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Both sides of the coin

Over at Hazel’s place, she talks about an Ancient History class that sidetracked in to moral valuations of a one person, one vote direct democracy. Leaving aside the fact that only certain people got votes in Athens (i.e. not the slaves, h/t dad), I wrote in response to her post, (which you should read):

It all comes down to division of labor: in the late 1700s it consumed too much time to attempt to get a vote from every citizen. It would be impractical.

As much as it might seem like it has, that still hasn’t changed: if we were to hold an Election Day every month, it would be a huge logistical undertaking and reduce the national GDP (think of how much time off would have to be taken to stand in a line to vote once a month instead of once every four years (in the general case)). Online voting sounds good, but isn’t going to happen. Every piece of software has bugs, and a bug in this software would swing the course of the nation. Noooo thanks.

But let’s even suppose that there were a secure way of voting via the internet. No lines, no waiting, just do it whenever.

The voting is only the end of the deliberative process: ostensibly our Congressweasels first read, then contemplate, then vote on the bills. In a direct democracy, steps 1 and 2 would be cast by the wayside for most people, leading to the rule by the fickle mob. “Health care, yeah, I could use free health care! I vote yes!”

The notion of a Republic (electing people to read, study, and vote on your behalf) that allows you to spend your days producing, and only a small portion of the time diving deep in to politics is a sound one. However, it relies on the notion that the politicians can be trusted to act like honest human beings.

Ostensibly, every republic is a quasi-direct democracy: senators are supposed to take in to account communication that they receive from their constituents, giving those constituents a bit more direct control.

I wonder how many of these armchair Founding Fathers have ever written a letter to their Congresscritters?

Since then, a counter-example has occurred to me that shows the problems of having a republic that is too indirect: the electoral college. Wait a minute, though. The electoral college has certain fringe benefits, like diluting the pure advantage of a larger population, right?

Rhode Island for example has .3% of the population of the US (1,050,788/304,059,724) but has .7% (4/538) of the vote in the Electoral College. That’s almost twice as much!

Except California still has almost 14 times the number of electors, meaning that population in this case does end up winning out. Which is, I think, a good thing.

See, the electoral college provides a broken incentive system that encourages the notion of swing states: the process of identifying the states that

  1. Have a significant number of electoral votes, and
  2. Could have a majority that goes either way (i.e. could “swing”), and
  3. Have a winner-take-all system that means a simple majority in the state gets all of the state’s electoral votes

Why is this bad?

These maps show the amount of attention given to each state by the Bush and Kerry campaigns during the final five weeks of the 2004 election. At the top, each waving hand represents a visit from a presidential or vice-presidential candidate during the final five weeks. At the bottom, each dollar sign represents one million dollars spent on TV advertising by the campaigns during the same time period.

I understand there are downsides to switching away from the Electoral College system (e.g. centering campaigning around high-density population centers) but it is hard to imagine any system that would effectively disenfranchise so many people. A Democrat in Texas might as well not have a vote; likewise a Republican in New York.

In my opinion, this is a case where the republic has made the democracy too indirect, to the detriment of the country.

Even a simple change would go a long way to rectify this problem: proportional electors. Let’s illustrate with an example: California had 55 electors in the 2008 Presidential election. The vote split was 8,274,473 to 5,011,781, in favor of Obama. Call it a 5-3 split, where Obama got five votes for every three McCain got. So why doesn’t McCain get every three electors for every five Obama got? California still uses a winner-take-all electoral vote apportionment system. (For those of you not playing the home game, that split would have made the electoral votes 21 to McCain, 34 to Obama.)

But the way it is, California, the most populous state in the nation, with ten percent of the electoral college votes got next to no attention by Bush and Kerry in the last weeks of the election because they knew there was no point: the Republican voters in California wouldn’t be heard.

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