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Expanding the Battleground: A competitive approach to presidential election reform

Monday, April 1, 2019

Electoral College

With numerous candidates already in line for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, the discussion among most political pundits centers on which challenger has the best potential to secure the 270 electoral votes needed in the general election to unseat the incumbent and presumptive Republican nominee, President Donald Trump. 


It’s also a reminder to citizens that U.S. presidents aren’t chosen by direct election, but by the Electoral College, which in 2000 and 2016 awarded the government’s executive branch to candidates who actually lost the popular vote.


Shai Vardi, an assistant professor of management information systems at the Purdue University Krannert School of Management, presents a competitive alternative to the current system in a working paper titled “Expanding the Battleground: A Bipartisan Approach to Presidential Election Reform.”


In its present form, the Electoral College consists of 538 electors, with each state allotted one elector for each of its members in the House of Representatives plus another two electors for its Senators. In campaign terms, states like Indiana and California that traditionally vote for one party over another are considered “safe states.” Those that could tip the scales toward the 270 majority are considered “battleground states.”


“Almost all states use the winner-take-all method of allocating their electoral votes. As a result, battleground states make millions of dollars during each presidential election while safe states get virtually nothing,” Vardi says.


In the 2012 presidential election, for example, the Romney and Obama campaigns spent nearly $900 million on TV ads alone, with more than 96 percent of the money going to that year’s 10 battleground states and their 126 electoral votes — Florida, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Michigan. In comparison, the remaining 40 safe states and the District of Columbia garnered only $30 million in campaign spending for their 412 electoral votes.


“Trump and Clinton spent almost 2.4 billion dollars on the 2016 race, with almost all of the money again ending up in battleground states,” Vardi says. “The benefits to battleground states don’t end on election day, however. Incumbent presidents target federal dollars to battleground states, pressure government agencies to shorten processing time for awards, and even engage in strategic trade protectionism.”


In addition to campaign spending, safe states also come up short in terms of influence at a time when being heard by candidates is increasingly important to voters. For example, Democratic candidates do not campaign in Indiana because it’s considered a “red state” that typically awards all of its 11 electoral votes to the Republican nominee. Likewise, Republican candidates overlook Indiana as they are all but guaranteed to win all of its electoral votes whether they campaign there or not.


“Although money and political influence are strong motivators, they are insufficient to make safe states convert to a new system,” Vardi says. “In order to be feasible, a new system would need to be unbiased toward both parties and also meet other criteria that many legislators consider important, such as supporting a two-party system and requiring a wide distribution of popular support to be elected president.”


Vardi acknowledges that creating a “new system” for presidential elections won’t be easy. According to the National Archives and Records Administration, more than 700 proposals to reform or eliminate the Electoral College have been introduced in Congress over the past 200 years, all of which have failed.


“The idea of states assigning their electoral votes in proportion to the statewide popular vote isn’t new. It is often called the proportional plan, but past implementation efforts have been ad-hoc,” he says.


Inspired by game theory, Vardi presents a more objective alternative that he calls the “competitive plan.” In it, each state would assign its electoral votes in proportion to the statewide popular vote in a way that ensures that there are very few ties. Votes of candidates who do not pass a threshold are allocated to the candidate that received the most votes in that state.


“Assume that in a state with four electors, the Republican candidate receives 62 percent of the popular vote and the Democratic candidate receives 38 percent,” he explains. “How should the electoral votes be allocated? Under the standard interpretation of the proportional plan, the state would allocate two votes to both candidates. Under the competitive plan, it would allocate three to the Republican candidate and one to the Democratic candidate.”


To verify that his plan wouldn’t offer a partisan advantage to either a Republican or Democratic candidate, Vardi analyzed every presidential election since 1900. Surprisingly, he found that the same candidates would have won had the competitive plan been used instead of the winner-take-all method.


So, what’s the incentive to switch if the outcome would be the same?


“The benefits of the competitive plan to safe states are clear,” Vardi says. “They would become more relevant to the candidates and receive more attention and money. What’s unclear is how to reach that goal. A constitutional amendment seems unlikely, and states wouldn’t want to change unilaterally as they would in essence be ‘giving away’ votes to the other party.”


Indiana, for example, will likely give all 11 of its electoral votes to the Republican candidate in 2020. If it transitioned to the competitive plan, however, the state would likely grant between three and five votes to the Democratic candidate.


To further incentivize his proposed system, Vardi developed an algorithm to find pairs of safe states that would “cancel each other out” if they transitioned to the competitive plan together, as well as a suggested order for doing so. Once again, he verified that if the states transitioned to the competitive plan two at a time according to the suggested order, at no point in the process would it have had any effect on the outcome of the 30 presidential elections included in the study.


“Besides making them more attractive to candidates without creating bias toward either party, pairing up politically balanced states would be in the best interest of their voters,” he says. “Once all of the safe states have transitioned to the competitive plan, it seems likely that the battleground states would also transition, but even if they don’t, their slice of the campaign-spending pie would be much smaller.”


Source: Shai Vardi

Writer: Eric Nelson

A downloadable PDF of “Expanding the Battleground: A Bipartisan Approach to Presidential Election Reform.” is available at