upcoming presidential election appears to be so close that either
President Barack Obama or his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt
Romney, could lose the popular vote, yet still gain the White House by
winning a majority of Electoral College votes.
With this in mind, should the United States choose its president through
the Electoral College, as it does now, or through another method, such
as a national popular vote? And how should people be allowed to register
and vote? Those questions formed the dual focal points of a spirited
conference on election systems that was held at MIT.
“One person, one vote should be the norm of a modern democracy,” said
John Koza, the Stanford University computer scientist who is a leader of
the group National Popular Vote, which aims to elect presidents through
a popular vote. By contrast, as Koza pointed out, the structure of the
Electoral College, which allocates each state’s electoral votes
according to its number of congressmen, including senators, means that
voters in smaller states have far more electors per capita than do
voters in big states.
Koza also criticized the Electoral College system for creating campaigns
in which candidates fixate on issues that most directly concern
swing-state voters. On average, Koza said, “We have a system that’s
ignoring four out of five voters in the country.”
Backed in part by the efforts of the National Popular Vote group, eight
states — California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New
Jersey, Vermont and Washington — and the District of Columbia have all
passed into law the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. In the
terms of that agreement, those states have pledged to award their
Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote, as
soon as the number of states joining the compact collectively hold at
least 270 Electoral College votes, the minimum number needed to win the
The popular-vote movement had both supporters and opponents among the
panelists. The concept “conforms with the popularly held conception of
fairness,” said Alexander Keyssar, a professor at Harvard University’s
Kennedy School of Government, who supports the idea.
However, Alexander Belenky, a professor at the National Research
University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said the idea ignored
the “will of the states,” and suggested that if any changes were
necessary, state officials should examine ways of allotting electoral
“Almost any state can be changed into a battleground by its state
legislators,” Belenky said.
Other scholars challenged that reasoning, however. “States do not have a
will,” said Jack Rakove, a historian and legal scholar from Stanford.
That said, Rakove also thinks that even if enough states pass
legislation to join the compact, it will face heavy legal and
legislative obstacles. While popular-vote advocates cite a 1978 U.S.
Supreme Court ruling on the steel industry as a precedent for the
legality of interstate compacts, Rakove suggested that ruling was
unlikely to be a robust precedent.
“The idea that this is going to escape a challenge in Congress is
utterly [wrong],” Rakove said. “Whatever the prior jurisprudence is,
it’s not going to affect this Supreme Court or any Supreme Court. This
is clearly a change of constitutional dimensions, done by compact or
Pick one candidate, or rank them?
The event — titled “Does the Current Presidential Election System Serve
America Well?” — featured almost 20 speakers, and took place in MIT’s
Several speakers discussed alternate ways that voters could choose
candidates on ballots: Instead of just selecting one candidate, for
instance, voters could rank them, or rate them on a numerical scale.
Eric Maskin, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from Harvard, gave a
keynote talk exploring ways to avoid elections — such as the
presidential elections from 1992 through 2000 — in which the winner
receives only a plurality of the vote, and not an outright majority. One
option Maskin finds valuable, attributed to the French Enlightenment
thinker Condorcet, asks voters to rank candidates, and then selects as a
winner the one candidate who would beat all others in the rankings on a
“Voters under the current system are really not providing enough
information about what they really want,” Maskin said.
Arnold Barnett, the George Eastman Professor of Management Science at
the MIT Sloan School of Management, presented a modification of the U.S.
system in which Electoral College votes would be awarded by multiplying
each state’s popular-vote percentage by its number of electoral votes —
which he said would also give candidates incentive to campaign
“The candidates would rediscover the way to San Jose — and to Fort
Worth, and to Brooklyn, and to Chicago,” Barnett said.
The wave of voter ID laws
Two of the seven panels at the event focused on the wave of
voter-registration laws that have been passed in 33 states across the
country. Many of them require voters to present photo identification at
the polling place; some studies have shown that around 10 percent of the
population does not possess such identification.
The topic is the subject of bitter political dispute at the moment;
Republicans have largely enacted the laws, which Democrats charge are
intended to keep Democratic-leaning citizens from voting.
Von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation, a former Justice Department
official and a central figure in the effort to enact
voter-identification laws, presented a summary of the current legal
status of the laws in many key states. In Pennsylvania and South
Carolina, for instance, judges have ruled that the statutes are legal,
but cannot be implemented in time to apply to the 2012 election. The
U.S. Supreme Court, in 2008, also upheld a 2007 Indiana law requiring
According to Von Spakovsky, the Indiana law “has not prevented anyone
from voting in the state,” and the lack of legal challenges to the way
the state’s law has been administered in practice demonstrates its
Vikram Amar, a law professor at the University of California at Davis,
said there was an “uncomfortable partisan pattern” to the
voter-registration laws — even accounting for the fact that, as Von
Spakovsky pointed out, liberal U.S. Supreme Court justice John Paul
Stevens voted to uphold the Indiana law. Amar also suggested that it
would take time to assess the empirical evidence about the effect the
laws are having on particular blocs of voters.
The conference was sponsored by the MIT Sociotechnical Systems Research
Center and MIT's Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals.