Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Krugman on voting shenanigans; thoughts on the electoral college

Krugman writes today about (un)trustworthy elections, a subject that I've mentioned several times before (bonus link).

It occurs to me today that, aside from all the inherent awfulness of the voting machine companies and the officials who hired them, this whole business is yet more evidence that the electoral college is a crock. If we had a direct popular election, then the shenanigans of a few Florida election officials would matter much less. We've all become desensitized and resigned to the absurd notion of "swing states", but it's fundamentally undemocratic to allow certain geographical minorities such disproportionate influence over the electoral process. And it's dangerous, because such concentration of power provides a small number of powerful levers by which corruption or ineptitude can swing elections, rather than a large number of weak levers.

This betrays a basic system engineering principle: it is better to have many redundant subsystems than a few critical subsystems, because in the latter case the failure of any one part can bring down the whole system. The electoral college is sort of interesting because, at first glance, one might have thought that the electoral college would do exactly that: rather than one monolithic system with a single point of failure (the national election), you would have fifty smaller systems, each of which provides a "safety" against the failure of the rest. In practice, however, the electoral college has done the opposite. By vaulting a handful of states to disproportionately huge influence, it has introduced a small number of highly critical points of failure.

And, in retrospect, it's clear that a nationwide direct election would provide better redundancy --- because all the votes would get thrown into a single pool, every single well-counted vote would act as a bulwark against every single ill-counted vote. By contrast, in the electoral college, only well-counted votes within a single state can counterbalance the ill-counted votes in that state. A simple analysis of probability dictates that the electoral college is more vulnerable to being thrown by ill-counted votes than a national direct election.

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