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Researcher proposes new method for electing US president

In the quadrennial tradition of American politics, presidential candidates are arguing about changing or reforming the way government works. And Alan Natapoff is continuing to argue for a new way of electing the president.

Dr. Natapoff, a research associate in the Center for Space Research, proposes a modification of the current system intended to maximize each voter's power over the outcome. He presented his ideas in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Public Choice and during an IAP talk.

Under the present Madisonian electoral college system, the candidate who gets the most votes in a given state wins all of that state's electoral votes: one vote for each US senator (two in all) and one vote for each US representative (i.e., about one electoral vote for each 600,000 of population as determined by the most recent census.)

The problem is that, unless they are nearly perfectly contested, large electorates destroy individual voting power, explained Dr. Natapoff, who has proved a theorem to this effect. Districting the electorate-the Madisonian system districts by states-in effect makes it smaller, generally closer, and more sensitive to individual votes. When a state is poorly contested, however, its voters have as little power under the present system as they would have under national raw popular voting.

The present Madisonian system is also successful in protecting the influence of smaller states, but it has its anomalies, Dr. Natapoff said. In 1888, for example, Benjamin Harrison was elected because he carried the five largest states, but by margins so small that Grover Cleveland's Texas landslide alone offset their total raw-vote effect. Nationally, Cleveland had a larger raw popular vote total, but lost.

This anomaly of 1888 is analogous to the dozen instances in which the baseball World Series, whose champion is chosen on a games-won basis, has been won by the team that scored fewer runs overall. In 1960, for example, the losing New York Yankees scored more than twice as many runs overall as the winning Pittsburgh Pirates.

The larger problem, however, is that the individual votes cast in any state decided by a landslide margin are all almost meaningless, Dr. Natapoff said. Whether cast for or against the winner (or not cast at all), no individual vote or small number of them could change the winner or the number of electoral votes awarded for the victory. This reduces the incentive to vote.

Under Dr. Natapoff's MVP (maximum voting power) method, each state is assigned one electoral vote for each vote cast in it, plus a Senatorial fraction (2/436) of the total US voter turnout. In 1992, that popular-vote equivalent of two senators would have been 2/436 times 104.4 million, or about 480,000. This additional allotment maintains the current ratio of size-based (Representative) to state-based (Senatorial) electoral votes. Thus, a voter who dislikes a candidate heavily favored in his state could cast a blank ballot, which would reduce his state's (and therefore the winning candidate's) national electoral vote by one.

"This makes both the winner and the loser sensitive to individual votes," he said. "In return, of course, voters have to think harder about their votes."

That sensitivity, however, rewards successful vote-fraud handsomely, because there would be no limit to the possible advantage gained by stuffing a ballot box-the more votes cast in a state, the more electoral votes it is assigned. The candidate that wins any state receives one electoral vote nationally for each vote, but also one for each undetected fraudulent vote cast in it. "We can't afford to adopt any new system based sensitively on the popular vote without stringent safeguards -- the temptations are extraordinary," Dr. Natapoff said.

Rather than argue for the adoption of his method, he uses it to clarify the weaknesses he sees in its alternatives. In the 1970s, Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN) introduced a raw-vote Constitutional amendment that won the support of the American Bar Association, the League of Women Voters and the House of Representatives, but failed (by a handful of votes) to pass the Senate. Dr. Natapoff testified in Congress against the proposal in 1977.

Although the Madisonian system has over two centuries of history, "election by raw national majority has never succeeded for long in any large, democratic republic," he said. "Sometimes, simplification is overrated. Einstein said, `Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.'"

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 20, 1996.

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