Shaking up the electoral college for Massachusetts
by Jim Miller

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As much as its political experts would have you believe otherwise, Massachusetts doesn’t matter when it comes to presidential elections. Her winner-take-all Electoral College allocation causes presidential candidates to ignore Massachusetts. But moving to proportional representation would increase the Commonwealth’s political clout.

As any student of civics knows, the presidential candidate who wins the greatest share of Massachusetts’s popular vote gets all 12 of her Electoral College votes. Unfortunately, since Massachusetts is reliably more Democratic than the rest of the nation (in 2000, Gore did 12% better in Massachusetts then he did overall), the choice of Massachusetts voters can’t affect the outcome of presidential elections.

Judging by history, a close presidential election would find Massachusetts voting overwhelmingly for the Democratic candidate, so both Republicans and Democrats believe that courting Massachusetts voters is a waste of time. If the Democratic candidate leads the national polls, he would easily win Massachusetts in a landslide and so again neither Republicans nor Democrats would worry about Massachusetts’s electoral votes.

Even if Republicans are sufficiently ahead nationally to have a chance at winning Massachusetts, then the Republicans would necessarily be doing so well in so many other states they wouldn’t need Massachusetts’ votes. Consequently, under all reasonable circumstances, wooing Massachusetts voters wouldn’t increase a presidential candidate’s chance of winning. There’s a way for Massachusetts to make her electoral college votes matter.

Massachusetts should abandon her winner-take-all Electoral College allocation. Although 47 other states have identical electoral allocation mechanisms, the winner-take-all arrangement isn’t mandated by the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, Maine and Nebraska use a different proportionally-based system in which it’s possible (although it has never actually happened) that multiple candidates could receive some of the state’s electoral votes.

Massachusetts would boost her political influence by adopting proportional representation under which the number of electoral votes a candidate received was proportional to the share of the popular votes he wins. So, for example, if you win 70% of the popular vote you would get 70% (with some rounding) of the Electoral College votes. Under such a system both major parties would fight for Massachusetts’s votes even if the Democrats were assured of getting at least 51% of Massachusetts’s popular vote.

Proportional representation would help Massachusetts attract more federal dollars. Imagine that polls give the Democratic presidential candidate a 12% lead in Massachusetts. Further imagine that a Republican president is considering awarding Massachusetts a $1 billion grant, and that this grant will win the Republicans 20,000 extra Massachusetts votes. Under our existing winner-take-all allocation, these extra 20,000 votes would provide no help to the Republican president, so politically he would be inclined to give the $1 billion to a more politically balanced state like Florida. In contrast, if Massachusetts had proportional representation it would be more competitive – winning an extra 20,000 Massachusetts votes might give the president another Electoral College delegate.

Obviously, moving to proportional representation would help Republican and third party presidential candidates who now have almost no chance at capturing any of Massachusetts’s electoral votes. However, while Democratic presidential candidates would suffer, state Democratic officials would increase their influence because the national Democratic Party would now be in greater need of their support.

Unlike Massachusetts, a state like Florida wouldn’t increase her political influence by adopting proportional representation. If the national polls give either major candidate about an equal chance of capturing Florida, then under a winner-take-all system a few thousand extra popular votes could cause a candidate to capture all of Florida’s electoral votes. Consequently, under winner-take-all both major parties should spend heavily to bribe Floridians to vote their way. In contrast, if Florida used proportional allocation, then winning a few thousand more popular votes would at best win a candidate one more Electoral College vote. Therefore, even under proportional representation, a Massachusetts voter won’t be nearly as important as a Florida voter, but at least presidential candidates would put some effort into earning our support.

James D. Miller is an assistant professor of economics at Smith College and the author of Game Theory At Work (McGraw Hill, 2003). He thanks Craig M. Nakashian for contributing ideas used in this article.


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Posted on 07-Nov-2003 1:11 PM

Revised on: 05-Feb-2007 4:49 PM