of the popular vote. (Andrew Jackson won 42% of the vote, but not enough for a majority and he lacked the connections of John Quincy Adams.)

The 1876 election had disastrous consequences.  Although the Democrat candidate, Tilden, won 52% of the vote, there were 4 states where the winner was contested.  Congress worked out a compromise that awarded the election to the Republican, Hayes, under the condition that he not run for re-election and remove the federal troops from the South.  The removal of these troops resulted in African-American voter suppression and the commencement of systematic repression of the Southern black population.

In 1988 the electoral college prevented Grover Cleveland from being reelected to a second term.  Aided by Tammany Hall in NYC, Harrison was able to win the electoral college despite having 92,000 votes fewer than Cleveland.

The election of 2000 was decided by a Supreme Court which ruled that while the constitution guarantees us the right to vote, it does not guarantee the right to have our vote counted. In 2016, despite winning by 3 million votes, Clinton did not win the electoral college.

Unfortunately, this quirk in our election process results in, at best, a contentious term of office.

But more importantly, there are two statistical axioms that show that the electoral college system flies against scientific knowledge. The first statistical property is the law of large numbers.  This law means that the larger the number of (in this case) votes, the more accurate the data. By not allowing all Americans’ votes to be counted, it becomes a poor assessment of the “will of the people.”

But even more important is the statistical phenomenon known as the “wisdom of the crowd.”  Sir Francis Galton, one of the early pioneers of statistics, identified this phenomenon after gathering estimates of an ox’s weight at a county fair.  While the guesses varied widely and few were accurate, he found that the average of all guesses was within 1% of the actual weight. The larger the sample, the more likely that the average answer is correct. He called this the “wisdom of the crowd.”  We have found that this phenomenon is pretty rigorous in large samples. For example, if you have a bowl of marbles and ask a large number of people to estimate how many marbles are in the bowl, the average estimate will be within 1-2% of the actual number.

So let’s apply these statistical principles to our popular election.  In the electoral college system, we reduce the number of actual votes from 137.5 million (in 2016) to 538 (called restriction in range).  With these 538 votes, we have effectively eliminated the votes for the losing candidate in that state (and in some cases electors are allowed to vote their conscience).  This small sample (538) ignores the importance of the law of large numbers and eliminates “the wisdom of the crowd” by significantly reducing the sample size.

Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter,” individually may be true, but our statistical laws demonstrate that he is wrong when it is applied to the entire population. If we leave the election up to an unbiased crowd, its wisdom will prevail.

Angela Rieck was born and raised on a farm in Caroline County. After receiving her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland, she worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Throughout her career, she held management jobs at AT&T, HP and Medco, finally retiring as a corporate executive for a large financial services company. Angela is also a wife, mother and an active volunteer serving on the Morris County School Board for 13 years and fostering and rehabilitating over 200 dogs. After the death of her husband, Dr. Rieck returned to the Eastern Shore to be with her siblings. With a daughter living and working in New York City, she and her dogs now split their time between Talbot County and Key West, FL.  

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Frederick S. Patt says

    The Electoral College is an anachronism that distorts the Presidential election results and needs to be either abolished or substantially restructured. Dr. Rieck makes an interesting argument for this, although it appears to assume that the 538 electors vote independently, which is not the case; they vote according to state election results.

    A stronger argument, perhaps, is the substantially unequal representation of voters by the electors from each state. The average number of voters per elector is about 600,000; for the smallest states, this figure is around 200,000, so their votes count 3x the average. The College also results in an otherwise unjustified emphasis on “swing states” by the candidates.

    The measure proposed by the Maryland legislature, to award its electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, is a band-aid fix at best.

  2. Keith Thompson says

    This misses the entire point of the Electoral College in that it is specifically designed as a part of the checks and balances on the different branches of power as well as the separations of power that limits the federal government and gives more authority to the states. The way the Electoral College is designed is to create 50 separate elections and the results are weighed based on the total representation each individual state has in both houses of Congress to either get one candidate with a clear majority or, without a clear majority, to have the field weeded down to the top three and then chosen in the House of Representatives. The original purpose was to keep a check on the power of the office and to reflect the regional differences throughout the country to require that a president represents all of the nation rather than a specific region or demographic. Without the Electoral College, the president would largely be elected by the populous urban areas, would only have reason to campaign there, and would be beholden to their interests at the expense of the more rural areas after election. One other consideration is that the United States has three separate branches of government with a President that is independent of Congress rather than a Parliamentary form of government (such as Great Britain or Canada) where the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. The Electoral College, since it does give greater weight to less densely populated rural areas that take up greater geographical space, helps balance the power of the Presidency with the power of Congress that the popular vote would be less effective in doing.

