Doubling Down on the Electoral College

I have advocated for Canada to become a republic for a long time but recent developments in the United States have alarmed me, as the US political system seems unable to reform itself.

There are many problems in the current US system but the most obvious one at the moment, at least at the executive level, is that the feature that was supposed to prevent populism, the Electoral College, is actually the feature that is most enabling populism, with a populist winning the Presidency because of the Electoral College system in 2016.

I strongly believe my country should have an elected head of state rather than someone who inherits the job. As Thomas Paine once said, a hereditary monarch makes as much sense as a hereditary Poet Laureate. But what can be done to prevent populist presidents with no respect for the constitution, the other branches of government or norms? (One solution is simply changing the voting method from first-past-the-post to ranked ballots but that is another story for another time.)

I recently came across the method used to elect the Doge of Venice for a majority of its history, and it is extremely complicated but, nevertheless, it is interesting given the state of politics in liberal democracies in the 21st century:

  1. Choose 30 members of the Great Council by lot (i.e. randomly).
  2. These 30 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  3. These 9 people choose 40 other people.
  4. These 40 are reduced by lot to 12.
  5. These 12 people choose 25 other people.
  6. These 25 people are reduced by lot to 9.
  7. These 9 people choose 45 other people.
  8. These 45 people are reduced by lot to 11.
  9. These 11 people choose 41 other people.
  10. These 41 people elect the doge.

At first blush, maybe this seems insane.

WHY??!?!

Why would any society come up with a method like this for picking their head of state?

Well, the people of Venice were apparently concerned with the undue influence of the most powerful families in Venice over their politics so they created this elaborate system for picking the chief executive.

Obviously OECD countries are significantly bigger than Venice was at its peak, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a lesson in the Venetian method of picking a head of state for our modern societies confronted with huge amounts of income inequality and, in the case of the United States in particular, a system of government subservient to the whims of the richest people and those they choose to back.

Electing the President by lot, instead of by direct popular vote or electors selected through first-past-the-post, might mitigate the influence of money in politics, leveling the playing field somewhat for those who are not among the Super Rich. In a long campaign there are numerous opportunities to influence the electorate by spending massive amounts of money. But if the electors are unknown individuals — or even known individuals who are legally protected from advertising in some way — it’s a lot harder to spend your candidate’s way into power.

How Might This System Work?

The reason to have such a strange system in the first place is to mitigate the influence of the rich and powerful who have the resources to win elections. However, a significant concern in countries such as Canada and the United States, which was not a concern in Venice, is fair regional representation among the electors. (This would be less of a concern in Austria.)

Moreover, we know the “neutral state” is a myth; the state does not and has never treated everyone equally. Perhaps, then, we can draw some inspiration from the Venetian method to increase representation in the presidential electoral process. Let’s start with Canada.

A Canadian Electoral College

Let’s assume that Canada is no longer a monarchy. We have a President instead of a Queen and her Governor General. This President needs to be chosen somehow.

Now let’s divide up the country into different chunks:

  • Canada has 10 provinces and 3 territories so one simple way of dividing the country is to split it into 13;
  • Canada has two official languages so a simple way of splitting the country would be by the percentage of English as a mother tongue (55%) vs French as a mother tongue (21%), with the other 24% of the country as “Other” (as opposed to the individual mother tongues of those 24%);
  • Canada has approximately 37 million people, so another way to split the country would be into 37 groups of slightly more than one million people using mathematical modeling to figure out the geographic boundaries of these groups;
  • Canada has a long history of mistreating its Indigenous peoples so another way of dividing the country would be to choose a census category that over-represents Indigenous people among the electors;
  • Income inequality is a concern so another division could be created by taking equal numbers of people (say 2) from each income bracket.

We want the process to be as free as possible from undue influence so a rule needs to be put in place: electors cannot currently be serving in any public office, nor can they have served in a public office within the last [x] years.

We also need to limit the number of times a person can serve as an elector, otherwise the same people might be picked over and over again. (My vote would be for once a decade, or perhaps even less frequently.)

We may want to go further and prevent any person employed by the federal government at present or in the recent past from serving as an elector because they would have a stake in the outcome that a non-bureaucrat might not. However, given the size of the government this could limit our elector pool more than we would like. But, more importantly such a restriction takes a moral stance on the interests of bureaucrats versus the interests other people, which we might want to avoid.

