David Weakliem on the U.S. electoral college

The sociologist and public opinion researcher has a series of excellent posts here, here, and here on the electoral college. Here’s the start:

The Electoral College has been in the news recently. I [Weakliem] am going to write a post about public opinion on the Electoral College vs. popular vote, but I was diverted into writing about the arguments offered in favor of it.

An editorial in the National Review says “it prevents New York and California from imposing their will on the rest of the country.” Taken literally, that is ridiculous–those two states combined had about 16% of the popular vote in 2016. But presumably the general idea is that the Electoral College makes it harder for a small number of large states to provide a victory. . . . In 2016, 52% of the popular vote came from 10 states: California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia (in descending order of number of votes). In the Electoral College, those states combined had 256 electoral votes–in order to win, you would need to add New Jersey (14). Even if you think the difference between ten and eleven states is important, the diversity of the ten biggest states is striking–there’s no way a candidate could win all of them without winning a lot of others.

Good point. Weakliem continues:

The National Review also says that the Electoral College keeps candidates from “retreating to their preferred pockets and running up the score.” That assumes that it’s easier to add to your lead when you already have a lead than when you are close or behind. That may be true in some sports, but in getting votes it seems that things would be more likely to go in the other direction–if you don’t have much support in a place, you have little to lose and a lot to gain. If it made any difference, election by popular vote would probably encourage parties to look outside their “preferred pockets”–e.g., the Republicans might try to compete in California rather than write it off.

I’d not thought of that before, but that sounds right. I guess we’re assuming there’s no large-scale cheating. There could be a concern that one-party-dominant states could cheat in the vote counting, or even more simply by making it harder for voters of one party to vote. Then again, this already happens, so if cheating is a concern, I think the appropriate solution is more transparency in vote counting and in the rules for where people can vote.

Weakliem then talks about public opinion:

There is always more support for abolishing [the electoral college] than keeping it—until 2016, a lot more. . . . The greatest support for abolishing it (80%) was in November 1968, right after the third-party candidacy of George Wallace, which had the goal of preventing an Electoral College majority. The election of 2000 had much less impact on opinions that 2016, maybe because of the general increase in partisanship since 2000.

A lot of recent commentary has treated abolishing the Electoral College as a radical cause, but the public generally likes the idea. . . .


I suspect that most people don’t have strong opinions, and will just follow their party, so that if it becomes a significant topic of debate there will be something close to a 50/50 split.

And then he breaks things down a bit:

The percent in favor of electing the president by popular vote in surveys ending on October 9, 2011 and November 20, 2016:

2011 2016
Democrats 74% 77%
Independents 70% 60%
Republicans 53% 28%

Weakliem presented these numbers to the fractional decimal place, but that is poor form given that variation in these numbers is much more than 1 percentage point, so it would be like reporting your weight as 193.4 pounds.

One thing I do appreciate is that Weakliem just presents the Yes proportions. Lots of times, people present both Yes and No rates, which gives you twice as many numbers to wade through, and then comparisons become much more difficult. So good job on the clean display.

Anyway, he continues with some breakdowns by state:

I used the 2011 survey to look for factors affecting state-level support. I considered number of electoral votes, margin of victory, and region. Support for the electoral college was somewhat higher in small states, which is as expected since it gives their voters more weight. There was no evidence that being in a state where the vote was close made any difference . . . Finally, the only regional distinction that appeared to matter was South vs. non-South. That makes some sense, since despite the talk about “coastal enclaves” vs. “heartland,” the South is still the most regionally distinctive part, and southerners may think that the electoral college protects their regional interests . . .

Funny that support for the electoral college isn’t higher in swing states. It’s not that I think swing-state voters are so selfish that they want the electoral college to preserve their power; it’s more the opposite, that I’d think voters in non-swing states would get annoyed that their votes don’t count. But, hey, I guess not: voters are thinking at the national, not the state level.

Lots more to look at here, I’m sure; also this is an instructive example of how much can be learned by looking carefully at available data.

P.S. I’m posting this now rather than with the usual 6-month delay, not because the subject is particularly topical—if anything, I expect it will become more topical as we go forward toward the next election—but because it demonstrates this general point of learning from observational data by looking at interesting comparisons and time trends. I’d like to have this post up, so I can point students to it when they are thinking of projects involving learning from social science data.


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