    There are other complications that come into play if we were to decide to go to a national popular vote. One is that it has to be done under one national set of rules meaning that there has a uniformity of candidate ballot access, voter registration, etc. (one national voter database independent of state and local databases) and we’re such a large and diverse country that we may have a hard time determining that uniformity. It also means that you couldn’t really coordinate the presidential election with state and local elections (they might be done at the same precincts but definitely not on the same ballots or voting machines and not overseen by the same officials). Also, since we’d be dealing with one national database rather than 50 separate state databases; the amount of time counting the votes and then recounting the votes in a closely contested election could be staggering. Also, let’s not forget the impact of third party and independent candidates and unless national ballot access is made virtually impossible for them (which I think could be likely due to the power of the Republican and Democratic parties and would be a disaster in terms of voter’s choices), in the event that a candidate does not get a majority (like in 2016), you would have to have a runoff election.

    Finally, much of the problem with the Electoral College in the 20th and 21st Centuries is that the states themselves have ceded most of their power to the RNC and DNC in simply placing the candidates chosen at the national conventions on the presidential ballot in their states. There’s no reason at all that a state can’t place the winners of their state primaries on the ballot instead of the candidates chosen at the DNC and RNC (and I’m surprised that apparently there hasn’t been a serious legal challenge from say Democratic Bernie Sanders voters in a state where he won the primary but Hillary Clinton was placed on the state ballot, especially since primaries are funded by the taxpayers and not the political parties themselves). There’s no reason a state can’t proportion it’s electoral votes on a percentage based on the state vote (and one state actually does). I don’t see any Constitutional reason why a state simply can’t decide to give it’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote as a coalition of states are attempting to do (but I think this is a foolish idea that the law of unintended consequences may come around to bite these states if they can do it). The point here is that if the states really wanted to exercise their potential power in the Electoral College, they could create a very chaotic presidential election that ultimately weakens the power of the office which is precisely one of the things the Electoral College is supposed to do. While the results may be chaotic, would it be any less chaotic than the situation we have now where we give the president the power to shut down the government for political reasons or a president having the power to issue executive orders that can be rescinded by the next president? You do pick your poison.

  3. Ed Plaisance says

    Thanks to Angela Rieck for introducing Francis Galton (fascinating person and cousin of Darwin I found out) and some of his concepts, which he developed well after the Constitutional Convention. These concepts probably would not have had much impact on the founding fathers in finding compromises back then. Their issues were political, not statistical. I question whether the “wisdom of the crowd” concept can really be applied to a nation voting for its president…we are not guessing the number of marbles in a bowl.

    I also question whether the issues and the compromises that led to the Electoral College in the Constitutional Convention of 1787-89 have any real validity today. We are the United States, not the 13 colonies under the Articles of Confederation.

    To ensure that the person with the most votes is elected, we can simply tally the votes in each state and add them together. We see those numbers on the TV screen every election night. We have those numbers from every election and in 2016 Trump got 62,984,828 and Clinton got 65,853,514.

    How complicated could that be?

    • Keith Thompson says

      Ed Plaisance writes:

      “To ensure that the person with the most votes is elected, we can simply tally the votes in each state and add them together. We see those numbers on the TV screen every election night. We have those numbers from every election and in 2016 Trump got 62,984,828 and Clinton got 65,853,514.

      How complicated could that be?”

      More complicated than you would think. Since we conduct a presidential election under a set of rules governed by the Electoral College, it’s only fair to determine the outcome by those sets of rules. You would have to have an entirely different set of rules under a popular vote system, so campaigns and funding would be geared around those sets of rules and ballot access rules for candidates, especially unaffiliated and third party candidates. would be different and therefore it is not hard to believe that the popular vote totals could be very different under a different set of rules.

      Keep in mind that we have in effect fifty different state elections each operating under fifty different sets of rules which is fair if you know going in that there are 50 separate state elections. However, if you simply count up the numbers from every state, not every state is going to have the same number of candidates on the ballot nor are the ballot requirements the same in every state. For instance, it’s much harder for a third party candidate to get on the ballot in Maryland than in Delaware and it is almost impossible for a third party candidate to get on the ballot in some states without launching an expensive petition drive. The differences that exist among the states means that if you switch from the Electoral College to the popular vote; to be fair every national voter has to be working from the same set of rules, voter qualifications, and the same set of candidates. I would also suspect that given the monopolistic powers of the Republican and Democratic parties, they would make it very difficult (if not impossible) for third parties to get on the national ballot (proven by the absence of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the 2016 presidential debates despite being on the ballot in all, or almost all of the states).

      So when you factor in the number of popular votes received by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, you can’t dismiss the votes received by Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Johnson’s popular vote total alone exceeded the popular vote difference between Clinton and Trump. If Johnson is not on the ballot, where do those votes go? Do they vote at all? The point is that we simply do not know and those votes are important and simply can’t be ignored. While it is true that Hillary Clinton got the most popular votes in 2016, more voters cast ballots against her than for her and that cannot be ignored.

    • Gerry Maynes says

      Baloney, the college is extremly valuable today’s world. Wuthout it 48 states would have no voice and California and New York would rule the country. The rule was established to protect the small states from the large states. How long would we last as a nation if California ruled the country

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