So it would unfold somewhat like this:

  1. The Parliament of each province and territory picks one elector from their province and each territory;
  2. A lottery reduces this group to 5 people;
  3. These 5 people pick a group of 100 by simple majority election, 55 of whom were born speaking English, 21 of whom were born speaking French and 24 of whom were born with neither language as their first language;
  4. This group is reduced by lottery to a group of 37
  5. These 37 people pick a new 37 by majority vote, 1 from each cluster of 1+ million people in Canada;
  6. This group of 37 picks a new segment of people which over-represents the Indigenous (say based upon population density representation, or something like that);
  7. This new group is whittled down to 11 who then pick 10 people, 1 from each of the 10 divisions of the population by income;
  8. This last group is whittled down to 5 by lottery; they pick the president from a list of candidates (and let’s say each candidate needs at least 370 signatures for a nomination)

This order probably should be changed. It’s just my first stab. And please note that each of these numbers are completely arbitrary and would have to be worked out in detail when designing the actual process.

And it’s worth wondering whether dividing each group to get some representation is more fair than just having each group of electors pick people at random. However, the concern with “at random” is that electors would always pick people they know personally or have heard of. The reason to divide up the potential electors into groups is to try to get representation into each round of electoral process so that the system is considering the views of different groups of people, not just public figures or those known to the electors.

My guess is that it would be quite hard to influence the individuals at each stage of this process, especially if the names are kept (relatively) private and there are laws in place limiting communication towards these people while they are deliberating. (We can sequester juries after all.)

Though the list of total potential electors would likely be public, the list of those chosen in each election could be kept private to a point. Moreover, with our current technology it is possible to imagine this system where the electors do not have to travel to a given place to deliberate; video-conferencing software could be used so that they could deliberate securely from the comfort of their own home. This has the added advantage of potentially keeping the electors’ names fairly secret if the time between the notification of their selection and their deliberation is extremely short.

A New American Electoral College

Because there are far more Americans than Canadians, I guess I have to go through this motion too. So let’s divide up the US.

  • The United States has 50 states so the simplest way of dividing the country is to split it into 50, though that omits both DC and Puerto Rico who should be allowed to get in on this;
  • An alternative to the state division is one by county; counties mean something in the United States that they don’t in Canada and that might be a slightly more fair way of divvying up the regions, mitigating some of the massive current political differences within states;
  • The US has approximately 327 million people, so another way to split the country would be into 327 groups of slightly more than one million people using mathematical modeling to figure out the geographical boundaries;
  • It’s worth wondering if choosing electors by the incredibly fraught (and scientifically non-existent, never mind arbitrary) category of “race” is a good idea, but certainly, ethnic representation in one stage would be a good idea somehow;
  • Income inequality is an even bigger concern in the US so we should do an income division here too.

So the process would something like this:

  • Each county government in the US and Puerto Rico selects an elector
  • These hundreds of electors are whittled down by lot to a manageable number, say 52;
  • Those 52 electors pick 327 electors from each area of the country representing 1 million people;
  • These 327 people are again whittled down by lot to a manageable number, but let’s just use 52 for the time being;
  • These 52 electors select 1 elector each from the 25 largest ethnicities in the United States
  • These 25 electors pick 10 electors, one from each of the 10 income brackets in the US
  • Those 10 electors pick the new President from the list of nominees

Again, I think my order is suspect. For example: I wonder if geographical considerations should come last rather than first.

This idea might strike you as inherently undemocratic. But the goal here is to minimize the effects of money and mass communication in the political process. It is relatively easy to spend money to influence large groups of people to pick 1 of 2 options in the US. In Canada, where political spending is constrained, it is still relatively easy to use modern communication methods to influence elections when there are choices between essentially 3 options. Moreover, Canada is seeing the rise of PAC-like private organizations who clearly advocate for one political party outside of the election cycle. (They are able to do this because they do it online.) We Canadians should be concerned about their influence on elections because, shockingly, they are funded by the rich.

It strikes me that the relative randomness introduced by this method could greatly decrease the influence of large businesses and rich individuals over this particular part of electoral process (if we had a president in Canada…)

I never thought I would write this but it strikes me as an idea worth thinking about.

Full Disclosure: I have long hated the Electoral College and actually wrote a paper in university condemning it in such strong language that my professor reprimanded me. So my interest in this idea was a surprise to me.

Originally published at https://rileyhaas.com on August 26, 2019.

I am the author of three books and working on a fourth. I am a liberal, an existentialist, an atheist, and anti-utopian.

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