Monday, November 17, 2014

About That Michigan Electoral College Allocation Proposal

Reexamining electoral vote allocation is back in the news again.

The story is the same as it was two years ago when red-blue states, that is to say, Republican-controlled state governments in states that have voted reliably Democratic at the presidential level, considered altering the way in which they were allocating electoral votes. FHQ touched on this two years ago, and I thought Jonathan Bernstein nicely updated his comments from the same period at Bloomberg View.

It still strikes me as interesting that states would consider this. First of all, it creates on the state level the potential for there to be a popular loser: someone who could win fewer votes yet still win a majority of the electoral votes from a state. That argument at the national level is one of the most frequent criticisms of the electoral college system itself. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, a districted plan -- where states allocate electoral votes by congressional district -- tends to dilute the power of the states. Had a districted plan been in place in Michigan in 2012 both of those issues would have been at play. Mitt Romney would have won a 9-7 majority of the Great Lakes state's 16 electoral votes despite Barack Obama winning more votes statewide. That would have, in turn, greatly reduced the power of Michigan in the electoral college. A two electoral vote margin that is largely baked into those districts would attract the candidates to the state a lot less than the promise of a 16 electoral vote cushion/win.

To FHQ, the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes is a lot like the filibuster: You don't want to give up on it now because you might need it/benefit from it in the future.

But the new proposal in Michigan -- HB 5974, sponsored by Representative Pete Lund (R-36th, Macomb) -- is not the districted plan as it was two years ago. It is different in that it has built-in incentives addressing the above criticisms of that plan. Regardless of whether the new legislation passes in the current lame duck session of the Michigan legislature, it is an interesting tweak to some of the plans that have been deemed electoral college "rigging". This plan has some interesting implications that are worth exploring.

...or if not worth exploring, then fun to look at.

Here are the particulars:
1) The statewide winner in the vote count received half of the electors plus one. When Michigan has an even number of electoral votes as it does now (16), that means 9 electoral votes (8+1). If Michigan has an odd number of electoral votes -- as it did during the 2000s (17) -- that half (8.5) is rounded down to the nearest whole number and then the one additional electoral vote is added. That rounding is a small bonus to the second place vote-getter. But...

2) The top finisher in the statewide count receives an additional electoral vote for each increment of 1.5% the statewide winner gets above 50%. There is a nice breakdown of this over at the Bridge. Basically, if the winning candidate receives 61.5% of the statewide vote, that candidate receives all 16 electoral votes.

The first point always avoids the popular loser complaint, unlike the districted plan. The statewide winner would receive a majority of the electoral votes, but only narrowly if the vote is close. In other words, the electoral vote allocation is more proportional than districted.

The incentives the candidates and their campaigns face in dealing with this particular plan is distinct from the districted plan as well. The redistricting process, as hinted at above, bakes in the results of the electoral vote in a way that would dissuade candidates from coming to the state to fight for electoral votes. Campaigns would only expend resources to get an electoral vote or two if a near-tie in the electoral college was a near-certainty.

The newly proposed plan in Michigan circumvents that issue to some degree. Candidates would be motivated under a plan that awards "bonus" electoral votes to either try and run up the score (statewide vote percentage) in Michigan, or barring that, try to at least maintain resource expenditure parity with the other candidate. FHQ does not want to overstate this effect though. If anything, the added electoral vote for each 1.5% increment of the statewide vote over 50% adds another strategic element to the puzzle. But even if Michigan was off the board and not as competitive heading down the stretch, then that does give incentive to the favored candidate to spend some time/money there in an effort to get as close to a winner-take-all allocation as possible (if the overall national electoral college vote distribution is somewhat close). Think about a state like North Carolina in 2008. The Obama campaign put resources into the state late and the McCain campaign was unable to match it. Those 15 electoral votes were superfluous to what Obama needed to get over the 270 electoral vote barrier.

There may be conditions under which this 1.5% bonus motivates increased activity, but it is likely to only do so when a race is close either nationally or in the state. [The candidates would already be there if the state is close.]

There is another dimension to this that has been neglected to this point, lost in all the rigging talk. It is important to look at how this plan would work historically to get a real sense as to how it would play out in reality. Let's give it a glance:

2012 (Michigan -- 16 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Obama: 54.04%
Romney: 44.58%

Electoral votes:
Obama: 11
Romney: 5

2008 (Michigan -- 17 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Obama: 57.33%
McCain: 40.89%

Electoral votes:
Obama: 13
McCain: 4

2004 (Michigan -- 17 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Kerry: 51.23%
Bush: 47.81%

Electoral votes:
Kerry: 9
Bush: 8

2000 (Michigan -- 18 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Gore: 51.28%
Bush: 46.14%

Electoral votes:
Gore: 10
Bush: 8

1996 (Michigan -- 18 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Clinton: 51.69%
Dole: 38.48%

Electoral votes:
Clinton: 11
Dole: 7

1992 (Michigan -- 18 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Clinton: 43.77%
Bush: 36.38%

Electoral votes:
Clinton: 10
Bush: 8

1988 (Michigan -- 20 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Bush: 53.57%
Dukakis: 45.67%

Electoral votes:
Bush: 13
Dukakis: 7

1984 (Michigan -- 20 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Reagan: 59.23%
Mondale: 40.24%

Electoral votes:
Reagan: 17
Mondale: 3

1980 (Michigan -- 21 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Reagan: 48.99%
Carter: 42.50%

Electoral votes:
Reagan: 11
Carter: 10

1976 (Michigan -- 21 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Ford: 51.83%
Carter: 46.44%

Electoral votes:
Ford: 12
Carter: 9

1972 (Michigan -- 21 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Nixon: 56.20%
McGovern: 41.81%

Electoral votes:
Nixon: 15
McGovern: 6

1968 (Michigan -- 21 electoral votes):
Vote percentage:
Humphrey: 48.18%
Nixon: 41.46%

Electoral votes:
Humphrey: 11
Nixon: 10

1) It probably goes without saying that if this newly proposed plan had been instituted in Michigan in the past, it would not have changed the overall outcome of the electoral college. The closest instances would have been in 2000 and 2004. In both cases, George W. Bush would have gained a handful of electoral votes to add to an already winning total. And to repeat, this plan eliminates the potential for popular losers within the state of Michigan. That also obviously didn't happen in any of these elections.

2) There are just three cases where the winning candidate cleared the 55% threshold and was able to take advantage of the bonuses in any meaningful way. That is a quarter of these 12 total elections. In the other 75% of the cases, Michigan's electoral vote power would have been reduced to something between Iowa (6 electoral votes now) and something less than Delaware/Wyoming. That really offers no guaranteed pull to candidates despite the claims of those sponsoring the legislation in Michigan.

3) Even semi-successful third party candidates really mess this up for the top vote-getter. That increases the likelihood that no candidate clears the 50% barrier and thus a near-even distribution of the electoral votes. [The 1.5% bonus is never triggered.] Humphrey won Michigan by 7.5%, gets within a stone's throw of 50% and splits the electoral votes 11-10 with Nixon (see also 1980). 1996 offers another interesting tale. Clinton barely clears 50%, gets one bonus electoral vote, but splits the total 11-7 with Dole, who received less than 40% of the vote.

Aside from eliminating the potential for a popular loser outcome -- relative to the districted plan -- this new electoral vote allocation proposal does not clearly do what its proponents argue it would: make Michigan relevant during the general election. That does not seem to be the case here. It would only have reduced Michigan's electoral vote power.

What it does do is provide us with a fun counterfactual exercise with some interesting outcomes. And that's about it.

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