A Proposal To Improve the Electoral College

by Alan F. Zundel

As most U.S. voters are unhappily aware, the President of the United States is elected by the electoral college, not by the popular vote. In the 229 years since the U.S. Constitution was adopted this feature has been the target of a lot of complaints. I’d like to propose for discussion a way to improve how the electoral college works.

What’s the Problem?

Here’s how the electoral college now works in almost all of the states:

  1. The voters vote for President in the November election.
  2. Whichever candidate got the most votes in a state gets to have their proposed electors be the state’s official electors.
  3. In mid-December all the states’ official electors vote as a group, or “college,” on who will be President. If a candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes (which almost always happens) that candidate is elected.

Two of the chief complaints about this system are:

The “winning loser” problem. This is when the electors elect a candidate who didn’t get the most popular votes nationwide. This happened most recently in 2000 (Bush vs. Gore) and 2016 (Trump vs. Clinton).

The “spoiler” problem. This is when a candidate outside of the two major parties is accused of “spoiling” the chances of a major party candidate to win a close race in an important state, thus affecting the ultimate outcome. Ross Perot in 1992, Ralph Nader in 2000, and Jill Stein in 2016 have all been accused of being “spoilers.”

Notice that these two problems seem to be linked: the years in which a candidate was a “winning loser” were years in which there was a purported “spoiler” candidate.

How a Less Popular Candidate Wins

The reason for the “winning loser” problem is the magnifying effect of giving all of a state’s electors to a candidate who might have only a slight edge in popular votes in the state.

A simplified example: California has about 14 million voters and 55 electors. Utah has about 1 million voters and 6 electors. Suppose the Democratic candidate wins in California with 51% of the popular vote, gaining all 55 of its electoral votes, and the Republican candidate wins in Utah with 85% of the popular vote, gaining its 6 electoral votes. Here are the results:

Democrat: 7,290,000 popular votes (7,140,000 in CA and 150,000 in UT) and 55 electoral votes.

Republican: 7,710,000 popular votes (6,860,000 in CA and 850,000 in UT) and 6 electoral votes.

The Democrat is behind in popular votes, but way ahead in electoral votes, because a slight popular vote win in a state with lots of electoral votes gets you more than a big popular vote win in a state with fewer electoral votes.

So in “swing states” (states in which the vote is close) with lots of electoral votes, a slight edge for one candidate can mean victory in the electoral college even though that candidate is behind in the popular vote nationwide.

And the presence of a “spoiler” candidate makes a big difference when the vote is close, because it may give that edge to one of the major party candidates. This is why the “winning loser” and “spoiler” problems tend to crop up in the same elections.

My Proposal

As the electoral college is set up by the U.S. Constitution, it can only be abolished by a constitutional amendment, which is a very difficult process. A way around this is to change the way states select their electors. This requires only a change in state law.

My proposal would attack the “spoiler” problem directly as a way to address the “winning loser” problem indirectly. I propose a slight change in step 2 of how the electoral college now works as outlined above, which requires only a change in state laws. The new step 2 is actually composed of two steps, so I will call these steps 2A and 2B. It would work like this:

1.(No change.) The voters vote for President in the November election.

2A. All of the candidates’ proposed electors in a state vote on which candidate’s slate of electors will become the official electors in their state. However, the weight of each proposed elector’s vote would be adjusted according to the percentage of the popular vote their candidate received in the state. Thus if a candidate received 40% of the popular vote in the state, the votes of that candidate’s proposed electors would each count for 40% of a whole vote.

2B. Whichever candidate gets the highest vote in step 2A gets to have their proposed electors be the state’s official electors.

3. (No change.) In mid-December all the states’ official electors vote as a group on who will be President. If a candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes (which should still almost always happen) that candidate is elected.

This change creates an opportunity for a “spoiler” candidate’s proposed electors to throw their vote in step 2A to one of the major party candidates rather than their own candidate. In most cases they wouldn’t want to do this, and the outcome would be the same as if step 2 had not been changed. But in cases in which delivering their vote to one of the major party candidates would make a difference in the ultimate outcome of the Presidential election, they could save their candidate from “spoiler” accusations by delivering their state’s electoral votes to the major party candidate that their voters prefer.

The new law should also require candidates to announce ahead of the election whether their proposed electors might choose to throw their vote to another candidate, and if so which one. This would make it clear that the vote switch to another candidate represents the will of those voters who voted for the candidate endorsing the switch, and thus the outcome would more closely represent the will of the majority in the state.

