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The Idea of an EC Alliance

ec.gif What if a group of states comprising at least 270 electoral votes banded together in an alliance and pledged to support the winner of the national popular vote in the next presidential election? Presto: the electoral college would be done away with, but without all the fuss of actually going through the process of amending the U.S. Constitution. Is it legal? Apparently. Is it likely? Not anytime soon.

Nevertheless, the idea, proposed by Stanford University computer science professor (and registered Democrat and former California elector in 1992, by the way) John Koza, is attracting attention from around the country, according to this article in today's San Francisco Chronicle.

Just for fun, let's see how this might work. Let's begin with the assumption that an alliance containing the smallest number of members would be the easiest to form. We can also assume that less populated states (i.e. those with the fewest EC votes) would be less inclined to join such an alliance since the Electoral College was specifically designed to offer them protection against a popular vote.

By my count, the fewest number of states it would take to form alliance to get to the magic 270 is eleven: CA-55, TX-34, NY-31, FL-27, PA-21, IL-21, OH-20, MI-17, NJ-15, GA-15, and NC-15 (or VA-13). Can you see all these states agreeing to a EC-popular vote alliance? Theoretically possible, I guess, but not very likely.

You have to assume any sort of EC pact would be approved by state legislatures. That leads to two problems: first, that the pact could be broken any time a state legislature in any one of the member states changed hands, which would make any such alliance inherently fragile and unstable. Second, it seems to me an alliance running against partisan sentiments of a given state would create a fabulous disconnect for the public that would make state legislatures balk. Put another way, imagine Republican state legislators in Texas trying to explain to their constituents that even though Texas voted overhwelmingly in favor of a GOP Presidential candidate, the state's 34 electoral votes were going to the liberal Democrat.

A more likely change to the Electoral College would be moving to a proporational system for allocating EV's based on the popular vote outcome in each state. But that too has problems, political drawbacks, and seems unlikely to occur anytime soon. It looks like we're stuck with the clunky old system created by The Founders which, while it may outdated and not perfect, still chugs along providing a solid framework for executing the will of the people in the world's greatest federal republic. - Tom Bevan

JAY COST ADDS: Rational choice theory goes a long way to explain the problem with the idea of an EC alliance. Different states have different preferences for different presidential voting systems. I would say the most decisive interest for any given state is the extent to which their economic interests would be enhanced by each method for voting for a President. Some states - like California - would get more attention from presidential candidates, and therefore more economic benefit (the rallies, parties, media, etc), from them. They get ignored now because they are solidly Democratic or solidly Republican. But in this proposal they would not. So they would prefer it. Other states - in Tom's list, I would say MI, PA, OH and VA - would probably economically suffer from the change. They get lots of attention now, and would probably expect a decline in attention. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Greater Pittsburgh is a decisive actor in the state's allocation of EVs. But greater Pittsburgh only has about 1 million people - much fewer voters and much fewer swing voters. That makes spending in the Pittsburgh media market much less rational for a presidential candidate. So also all the campaign rallies become much less feasible. Pittsburgh would suffer, and therefore Pittsburgh legislators would oppose it, and so it will not pass through the state legislator. Lots of other small states - IA, NH, MN, WI, etc - would also suffer. In other words - any state that would economically benefit would support the proposal. Any state that would economically suffer would oppose it.

So - the question is whether the proposal would economically benefit states whose EC population is now 270. I think the answer is no. And I think the reason is that there are simply too many swing states. We all bitch and moan about how few states are actually on the table, but in 2004 there were about 20 states that were on the table. This meant the campaigns spent money in those states, which means all of those states have an economic interest in maintaining the current system. Even if states MIGHT benefit from the change - for many of them there is just so much uncertainty in the new system. How will campaign resources shake out? Uncertainty like this only enhances the appeal of the current system.

There are broader political implications here as well - a look at the map clearly indicates that a change would almost assuredly help Democratic candidates. The Electoral College has a small state bias - every state gets a minimum of 3 EVs. The GOP does better in the small states. So GOPers will want to preserve the current system. Partisanship in the state legislatures can therefore sink the whole thing. There are a whole host of states on that list that have at least one Republican chamber or one Republican governor who are sufficiently partisan to stop the thing.

And Tom correctly indicates the fundamental problem - there is NO enforcement mechanism. No state is penalized for breaking the pact. And, further, the pact is very unstable. If one state reneges, the logic for all states to maintain it disappears - and cooperation ends entirely. Even if we presume that there are enough states with a real interest in the proposal - we can imagine how easy it would be to induce a state to renege. Again, because it is obvious that the GOP would be the harmed party, the GOP candidate could easily "pay off" a state to renege. They might promise the veep spot to the governor. They might promise a package of tax cuts or spending increases to help a state's industry, etc. All the POTUS candidate would have to do is make it in a state's economic or partisan interests to renege. POTUS candidates have that power in spades!

So, I would say that (a) the proposal is not an equilibrium because too many states would oppose it; (b) even if it is an equilibrium, the ease with which a GOP POTUS candidate could induce a state to switch makes it a hopelessly unstable equilibrium.

Finally, I cannot help but comment upon the irony. What these big states are objecting to is the issue of "dictatorship" - i.e. a minority is making a decision against the expressed wishes of the majority. But they are actually trying to create a "dictatorship" of their own to solve this one! These proposals will not pass unanimously in the state legislatures - so, if you add up the constituents of state legislators who oppose the pact along with the states where EVERYBODY opposes it, you are likely to come up with a majority in opposition to the plan. - Jay Cost