Showing posts with label Elections. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elections. Show all posts

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Electoral College for beginners

The (in)famous electoral college

We're coming up to the US Presidential election so it's time for pundits and real people to discuss the electoral college. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what it is, its role, and its potential to undermine democracy. In this post, I'm going to tell you how it came to be, the role it serves, and some issues with it that may cause trouble.

(Ohio Electoral College 2012. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. Contributor: Ibagli. License: Creative Commons.)

How it came to be

The thirteen original colonies had the desire for independence in common but had stridently different views on government. In the aftermath of independence, the US was a confederacy, a country with a limited and small (federal) government. After about ten years, it became obvious that this form of government wasn't working and something new was needed. So the states created a Constitutional Convention to discuss and decide on a new constitution and form of government.

Remember, the thirteen states were the size of European countries and had very different views on issues like slavery. The states with smaller populations were afraid they would be dominated by the more populous states, which was a major stumbling block to agreements. The issue was resolved by the Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise if you come from Connecticut). The Convention created a two-chamber congress and a more powerful presidency than before. Here's how they were to be elected:

  • The lower house, the House of Representatives, was to have representatives elected in proportion to the population of the state (bigger states get more representatives). 
  • The upper house, the Senate, was to have two Senators per state regardless of the population of the state
  • Presidents were to be elected through an electoral college, with each elector having one vote. Each state would be allocated a number of electors (and hence votes) based on their seats in congress. The electors would meet and vote for the President. For example in 1789, the state of New Hampshire had three representatives and two senators, which meant New Hampshire sent five electors (votes) to the electoral college. The states decided who the electoral college electors were.

Think for a minute about why this solution worked. The states were huge geographically with low population densities and often poor communications. Travel was a big undertaking and mail was slow. It made sense to send voters to vote on your behalf at a college and these delegates may have to change their vote depending on circumstances. In short, the electoral college was a way of deciding the presidency in a big country with slow communications.

Electoral college vote allocation is and was only partially representative of the underlying population size. Remember, each state gets two Senators (and therefore two electoral college votes) regardless of its population. This grants power disproportionately to lower-population states, which is a deliberate and intended feature of the system.

Early practice

Prior to the formation of modern political parties, the President was the person who got the largest number of electoral college votes and the Vice-President was the person who got the next highest number of votes. For example, in 1792, George Washington was re-elected President with 132 votes, and the runner-up, John Adams, who got 77 votes, became Vice-President. This changed when political parties made this arrangement impractical, and by 1804, the President and the Vice-President were on the same ticket.

Electoral college electors were originally selected by state legislators, not by the people. As time went on, more states started directly electing electoral college electors. In practice, this meant the people chose their Presidential candidate and the electoral college electors duly voted for them. 

By the late 19th century, all states were holding elections for the President and Vice-President through electoral college representation.

Modern practice

Each state has the following representation in congress:

  • Two Senators 
  • A number of House of Representative seats roughly related to the state's population.

The size of each state's congressional delegation is their number of electoral college votes. For example, California has 53 Representatives and 2 Senators giving 55 electoral college electors and 55 electoral college votes.

During a Presidential election, the people in each state vote for who they want for President (and by extension, Vice-President). Although it's a federal election, the voting is entirely conducted by each state; the ballot paper is different, the counting process is different, and the supervision is different.

Most states allocate their electoral college votes on a winner-takes-all basis, the person with the largest share of the popular vote gets all the electoral college votes. For example, in 2016, the voting in Pennsylvania was: 2,926,441 votes for Hilary Clinton and 2,970,733 votes for Donald Trump, and Donald Trump was allocated all of Pennsylvania's electoral college votes. 

Two states do things a little differently. Maine and Nebraska use the Congressional District method. They allocate one of their electoral college votes to each district used to elect a member of the House of Representatives. The winner of the statewide vote is then allocated the other two electoral college votes. In Maine in 2016, Hilary Clinton won three electoral college votes and Donald Trump one.

Washington D.C. isn't a state and doesn't have Senators; it has a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. However, it does have electoral college votes! Under the 23rd amendment to the Constitution, it has the same electoral college votes as the least populous state (currently 3). 

In total, there are 538 electoral college votes:

  • 100 Senators
  • 435 Representatives
  • 3 Electors for Washington D.C.

