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Conference to take hard look at Electoral College

As election nears, experts to debate changing controversial system
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MIT is well known for a "fix-it" approach to problems, be it in engineering, software or science. On Oct. 17, a group of experts will convene at MIT to examine what may be the most vexing issue in the American election process -- the Electoral College.

Some may argue for change; others may conclude that this is one "problem" that needs no fixing.

The day-long conference "To Keep or Not to Keep the Electoral College" will be chaired by Arnold I. Barnett, the George Eastman Professor of Management Science in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The chair of the conference's Steering Committee is Alexander S. Belenky, visiting scholar in the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals. A group of 11 experts will present their views, debate the issue and engage in extended dialogue with the audience.

"Since its creation in 1787, the Electoral College has remained the most mysterious mechanism for electing a president of a country," Belenky wrote on the conference's web site. "There is no consensus among mathematicians, systems scientists and political scientists studying the Electoral College on whether it can satisfactorily serve the United States in the 21st century, especially after two close elections in 2000 and in 2004."

Indeed, the 2008 presidential election may raise the issue anew, particularly if one candidate wins the popular vote while the other gains more electoral votes (as occurred in 2000). And there is a real possibility, Barnett said, that candidates Barack Obama and John McCain could tie with 269 electoral votes apiece, throwing the presidential election into the House of Representatives, where each state delegation has one vote.

"As we get closer to the election, as people start working the numbers, then there might really be much more hunger to think, 'What's going on? What's this mechanism? Can we do something differently?'" Barnett said.

While many voters -- and even many in the media -- lack an understanding of exactly how the Electoral College actually works, efforts to change it can set up fierce opposition, Barnett said. Many argue that the Electoral College should be replaced by nationwide majority rule. But smaller states argue they would lose influence if presidents were chosen by popular vote.

"The small states don't want the end of the Electoral College because they fear oblivion," Barnett said. "However, the present arrangements also make most of the large states irrelevant. California is viewed as a done deal, for example. The Democrats are going to carry it so neither candidate is spending much time there."

In a series of panel discussions, the MIT conference, which is organized by Sloan and the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, will try to examine the Electoral College objectively, in conversation stripped of political ideology, Barnett said. Several participants will defend the existing system, while several others will call for moving to a national popular vote that, some will argue, could be achieved without a constitutional amendment.

Still, "I think there will be very vigorous discussion," Barnett said. "These are people who have thought about the issues a lot. They have reasons they believe one thing and not the other." Barnett himself has co-authored a paper outlining a proposed change in the Electoral College, which would use weighted averages of each candidate's election showing.

Ample time will be set for audience participation and give-and-take. Barnett said the conference would be in keeping with the MIT spirit of "Let's fix it -- if it's broken."

"It may be good to have MIT people in the audience looking at the issue, because they may be able to shape the compromises" in future debates, Barnett said. He noted that three of the MIT participants in the conference -- himself, Belenky and Alexander Natapoff, research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics -- will each propose a new set of election rules that might largely meet the concerns of both the "preservationists" and the advocates of a "one person/one vote" election rule.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 8, 2008 (download PDF).

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