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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Structure, History, and Culture (6i)—Electoral College Politics

One year ago on Round and Square (13 November 2011)—Hurtin' Country: Better Off (In a Pine Box)
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Structure, History, and Culture"
[a] Reconsideration RF

This is one post in a multi-part series on the American Electoral College. Click below for the others.
Electoral 1       Electoral 2        Electoral 3        Vote!                 Clearing        Electoral 4        Electoral 5          
Electoral 6       Electoral 7        Electoral 8        Electoral 9        Electoral 10   Electoral 11      Electoral 12
Electoral 13     Electoral 14
So where were we? Oh, yes. Recounts are difficult. That's right. Count up all the rice grains in a big bag (or all the books in a small library), and you'll be surprised by all of the interpretive challenges. If, by chance, you count them up a dozen times, you'll likely get a dozen (slightly) different results. There will almost always be differences caused by human error (rice grains and books start to blur together after the first few hundred). There will always be more problems caused by varying interpretations of "grain" and "book." That means that we can get close, but we can never have one...single...exact count. 

Not long ago, we even considered briefly what it is like to recount a whole state. Yes, that's right—recount every vote in a whole state.
[b] Close RF

It has happened a few times—mostly in senatorial or gubernatorial elections. The 1974 North Dakota Senate race was very close, and the three "counts" (even for "only" 236,000 ballots) varied by a few tens of votes on either side. The 1982 Illinois Governor's race had many more issues, but it was just about as close in the percentages that divided the two candidates and the variations in the recount totals. About one tenth of one percent divided the candidates in these two races (North Dakota 0.09%; Illinois 0.14%).

The 2008 Minnesota Senate recount was far more dramatic than either of those. Norm Coleman and Al Franken were close—oh, so close. Almost every tally had them within a few hundred votes of each other. Unlike many other recounts in American history, however, this one swung like a pendulum, and ultimately ended up in Al Franken's corner. It then went to the courts. It was July, fully seven months later, before Franken became Minnesota's junior senator. All we really know in each case is who became senator or governor. We can never know for certain who really won.

If it is that close, it is a matter of interpretation...and legal challenges.

First come the election boards, and then the courts do the interpreting. Nerves fray on all sides of the process. These were difficult situations, and even the "brief" recounts took the better part of a month. As we saw in North Dakota and Illinois, the difference was about 0.1%; in Minnesota, it was 0.01%. There is close, but then there is Minnesota clooooooose.
[c] Close RF

Grumpy Old Voters.  

Ballots in the woodchipper.

We would be safe in confirming, then, that it is enormously problematic to recount even a few million votes. In most cases, we call that "few million vote" entity: "state." With that structural building block, we now return to the American electoral college system. There, we have fifty-one separate elections in all of the United States and the District of Columbia. 

Win Arizona by a big or small (but definite) margin, and the popular votes no longer matter at all. You win, and you get 'em all. Your candidate has eleven electoral votes. I won't belabor this particular point, because we have been through this side of things in earlier posts. The larger question I wish to examine as we move toward our conclusion is the stabilizing role played by the electoral college. 

Yes, you heard that correctly. I said "the stabilizing role of the electoral college.

Whoa! Nellie...The runaway EC has now become a stabilizing force in American politics? Have you lost your mind (I hear you cry)? Nope, and I do hear you crying. Consider this. We have seen how difficult it is to recount a state. In the case of Minnesota, even the victors feel lucky; the losers are angry, and many feel cheated. So I ask the question again:
Can you even imagine what it would be like to recount the entire country?
[d] Coverage RF

The electoral college takes this monstrous situation right off the table. A close race in the popular vote can be neutralized by the click, click of electoral votes being tallied all over the nation as the polls begin to close. Most state races aren't remotely close, as we have seen. Most differentials are in the ten-point (55%-45% range), and almost no one other than a few people who want to shave off David Axelrod's mustache even think about them going "the other way."

Any observer of election night coverage has seen how many races are "called" within a minute of the poll closings. In the Eastern Time Zone, the "automatic" ones—leaving aside anything less with fewer than a ten-point differential
over several elections—blossom in screen backgrounds of red and blue. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC all do a very nice job of this, as do the networks, who used to call Democrats "red" and Republicans "blue."

Back in the day.

Just to make the point crystal clear, let's just hypothesize that the total popular vote in this cluster of states—the "easy" ones when eastern polls close—is almost tied. Just humor me here; don't do the total popular vote math for now. Up goes the board. Counting only slam-dunk states, the Democrat wins Vermont (3), Delaware (3), Rhode Island (4), Connecticut (7), New Jersey (14), Massachusetts (11), New York (29), Maryland (10), and the District of Columbia (3). The Republican wins South Carolina (9), Georgia (16), Mississippi (6), Alabama (9), Tennessee (11), and Kentucky (8). 

In our hypothetical example, we leave out Maine and West Virginia (which have swayed in the past twenty years between parties), as well as all of the states that have been "toss-ups" in recent history. We have just counted the truly obvious ones. The popular vote (we are saying in this example) is razor thin if you add them all up.
[e] Truly obvious RF

But we don't have to add them all up. We just have to to count up each state. We give winner-take-all points to whoever wins each one. This is the structure of the Electoral College of the United States. Not one of these examples (the blow-away states) is close, and Wolf Blitzer reads them off at 8:00:05 p.m. The exit polls have told us that the loser doesn't have a chance, even before an actual vote can possibly be counted in those states (but the polls are, actually, closed).

Boom. The votes are counted, the margin is massive (at least ten points), and it is over. The votes do not go into a big blender of national popular votes. Once the count is beyond dispute, none of the popular votes in those places matters anymore, except as a matter of historical record. All that matters is the new Electoral College total, and it is not as close (at least until the Central Time Zone polls close in an hour). For now, though, it is: 
Democrat 84          Republican 59

Period. The race builds from there, and it is now a sprint to 270 and electoral (vote) glory. Popular totals matter not, at least in terms of "one person, one vote. Nope. The structure says "win a state, even narrowly, and you get all of its congressional districts and senate seats. That is a little harder to follow. We'll consider it more deeply tomorrow.

This is one post in a multi-part series on the American Electoral College. Click below for the others.
Electoral 1       Electoral 2        Electoral 3        Vote!                 Clearing        Electoral 4        Electoral 5          
Electoral 6       Electoral 7        Electoral 8        Electoral 9        Electoral 10   Electoral 11      Electoral 12
Electoral 13     Electoral 14
[f] Close RF

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