The electoral college does not meet as one body in person. Electors meet in their respective state capitols and vote for President.

How electoral college votes are decided

How are electoral college votes allocated to states? I've talked about the formula before, 2 Senators for every state plus the number of House of Representative seats. House of Representative seats are allocated on a population basis using census data. There are 435 seats that are reallocated every ten years based on census data. Growing states may get more seats and shrinking states fewer. This is why the census has been politicized from time to time - if you can influence the census you can gain a ten-year advantage for your party. 

Faithless electors and the Supreme Court

Remember, the electors meet and vote for President. Let's imagine we have two Presidential candidates, cat and dog, and that the people of the state vote for cat. What's to stop the electors voting for dog instead? Nothing at all. For many states, there's nothing to stop electors voting for anyone regardless of who won the election in the state. This can and does happen, even as recently as 2016. It happens so often that there's a name for them: faithless electors.

In 2016, five electors who should have voted for Hilary Clinton didn't vote for her, and two who should have voted for Donald Trump didn't vote for him. These votes were officially accepted and counted.

Several states have laws that mandate that electors vote as instructed or provide punishment for electors who do not vote as instructed. These laws were challenged in the Supreme Court, which voted to uphold them.

On the face of it, faithless electors sound awful, but I do have to say a word in their defense. They do have some support from the original intent of the Constitutional Convention and they do have some support from the Federalist Papers. It's not entirely as black and white as it appears to be.

Have faithless electors ever swayed a Presidential election? No. Could they? Yes.


In principle, it's possible to gerrymander electoral college votes, but it hasn't been done in practice. Let me explain how a gerrymander could work.

First off, you'd move to Congressional District representation. Because the shape of congressional districts are under state control, you could gerrymander these districts to your heart's content. Next, you'd base your senatorial electoral college votes on the congressional district winner on a winner-takes-all basis. Let's say you had 10 congressional districts and you'd gerrymandered them so your party could win 7. Because 7 of the 10 districts would be for one candidate, you'd award your other two votes to that candidate. In other words, a candidate could lose the popular vote but still gain the majority of the electoral college votes for a state.

The electoral college and representative democracy

Everyone knows that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but Donald Trump won the electoral college and became President. This was a close election, but it's theoretically possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote by a substantial margin, yet still win the presidency.

Bear in mind what I said at the beginning of this piece, electoral college votes are not entirely representative of the population, by design. Here's a chart of electoral college votes per 1,000,000 population for 2020. Note how skewed it is in favor of low-population (and rural) states. If you live in Wyoming your vote is worth 5 times that of a voter in Texas. 

Obviously, some states are firmly Democratic and others firmly Republican. The distribution of electoral college votes pushes candidates to campaign more heavily in small swing states, giving them an outsize influence (for example, New Hampshire). Remember, your goal as a candidate is to win electoral college votes, your goal is not to win the popular vote. You need to focus your electoral spending so you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of electoral college votes, which means small swing states.

Nightmare scenarios

Here are two scenarios that are quite possible with the current system:

Neither of these scenarios is good for democracy or stability. There is nothing to prevent them now.

Who else uses an electoral college?

Given the problems with an electoral college, it's not surprising that there aren't many other cases in the world of its use. According to Wikipedia, there are several other countries that use it for various elections, but they are a minority.

Could the electoral college be changed for another system?

Yes, but it would take a constitutional change, which is a major undertaking and would require widespread cross-party political support. Bear in mind, a more representative system (e.g. going with the popular vote) would increase the power of the more populous states and decrease the power of less populous states - which takes us all the way back to the Great Compromise and the Constitutional Convention.

What's next?

I hope you enjoyed this article. I intend to write more election-based pieces as November comes closer. I'm not going to endorse or support any candidate or party; I'm only interested in the process of democracy!

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Finding electoral fraud - the democracy data deficit

Why we need to investigate fraud

In July 2016, Fox News' Sean Hannity reported that Mitt Romney received no votes at all in 59 Philadelphia voting precincts in the 2012 Presidential Election. He claimed that this was evidence of vote-rigging - something that received a lot of commentary and on-air discussion at the time. On the face of it, this does sound like outright electoral fraud; in a fair election, how is it possible for a candidate to receive no votes at all? Since then, there have been other allegations of fraud and high-profile actual incidents of fraud. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how a citizen-analyst might find electoral fraud. But I warn you, you might not like what I’m going to say.

