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Monday, November 5, 2012

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

One year ago on Round and Square (5 November 2011)—Displays of Authenticity: Coffee Names
Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Structure, History, and Culture"
[a] Representation 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
We have spent a good deal of time setting up the American electoral college in the last two posts. Now, it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty of political structure. The constitutionally-mandated electoral college defines American presidential politics. Let's start with a little thought experiment. Give the best (and most successful...which is not always the same thing) political operatives in American politics the following "structural" mandate, and let them figure out how to win under these rules. This is the structure; don't even try to argue that it should be otherwise (you'll need a constitutional amendment, for starters).

And just to be clear, let's repeat the rules:

538÷2+1=270 (=Victory). 
This is different from the popular vote, in which one candidate needs to receive a majority of votes (if there are only two candidates), or a plurality if there are more than two. Let's just say, as a baseline, that 130 million people vote for president, and that only two people are running (this is, of course, a slightly impossible example, but it is close enough for our purposes). In this situation, the winner needs, 65,000,001 votes in order to defeat the 64,999,999 votes of (his) challenger. 

Candidate One: 65,000,001—50.0000001%
 Candidate Two: 64,999,999—49.9999999% 

Fiction is a fascinating thing, isn't it?  

Any of us old enough to remember the 2000 election knows that there is no such thing as a one-vote margin or only two candidates. Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan still haunt one sector of the electorate when its members think about certain counties in Florida (I know someone who breaks out in hives when she hears the word "butterfly"). In any case, a candidate needs to have at least a dozen or more votes (preferably a hundred or so) of clearance in tough precincts, just to be sure. Even with this description, though, we really have no idea of the stakes. What we need to do, then, is to recall the fateful election for the fourth-grade presidency between Joey and Suzy. That will guide us as we start to understand the American electoral college. So remember: Joey lost the popular vote by a large margin, but he won key electoral groups by just enough votes (one, as it turns out in each case) to secure his hairlectoral college victory. Suzy understood popularity; Joey understood the structures (and just barely).
[c] Taxing RF

So, first thing, let's look at the structures more carefully. They have everything to do with the peculiar history of the United States—with emphasis on the second utterance in that phrase. In other words, it's all about states. These are the fifty little mini-structures (plus one district that is taxed without full representation) that make up the American presidential electoral system. I know that many of you know this (I am speaking now to the twenty percent of Round and Square readers who are American political junkies), but please indulge me. There are many readers who don't check the 538 Blog every few hours, and more than a few who come from other political systems (with other structures to negotiate). 

Please, be patient.

So here we go. American politics has played out as an elaborate dance between the federal government and what started as thirteen colonies and now amount to fifty states, each with its own executive branch, legislature, and judiciary. It is not at all difficult to look at American history as a complex two-step between the authority of states and the powers of the federal government. This tension has not lessened, even as federal authority has grown (this pretty much started with Washington and the Whiskey Rebellion, so don't go making any Tea Party conspiracy theories yet). 
[d] Sixteen RF


There are fifty states, each with two senators. That brings us to 100. There are also 435 Congressional districts, apportioned at the rough clip of 750,000 citizens per representative (this figure will just keep growing as the country does—it was once somewhere around 500,000, but the number 435 is not going to change anytime soon). That brings us to 535—exactly the number of people elected to the two chambers of Congress. Now, add three more for the District of Columbia, and voici, you have the magical number that, divided by two and adding one more (for "majority"), equals 270.

The basic idea is that each state is represented by two senators and a varying number of representatives based on population. That means that my home state of North Dakota has two senators, just like Texas does. Two per state. If you have been admitted to the union, Idaho, you get two senators, and your small population will be represented powerfully in the Senate chambers, and every bit as strongly as the big-and-ever-growing state of Florida (adding about a thousand people a day, every single day)

Equal. All states are equal.

Well, sort of. Some states are a little more equal than others, you see.

As we saw a few minutes ago, each state also has a widely ranging set of figures called "representatives," each elected by about 750,000 of the state's citizens in a little structure within states that we call "congressional districts." Think of it this way. In a state with 7.5 million citizens, there will be ten representatives—one for every district (redrawn by the state legislature and overseen by the state judiciary every ten years, after the national census). It turns out that there is only one state with exactly ten representatives, and several more with nine or eleven. We shall call "them" Arizowashinginia, o.k.? "It" has a population of 7.5 million, ten representatives and (this is key)...twelve electoral votes.

Twelve (I hear you cry)? Why twelve? Is this, like, Biblical...or something? 
[e] Civil RF

Nope, just structural (although this reminds me that we should do a post soon about Biblical structures—Noah had a lock on these). As for American politics, one state, ten representatives, and two senators equals twelve electoral votes. This is how it works...until the next decade's census results, when a state might lose or gain a district (or three). This is the entire structural linchipin of American politics. Adding to the numerical complexity, though, states have histories (some dating back to the seventeenth century...sort of...and others to 1912 (or even 1959).

States are historical structures. 

Some have gone through tortured misery during the most difficult times in American history. Some of them are Kentucky in 1861...or Virginia...or the western part of it (or the eastern part of Tennessee). Much of this is deeply fraught, and those who take the long view can hear the resonances when words like "Georgia," "Massachusetts," or "Delaware" are spoken.

Congressional districts are not anything like this. They have almost no history—almost.

There are no deep chords to be played when we say things such as "the fifteenth congressional district of Illinois" or "the twenty-fourth district of Florida." This is not like the strains of Civil War service we might "hear" when we speak of Wisconsin (which lost a high percentage of troops in the great conflict). If we speak of the seventh district in Maryland, we are probably not thinking about that area's service during the War of 1812 or on the fields of Antietam, just down the road. Nope. It is just a little slice of territory that changes in large or small ways every decade. There is almost no "history" to it.

But it matters. Boy, does it matter. Those 750,000 citizens add up to one big electoral college vote, and they get that "vote" (sort of) even if only a quarter of eligible voters show up at the polls. The problem is that they are buried in another historical structure called a state, and boy, does that matter.  

Big time.

We'll pick up that theme tomorrow, when we consider big 'ol Texas-sized structures. In other words, we're going to look at ten-gallon states  before we consider tiny little ones. Get ready. The presidency depends on it.

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

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