This change would have the biggest effect if instituted in swing states, but even in other states it could avoid potential “spoiler” problems, thus give voters greater freedom to vote for candidates outside of the two major parties if they choose to do so. That in turn creates incentives for major party candidates to appeal to voters they might otherwise take for granted, because voters would be able to turn to candidates who address particular issues if the major party candidates fail to do so.

And if the system is shown to work smoothly in other states, there would eventually be pressure on swing states to adopt it as well.

What About the National Popular Vote Idea?

The most prominent reform proposal for changing the working of the electoral college is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This would have states agree to choose their electors based on whichever candidate got the most popular votes nationwide, not whichever got the most popular votes within each state. The compact would not go into effect until the states adopting it had enough electoral votes to obtain a majority in the electoral college. As of May 2018, it had been adopted by 11 states and the District of Columbia (which has 3 electoral votes), representing about 64% of the electoral votes needed.

This proposal would solve the “winning loser” problem, but not the “spoiler” problem, which would be even worse. Instead of being limited to just the states where the race was close, the “spoiler” problem would apply to the nationwide vote, with the result that any vote recount to identify miscounted votes would have to be conducted in every part of the nation, not just in particular locations. From the standpoint of practicality and delay in confirming the winner, that would be a nightmare.

It would also create a serious disincentive for voters throughout the nation to vote for non-major party candidates. This disincentive, which already exists in most of our elections, is anti-democratic because it discourages voters from voting for the candidates they truly prefer and artificially inhibits the chances for non-major parties to grow.

There is also the additional problem that under the compact a state will at some point have to award its electoral votes to a candidate who did not win the popular vote in that state. The first time this happens I would expect there to be a backlash by voters within that state against the compact, and I suspect it is a reason more states have not adopted it.

Conclusion

If swing states adopted my proposal, the incidence of “spoiler” problems in the Presidential election should be lessened and thus the chances of the “winning loser” problem occurring would also be lessened. Voters would feel more free to vote for the candidates they truly prefer and major party candidates would have to address issues that they otherwise might be tempted to ignore.

In other states the adoption of this proposal would have little effect on the outcome of the election, but it would prevent potential “spoiler” problems from arising in that state in the Presidential election, increase voters’ sense of freedom to vote for who they truly prefer, and create an example that swing states may want to emulate.

Your thoughts?

STAR Voting Initiative Petition Filed

by Alan F. Zundel

The 2016 elections exposed just how broken our election methods are. Now we have a chance to start changing that!

On Tuesday November 14 an initiative petition to institute STAR Voting for Lane County offices was filed at the Lane County Elections Office in Eugene. A parallel campaign is being organized in Portland for Multnomah County. If enough signatures are collected in each respective county, the initiatives will appear on their November 2018 ballots.

STAR (Score Then Automatic Runoff) Voting is a solution to multiple electoral problems. It:

  • Allows voters to express their preferences more fully and accurately,
  • Doesn’t force a voter to choose between more than one candidate they like,
  • Gives equal weight to each voter’s vote, and
  • Produces a winner with wide support.

In STAR Voting voters can score each candidate in the general election on a scale from zero to five, including giving two or more candidates the same score. Scoring candidates is similar to the familiar zero-to-five star scoring we use for products or movie reviews.

The two candidates with the highest overall scores are entered into an automatic runoff without the need of a second election. Each voter’s vote goes to the finalist who they scored higher, and the candidate who was scored higher most often wins.

STAR Voting builds on the long history of studying alternative voting methods by combining features of Score (or Range) Voting, Instant Runoff Voting, and Top-Two Elections, for a simple, integrated system that improves on all of them.

If the Lane County initiative passes, offices such as the county commissioners, the sheriff and the district attorney would be elected using STAR Voting instead of the current Top-Two voting method. For county elections STAR Voting has the added attractions of eliminating the cost and bother of a primary election and reducing the prospect of only one candidate appearing on the November general election ballot.

Mark Frohnmayer and Alan Zundel, both long-time activists for voting reform, are the chief petitioners for the Lane County initiative. Mark is a software and clean technology entrepreneur who was the Chief Petitioner in 2014 for an initiative to create a Unified Primary and is the founder of Equal Vote. Alan is a former political scientist who was instrumental in last year’s successful campaign to allow Ranked Choice Voting in Benton County and recently served on the Secretary of State’s task force to reform Oregon’s redistricting process.

Once the petitions are approved after review in each county, signature gathering will begin.

Volunteers for Lane County can contact lane@equal.vote, and volunteers for Multnomah can contact PDX@equal.vote. For news of the campaigns you can follow the STAR Voting Facebook page, and for more information on STAR Voting see the Equal Vote website.