Election organization - the smallest electoral units

In almost every country, the election process is organized in the same way; the electorate is split into geographical blocks small enough to be managed by a team on election day. The blocks might contain one or many polling stations and may have a few hundred to a few thousand voters. These blocks are called different things in different places, for example, districts, divisions, or precincts. Because precinct seems to be the most commonly used word, that's what I'm going to use here. The results from the precincts are aggregated to give results for the ward, county, city, state, or country. The precinct boundaries are set by different authorities in different places, but they're known. 

How to look for fraud

A good place to look for electoral shenanigans is at the precinct level, but what should we look for? There are several easy checks:

  • A large and unexplained increase or decrease in the number of voters compared to previous elections and compared to other nearby precincts. 
  • An unexpected change in voting behavior compared to previous elections/nearby precincts. For example, a precinct that ‘normally’ votes heavily for party Y suddenly voting for party X.
  • Changes in voting patterns for absentee voters e.g. significantly more or less absentee votes or absentee voter voting patterns that are very different from in-person votes.
  • Results that seem inconsistent with the party affiliation of registered voters in the precinct.
  • A result that seems unlikely given the demographics of the precinct.

Of course, none of these checks is a smoking gun, either individually or collectively, but they might point to divisions that should be investigated. Let’s start with the Philadelphia case and go from there.

Electoral fraud - imagined and real

It’s true that some divisions (precincts) in Philadelphia voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012. These divisions were small (averaging about 600 voters) and almost exclusively (95%+) African-American. Obama was hugely popular with the African-American community in Philadelphia, polling 93%+. The same divisions also have a history of voting overwhelmingly Democratic. Given these facts, it’s not at all surprising to see no or very few votes for Mitt Romney. Similar arguments hold for allegations of electoral fraud in Cleveland, Ohio in 2012

In fact, there were some unbalanced results the other way too; in some Utah precincts, Obama received no votes at all - again not surprising given the voter population and voter history. 

Although on the face of it these lopsided results seem to strongly indicate fraud, the allegations don't stand up to analytical scrutiny.

Let’s look at another alleged case of electoral fraud, this time in 2018 in North Carolina. The congressional election was fiercely contested and appeared to be narrowly decided in favor of Mark Harris. However, investigators found irregularities in absentee ballots, specifically, missing ballots from predominantly African-American areas. The allegations were serious enough that the election was held again, and criminal charges have been made against a political operative in Mark Harris’ campaign. The allegation is ‘ballot harvesting’, where operatives persuade voters who might vote for their opposition to voting via an absentee ballot and subsequently make these ballots disappear.

My sources of information here are newspaper reports and analysis, but what if I wanted to do my own detective work and find areas where the results looked odd? How might I get the data? This is where things get hard.

Democracy’s data - official sources

To get the demographics of a precinct, I can try going to the US Census Bureau. The Census Bureau defines small geographic areas, called tracts, that they can supply data on. Tract data include income levels, population, racial makeup, etc. Sometimes, these tracts line up with voting districts (the Census term for precincts), but sometimes they don’t. If tracts don’t line up with voting districts, then automated analysis becomes much harder. In my experience, it takes a great investment of time to get any useful data from the Census Bureau; the data’s there, it’s just really hard finding out how to get it. In practice then, it’s extremely difficult for a citizen-analyst to link census data to electoral data.

What about voting results? Surely it’s easy to get electoral result data? As it turns out, this is surprisingly hard too. You might think the Federal Election Commission (FEC) will have detailed data, but it doesn’t. The data available from the FEC for the 2016 Presidential Election is less detailed than the 2016 Presidential Election Wikipedia page. The reason is, Presidential Elections are run by the states, so there are 51 (including Washington DC) separate authorities maintaining electoral results, which means 51 different ways of getting data, 51 different places to get it, and 51 different levels of detail available. The FEC sources its data from the states, so it's not surprising its reports are summary reports.  

If we need more detailed data, we need to go to the states themselves. 

