Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Electoral College

Josh Marshall gets an e-mail from a Democrat in Kentucky:
What makes me uncomfortable in all this red state/blue state talk is that people like me who happen to be liberal in a red state just don't seem to count. We get written off because we're surrounded by conservatives.

I live in Kentucky. Kentucky went 60/40 for Bush. But 40% is a fairly sizable minority.

He later writes about his new-found dislike for the electoral college, writing:
Folks in DC experience this reality more than anyone. But if you're living in Texas or New York or California or Alabama, national elections are really just a spectator sport. It's all about a half dozen or so swing-states and recently it all comes down to Florida and Ohio. If you really want to get involved you travel to a swing state to knock on the doors of those privileged few whose votes actually matter.

So what are we saying when we say that some votes do matter and some don't? Basically, the rubric Josh is using (and what everybody else uses too) is that if a party can count on your vote, you don't matter. This applies for states as well as individual voters. If state X consistently goes for party A and state Y consistently goes for party B, states X and Y no longer matter. And by "no longer matter," we mean that neither party is willing to spend capital (political or otherwise) to capture your vote. Essentially, it is the *marginal* vote that is important (which could mean the vote of someone who has not decided between candidates, or the vote of someone who has a preference but does not normally vote.) This makes sense. After all, firms and consumers make decisions on the margin, it would follow that political entities do as well. Right now, elections are about the marginal states, and more specifically about the marginal votes in those states.

I think that (I am not sure if Josh would agree with this or not) elections should be about the margin. Voters who are already very liberal or conservative already have very large political "rents" from voting for the candidate closest to them. For those left of the Democrats or right of the Republicans, the opportunity cost of voting for their next-best candidate is very low. So even though they might wish that their candidate were less centrist, they are still quite happy, relatively. But for those in the middle, the cost is high to switch between candidates. These marginal voters collect little or no political "rent" from their votes. In return, they get to be pandered to. This is a good thing. Policy should be made where the median voter stands.

But what is the most efficient way to achieve this? The electoral college system focuses an election on the marginal votes in marginal states. But what about the marginal voter in New York or Alabama? These are the real losers in the electoral college system. Those in New York or Alabama who have already picked a candidate don't lose anything. But the marginal voter in these states, who should have an important vote, is relieved of any influence. A popular voting system, on the other hand, would take the focus away from the marginal voters in just the swing states and focus it on nationwide marginal voters. Political efficiency would be vastly improved.


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