Interested parties in Multnomah County are invited to join a planning meeting on Sunday, November 19th from 3-5 pm at Lucky Lab, 1700 Killingsworth in Portland. If attending please RSVP sara@equal.vote.

The Lane County campaign is currently accepting donations but only by check at the present time. Checks may be made out to “STAR Voting for Lane County” and mailed to:

STAR Voting for Lane County

c/o Alan Zundel

825 Monroe St., #1

Eugene, OR  97402

2018 Election Preview for Eugene-Springfield Voters

by Alan F. Zundel

How are the races for the 2018 elections shaping up? Let’s take a look at the top offices Eugene-Springfield voters will be casting their ballots for.

The primary election will be on May 15, 2018. Voters registered with each of the major parties—Democratic, Republican, or Independent Party—will choose their respective party’s nominees in the primary. Candidates for nonpartisan offices will also be on the primary ballot, vying to be one of the top two candidates (or in some cases the only candidate) to appear on the November ballot.

Filing to run as a candidate in the primary election closes on March 6, 2018. Let’s take a look at who has filed as of October 10. (Candidates for minor parties will be chosen at their conventions held at various times in 2018, generally after the primary election.)

Federal Elections

On the federal level, 2018 is not a Presidential election year nor are either of Oregon’s two U.S. Senators up for election. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Eugene-Springfield area is covered by U.S. Congressional District 4, which extends north to Corvallis and Lebanon, south to the California border, west to the Pacific coastline, and east into the Cascade Mountain Range.

Democrat Peter DeFazio has held the seat since 1987 and is expected to seek the nomination of his party again, although he has not yet filed as a candidate.

Two candidates for the Republican nomination have filed so far, Stefan Strek and Jo Rae Perkins. In 2016 Strek was a candidate in the primary election for Eugene mayor. Perkins lives in Albany and was a primary candidate for U.S. House District 4 in 2016 and the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Statewide Elections

There are two statewide seats up for election in 2018, Governor and the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).

The incumbent Governor, Democrat Kate Brown, has filed for reelection. On the Republican side, Knute Buehler, Keenan Bohach, and Bruce Cuff have filed. Buehler, who lives in Bend, is the best known of the Republicans, currently serving as a representative for Oregon House District 54. Bohack is a farmer and U.S. Army veteran living in Keizer, and Cuff is a real estate broker in Lyons and also a veteran.

The BOLI Commissioner is a nonpartisan office. The current incumbent, Brad Avakian, has stated that he will not be running for reelection. So far Val Hoyle and Jack Howard have filed for the office. Hoyle ran for Oregon Secretary of State in the 2016 primary. She previously represented Oregon House District 14 and was majority leader in the state house. Howard, from La Grande, is an attorney and County Commissioner in Union County.

Oregon State Senate

Three state senate districts cover areas of Eugene and Springfield: districts 4, 6 and 7. The terms of state senators last for four years and all three of these are up for election in 2018.

To date no one has filed for District 4 (south Lane County into Douglas County). The current incumbent is Democrat Floyd Prozanski, who has held the seat since 2003. Prozanski is expected to run again.

Democrat Lee Beyer, the current incumbent of District 6 (north central Lane County into Linn County), has filed to run again. Beyer has held the seat since 1999 and so far no challenger has filed.

Democratic James Manning was appointed to District 7 (west Eugene area) in December of 2016 and has filed to run for the seat. As a new legislator he is expected to draw challengers, but no one else has filed yet.

Oregon State House

Every seat in the Oregon State House is up for election every two years. Six seats cover the Eugene-Springfield area.

No one has filed yet for District 7 (east Lane County into north Douglas County). The seat has been held by Republican Cedric Hayden since 2015, and he is expected to run again.

Democrat Paul Holvey, the incumbent in District 8 (southwest Eugene area), has filed to run again. He has held the seat since 2004. Democrat Phil Barnhart, the incumbent in District 11 (west Lane County) since 2003, has also filed to run again. No one has yet filed to challenge either of them.

To date no one has filed for District 12 (Springfield) or 13 (north central Eugene). Democrat John Lively has held the District 12 seat since 2013 and is expected to run again. Democrat Nancy Nathanson has held the District 13 seat since 2007 and is also expected to run again.

Democrat Julie Fahey is in her first term as representative of District 14 (northwest Eugene). She has filed to run again and Rich Cunningham has filed for the Republican nomination. Fahey is a business consultant and Cunningham a retired insurance broker.