Let's take Massachusetts as an example, Presidential Election data is available for 2016, down to the ward level (as a CSV), but for Utah, data is only available at the county level (as an Excel file), which is the same as Pennsylvania, where the data is only available from a web page. To get detail below the county level may take freedom of information requests, if the information is available at all. 

In effect, this puts precinct-level nationwide voting analysis from official sources beyond almost all citizen-analysts.

Democracy’s data - unofficial sources

In practice, voting data is hard to come by from official sources, but it is available from unofficial sources who've put the work into getting the data from the states and make it available to everyone.

Dave Leip offers election data down to detailed levels; the 2016 results by country will cost you $92 and results by Congressional District will cost you $249, however, high-level results are on his website and available for free. He's even been kind enough to list his sources and URLs if you want to spend the time to duplicate his work. Leip’s data is used by the media in their analysis, and probably by political campaigns too. He’s put in a great deal of work to gather the data and he’s asking for a return on his effort, which is fair enough. 

The MIT Election Data and Science Lab (MEDSL) collects election data, including down to the precinct level and the data is available for the most recent Presidential Election (2016 at the time of writing). As usual with this kind of data, there are all kinds of notes to read before using the data. MIT has also been kind enough to make tools available to analyze the data and they also make available their website scrapping tools.

The MIT project isn't the only project providing data. Various other universities have collated electoral resources at various levels of detail:

Democracy’s data - electoral fraud

What about looking for cases of electoral fraud? There isn't a central repository of electoral fraud cases and there are multiple different court systems in the US (state and federal), each maintaining records in different ways. Fortunately, Google indexes a lot of cases, but often, court transcripts are only available for a fee, and of course, it's extremely time-consuming to trawl through cases.

The Heritage Foundation maintains a database of known electoral fraud cases. They don't claim their database is complete, but they have put a lot of effort into maintaining it and it's the most complete record I know of. 

In 2018, there were elections for the House of Representatives, the Senate, state elections, and of course county and city elections. Across the US, there must have been thousands of different elections in 2018. How many cases of electoral fraud do you think there were? What level of electoral fraud would undermine your faith in the system? In 2018, there were 65 cases. From the Heritage Foundation data, here’s a chart of fraud cases per year for the United States as a whole.

Electoral fraud cases by year
(Electoral fraud cases by year from the Heritage Foundation electoral fraud database)

It does look like there's been an increase in electoral fraud up to about 2010, but bear in mind the dataset cover the period of computerization and the rise of the internet. We might expect a rise in fraud cases because it's easier to find case records. 

Based on this data, there really doesn’t seem to be large-scale electoral fraud in the United States. In fact, in reading the cases on their website, most of them are small-scale frauds concerning local elections (e.g. mayoral elections) - in a lot of cases, the frauds are frankly pathetic. 

Realistic assessment of election data

Official data is either hard to come by or not available at the precinct level, which leaves us using unofficial data. Fortunately, unofficial data is high quality and from reputable sources. The problem is, data from unofficial sources aren't available immediately after an election; there may be a long delay between the election and the data. If one of the goals of electoral data analysis is finding fraud, then timely data availability is paramount.

Of course, this kind of analysis I'm talking about here won't find small-scale fraud, where a person votes more than once or impersonates someone. But small-scale fraud will only affect the outcome of the very tightest of races. Democracy is most threatened by fraud that might affect the results, which in most cases is larger-scale fraud like the North Carolina case. Statistical analysis might detect these kinds of fraud.

Sean Hannity's allegation of electoral fraud in Philadelphia didn't stand up to analysis, but it was worth investigating and is the kind of fraud we could detect using data - if only it were available in a timely way. 

How things could be - a manifesto

Imagine groups of researchers sitting by their computers on election night. As election results at the precinct level are posted online, they analyze the results for oddities. By the next morning, they may have spotted oddities in absentee ballots, or unexplained changes in voting behavior, or unexpected changes in voter turnout - any of which will feed into the news cycle. Greater visibility of anomalies will enable election officials to find and act on fraud more quickly.

To do this will require consistency of reporting at the state level and a commitment to post precinct results as soon as they're counted and accepted. This may sound unlikely, but there are federal standards the states must follow in many other areas, including deodorants, teddy bears, and apple grades, but also for highway construction, minimum drinking age, and the environment. Isn't the transparency of democracy at least as important as deodorants, teddy bears, and apples?

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