Measuring Knowledge and Attitudes about the Electoral College ANES Proposal

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1 Measuring Knowledge and Attitudes about the Electoral College ANES Proposal Shaun Bowler, University of California, Riverside Todd Donovan, Western Washington University Jeffrey Karp, University of Exeter, United Kingdom Key words: Electoral reform, proportionality, political knowledge Although the ANES has an extensive range of questions, it has not included specific questions measuring voters understanding of the Electoral College or attempted to measure popular support for reforming the system. 1 What we know about the ability of voters to reason about electoral reform has been gained primarily through the use of experimental data (Bowler and Donovan 2007; Anderson et al. 2005). While valuable, experiments limit the ability of researchers to generalize beyond the participants in the study. The outcomes of the last two presidential elections have raised serious questions about the legitimacy of the electoral college and have prompted various reform proposals. Some of these have challenged the winner-take-all rules which is the guiding principle of plurality or FPP systems. In 2004, for example, reformers in Colorado put an initiative on the ballot that proposed dividing the state s nine electoral votes on a proportional basis. Since the state appears to slightly favour Republicans, many believed the Democrats would gain an advantage because their candidate could still pick up four of the state s nine electoral votes in a close election. Such a system would also benefit third or minor party candidacies. Another proposal to divide the state s electoral votes has been advanced in California. Rather than divide the votes on a 1 In 1968, the ANES included several questions asking respondents about the possibility that no single candidate would receive a majority in the electoral college.

2 2 proportional basis, the measure would award electoral votes to the plurality winner within each of the 53 congressional districts (similar to existing rules in Maine and Nebraska). In this case, the Republicans would gain an advantage because they would pick up votes in a large (high value) state where they may otherwise lose under the existing rules. Another reform being considered, known as the National Popular Vote Proposal, would award all of a state s electoral votes to the candidate that received the most votes nationwide. States would enter an interstate compact with other states that make the same change, going into effect when a majority of the states representing the Electoral College (270) approve it. Each of these proposals would potentially alter the outcome of presidential elections, raising questions about the winner-take-all principle and procedural fairness. These proposals, to the extent that they depend on public support, raise serious questions about voters ability to understand and evaluate such measures. The electoral college, for example, is believed to be poorly understood though little empirical data exist to test this hypothesis. How, then, can voters make reasoned decisions on matters that they know little about? One theory for explaining how voters respond to reform proposals assumes they evaluate proposals to change electoral rules in terms of winning and losing (Anderson et al. 2005). Those who believe that the current arrangements place them at a disadvantage are less risk-averse and consequently more likely to embrace a change in the status quo while winners are going to resist change (Bowler and Donovan 2007). Voters in New Zealand reacted this way to a referendum to change their electoral system from a single-member plurality system to proportional representation (Banducci and Karp 1998). In the United States majorities of voters who expect to lose were significantly more likely to embrace PR to elect the U.S. Congress and to support doing away with the Electoral College to elect the president (Anderson et al. 2005, 172). While concerns about who might gain or lose from reform could be at the forefront of voters minds, more general evaluations of the political process may also play a role. Concerns about the democratic process inform views of political institutions. Those who have confidence in

3 3 the political process and who are generally more satisfied and efficacious should be more likely to resist change regardless of whether the reform promises to further their own partisan interest. In contrast, those expressing dissatisfaction with the current system should be most likely to support a change in the status quo. Similarly, those with lower levels of political efficacy may react differently to reform proposals than those who believe the system is responsive to their concerns. To a certain extent, these attitudes may be shaped by electoral outcomes. Citizens who are continually on the losing side should be more likely to support change or simply to withdraw from the political process. We know furthermore that ideology plays a role in shaping the way elites view institutions and political reform (Bowler et al. 2006). To the extent that liberals favour equitable outcomes, we might expect liberals to be more likely to support the concept of proportionality while conservatives will be likely to reject it. Men and women may also have very different views about democratic norms and principals of fairness. Studies about views on distributive justice suggest that men place more emphasis on merit while women are more sensitive to need and equality (Scott et al. 2001). In the case of electoral reform, men and women may react differently to proposals that place an emphasis on fairness or equality of outcomes. Proposed Questions #1 Please tell me whether you think the following statement is true or false: "In presidential elections, the winner is decided by who wins the popular vote." #2 Version A: When it comes to electing the President, some suggest we get rid of the Electoral College and simply elect the candidate who most people voted for. This would mean that states with large populations could have more influence over who wins. Would you support or oppose such a proposal? #2 Version B: When it comes to electing the President, some suggest we get rid of the Electoral College and simply elect the candidate who most people voted for. This would mean that states with small populations could have less influence over who wins. Would you support or oppose such a proposal? #3 Imagine that a presidential candidate receives 20 percent of the popular vote nationwide but fails to win a single state. Do you think that candidate should receive 20 percent of the votes in the electoral college, some electoral votes, or no electoral votes at all?

4 4 These questions were either piloted in Time Sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (see Bowler and Donovan 2007) or in a statewide survey conducted during the 2004 Presidential election in Colorado. The table below summarizes responses to the non experimental item measuring support for proportionality. This question was designed by the New Zealand Election Study (NZES) to measure support for proportionality (see Vowles et al. 2002). The 20 per cent threshold was chosen because it provided a realistic example for a recent third-party candidacy, when Ross Perot received 20 per cent of the vote but failed to carry a single state in the 1992 presidential election. While proportionality may be an abstract concept, is it nonetheless evident that partisans have very different views about electoral fairness. For further details see Karp (2007). A copy of the article can be found at In terms of understanding, 72 percent were correct that the statement about the popular vote is false while 25 percent were incorrect. References Anderson, Christopher J., Andre Blais, Shaun Bowler, Todd Donovan and Ola Listhaug Losers Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Banducci, Susan A. and Jeffrey A. Karp Perceptions of Fairness and Support for Proportional Representation. Political Behavior 21: Bowler, Shaun, and Todd Donovan Reasoning about Institutional Change: Winners, Losers, and Support for Electoral Reforms. British Journal of Political Science. 37 (3):

5 Bowler, Shaun, Todd Donovan, and Jeffrey A. Karp Why Politicians Like Electoral Institutions: Self-interest, Values, or Ideology? Journal of Politics 68: Karp, Jeffrey A Reforming the Electoral College and Support for Proportional Outcomes Representation. 43(4): Scott, John T., Richard E. Matland, Philip A. Michelbach and Brian H. Bornstein Just Deserts: An Experimental Study of Distributive Justice Norms American Journal of Political Science 45: Vowles, Jack, Peter Aimer, Jeffrey Karp, Susan Banducci, Raymond Miller and Ann Sullivan Proportional representation on trial: The 1999 New Zealand general election and the fate of MMP. Auckland, NZ: Auckland University Press. 5

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