Lane County Commission

The terms for Lane County Commissioners are four years and three of the five seats are up for election in 2018. These seats are nonpartisan.

In District 1 (west Lane County), incumbent Jay Bozievich is running for reelection. So far I am not aware of anyone else running for this seat.

In District 2 (Springfield), incumbent Sid Leiken is running for reelection. Former Lane Education Service District board member Joe Berney of Springfield is challenging Leiken for the seat.

And in District 5 (east Lane County) incumbent Gary Williams is running. Williams was appointed to the board in April of this year to fill out the term of Commissioner Faye Stewart. This seat has attracted a number of competitors. Eugene property manager Heather Buch, former county commissioner candidate Kevin Matthews, and real estate broker James Barber are all actively engaged in campaign activities.

Stay Tuned!

We’ll be looking at each of these races in more detail as the election season progresses. Check back with us or sign up for our email list on our website to keep in touch.

Oregon Non-Spoiler Electoral Opportunities

by Alan F. Zundel

For independent and alternative party candidates who would challenge the policy agendas of the major parties, running for office is a good way to promote different ideas. But running can also raise the prospect of acting as a “spoiler” by increasing the chances that a “greater evil” major party candidate will defeat a “lessor evil” major party candidate. This prospect dampens the willingness of voters to vote for alternative candidates, and can inhibit the decision of potential candidates to run. As a result, the political debate is narrowed and the choices available to voters are reduced.

However, there are many electoral opportunities to run with no or a very low chance of acting as a spoiler. And I am not talking about low-level nonpartisan offices, but partisan offices in the U.S. Congress or the state legislature.

Some seats have an uncontested candidate, usually an incumbent, and so it would be impossible for another candidate to act as a spoiler by challenging them. Other seats are regularly won with very high margins and so gaining votes that would have gone to the leading candidate will not be enough to cause some other “greater evil” candidate to win.

For example, in the 2016 election for the Oregon House of Representatives, eleven of the sixty seats were uncontested. In the Oregon Senate, five of the sixteen seats up for election were uncontested. And in many more, the leading candidate won by over a two-to-one ratio over the second-place candidate.

Here are some of the seats to watch for the 2018 election, which judging by recent history may present good opportunities for non-major party candidates to run without being accused of being a spoiler.

U.S. Congressional Seats

In the 3rd Congressional District in the eastern Portland area, Democrat Earl Blumenauer won with 71.8% of the vote in 2016 and 72.3% in 2014, making this seat relatively safe for alternative candidates to run without the concern of being a spoiler.

In the 2nd U.S. Congressional District covering the eastern half of the state, Republican Greg Walden won with 71.7% of the vote in 2016 and 70.4% of the vote in 2014. However, his role in the effort to replace the Affordable Care Act may have given the Democrats an opportunity to make gains, so this may not be an ideal seat for alternative candidates trying to avoid acting as spoilers.

Oregon Senate Seats

In the Oregon state Senate, fifteen seats should be up for election in 2018. (Each of the thirty Senate seats are up for election every four years, half of them each election year.) Potential candidates should keep an eye on whether candidates for both major parties file for their districts.

In Oregon Senate District 7 in the northwest Eugene area, Democrat Chris Edwards was uncontested in 2014. However, Democrat James Manning replaced Edwards by appointment and will likely attract a Republican challenger in 2018.

Democrats Richard Devlin in District 19 (south of Portland) and Rod Monroe in District 24 (eastern Portland) were also uncontested in 2014. As incumbents they might again scare off Republican challengers; however, in 2010 their share of the votes were each below 55% when they were challenged.

Three Oregon Senate candidates won with high margins in 2014, all of them against minor parties challengers with no other major party candidate in the race, but only two of these seats will be up for election in 2018. In District 10 (south and west Salem), Republican Jackie Winters won with 87% of the vote and in District 16 (northwest of Portland), Democrat Betsy Johnson won with 70%. Against major party challengers in 2010, they received 68.3%, and 54.4% respectively. Winters’ seat would seem to be safe for challengers who wish to avoid being spoilers.

