CAMBRIDGE, Mass., June 2, 2008 — With the Electoral College poised to once again play its role as “the funhouse mirror of American politics” this fall, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Arnold Barnett and Yale Professor Edward Kaplan are proposing a relatively simple cure that could satisfy even warring constituencies.
Barnett and Kaplan have come up with a system that would replace current winner-takes-all electoral voting with a “weighted vote share (WVS) system,” under which candidates' election showings become the average of their popular vote results in each state and the District of Columbia, weighted in order to reflect the individual state's proportion of total Electoral College votes. California's weight, for example, would be 10.2 percent, which represents its current share of electoral votes.
WVA, Barnett said in an interview, would not only avoid calamities such as that of Florida in 2000, where one candidate got 100 percent of the electoral vote even with lingering doubts about who really won the popular vote. It would also require candidates to pay serious attention to states they now often ignore.
“Because they viewed the winner as a foregone conclusion, both presidential candidates largely ignored four of the five largest states in 2004,” said Barnett. “But under the weighted average formula, a two-point gain — say, from 42 percent to 44 percent in California — would mean as much as a similar gain in a half dozen middle-size states. Candidates would thus have to rediscover the way to San Jose, and Chicago and Fort Worth and Brooklyn. Under WVS, it's not just whether you win or lose a state, but your margin of victory or defeat that determines the outcome.”
As an example of how the system could work, take the 2004 battlefield state of Ohio. Because Ohio's 20 electoral votes represent 3.72 percent of the Electoral College's total of 538 votes, its “weight” under WVS would thus be 3.72 percent. In 2004, President Bush won 51 percent of Ohio's popular vote and Sen. John Kerry received 48.5 percent. Under the current system, President Bush collected all 20 of Ohio's electoral votes; under WVS, Bush would have received 51 percent of Ohio's 3.72 percent Electoral College share, with Kerry getting 48.5 percent. The close outcome in Ohio would thus be reflected, rather than ignored, in the selection process.
According to Barnett and Kaplan, WVS offers several other major benefits beyond eliminating the most troubling consequences of the current winner-take-all rule. Unlike Electoral College outcomes, WVS results would closely mirror the actual popular vote in a presidential election, while eliminating the risk of a President being chosen by the House of Representatives.
“Basically, we'd be averaging the votes across the different states in a way that would expand the influence of smaller states while increasing the role of major states,” said Barnett. While anything involving the Electoral College can be complicated, the plan is understandable to anyone who remembers how a high school teacher weighted final grades. “If a teacher said the final exam counted for 50 percent of your final grade while class participation was 10 percent, you knew that scoring even 75 percent on your exam counted far more toward your final class grade than getting 100 percent for class participation.”
Barnett and Kaplan admit that WVA is less straightforward than using Electoral College or popular votes. But a properly done web site could make its concepts more easily accessible. Changes to the election process are very hard to achieve, said Barnett. “But at this point, we believe that just getting our ideas into the public domain would be a positive contribution.”