Oregon House Seats

Turning to the Oregon House of Representatives, in which all sixty seats are up for election every two years, the following seats were uncontested in 2016:

  • District 2 (Roseburg), Republican Dallas Heard. In 2014 Heard won about 63% to 31% against a Democratic challenger, nearly twice as many votes. (All the percentages below are rounded to the nearest whole number.)
  • District 4 (Grants Pass), Republican Duane Stark. In 2014 Stark won against a Democrat about 68.5% to 31%, over twice as many votes.
  • District 6 (Medford), Republican Sal Esquivel, who was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 27 (Beaverton), Democrat Sheri Malstrom. In 2014 Democrat Tobias Read won against a Republican challenger with nearly 81% of the vote.
  • District 43 (Portland), Democrat Tawna Sanchez. In 2014 Democrat Frederick Lew ran uncontested.
  • District 45 (Portland), Democrat Barbara Smith Warner. Smith Warner was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 46 (Portland), Democrat Alissa Keny-Guyer. She was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 49 (Troutdale), Democrat Chris Gorsek. This seat was more competitive in 2014, with Gorsek winning about 60% to 39% against a Republican.
  • District 57 (north central Oregon), Republican Greg Smith. He was also uncontested in 2014.
  • District 58 (Cove), Republican Greg Barreto. In 2014 Barreto won with about 73% to his Democratic challenger’s 25%, nearly three times as many votes.
  • District 60 (Ontario), Republican Cliff Bentz. In 2014 Bentz won with over four times as many votes as his Democratic rival, about 82% to 19%.

All of the above seats, with the possible exception of District 49, would be unlikely to be affected by any spoiler dynamic. The following seats had candidates who won with high margins in 2016, and were either uncontested or also had decisive winners in 2014:

  • District 3 (Grants Pass), Republican Carl Wilson, about 73% to 27% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 64/26% against a Democrat.
  • District 7 (Roseburg), Republican Cedric Hayden, 64/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 78% of the vote against a Libertarian candidate.
  • District 8 (Eugene), Democrat Paul Holvey, 69/27% against a Republican. In 2014 he ran uncontested.
  • District 13 (Eugene), Democrat Nancy Nathanson, 66/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she won 69/30% against a Republican.
  • District 15 (Albany), Republican Andy Olson, 83/17% against a Progressive Party candidate. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 16 (Corvallis), Democrat Dan Rayfield, 58/21% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 72/27% against a Republican.
  • District 17 (Scio), Republican Sherri Sprenger, 79/21% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 she won 74/26% against a Democrat.
  • District 18 (Silverton), Republican Vic Gilliam, 66/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 66/34% against a Democrat. In early 2017 Republic Rick Lewis replaced Gilliam by appointment, and so may face a more competitive race.
  • District 31 (Clatskanie), Democrat Brad Witt, 81/19% against a Libertarian. However, in 2014 he won only 54/40% against a Republican.
  • District 33 (Portland), Democrat Mitch Greenlick, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 82% of the vote against a Libertarian.
  • District 36 (Portland), Democrat Jennifer Williamson, 89/11% against a Libertarian. In 2014 she won 85% of the vote against a Libertarian.
  • District 38 (Lake Oswego), Democrat Ann Lininger, 70/30% against a Republican. In 2014 she was uncontested.
  • District 39 (Oregon City), Republican Bill Kennemer, 65/32%. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 41 (Milwaukie), Democrat Karin Power, 72/28% against a Republican. In 2014 Democrat Kathleen Taylor won 70/29% against a Republican.
  • District 42 (Portland), Democrat Rob Nosse, 89/6% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 he won with 91% against a Libertarian.
  • District 44 (Portland), Democrat Tina Kotech, 81/19% against a Pacific Green Party candidate. In 2014 she won 85/14% against a Republican.
  • District 47 (Portland), Democrat Diego Hernandez, 67/33% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Democrat Jessica Vega Pederson ran uncontested.
  • District 48 (Happy Valley), Democrat Jeff Reardon, 63/28% against a Republican. In 2014 he won 67/32% against a Republican.
  • District 53 (Sunriver), Republican Gene Whisnant, 68/32% against a Democrat. In 2014 he was uncontested.
  • District 55 (Powell Butte), Republican Mike McLane, 76/24% against a Democrat. In 2014 he won 72/22% against a Democrat.
  • District 56 (Klamath Falls), Republican E. Werner Reschke, 82/18% against an Independent Party candidate. In 2014 Republican Gail Whitsett ran uncontested.
  • District 59 (The Dalles), Republican John Huffman, 71/29% against a Democrat. He ran uncontested in 2014.

Altogether over half of the Oregon House seats could be safe for independent and alternative party candidates to run in without concern of being a spoiler.

Potential candidates interested in running should keep an eye on who files for the spring 2018 primaries to run for office in their districts. The filing period runs from September 7, 2017 through March 6, 2018. Filings are listed on the website of the Oregon Secretary of State: https://secure.sos.state.or.us/orestar/CFSearchPage.do