Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Ten Ideas to Make Politics Less Rotten.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

We Americans may love our democracy — at least in theory — but at the moment our feelings toward the Federal government lie somewhere between disdain and hatred. Which electoral and political ideas should be killed off to make way for a saner system?

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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Before we get on to today’s brand-new episode, I want to let you know about a whole new podcast I’m starting. It’s called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. If you are a regular Freakonomics Radio listener, you may recall we did a one-off version of it. It’s a live game show with audience contestants, celebrity panelists, and me as the host.

Now we’re turning Tell Me Something I Don’t Know into a full-fledged podcast of its own. We’ll do our first tapings in front of a live audience in New York in September, and we’re looking for contestants. People who are willing to get up on a stage and tell us … well, something we don’t know. Maybe it’s a technological breakthrough you’ve learned about, maybe even some research you’re working on, or just a set of strange facts, a historical wrinkle, or perhaps just a great, unasked question.

Every show will have a theme — maybe food one week, transportation the next — but at this point, we are open to any and all ideas. Also: there will be prizes! And you’ll have a chance to impress a bunch of celebrity panelists and a few million podcast listeners! So if you or someone you know would like to participate in Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, please sign up here. If you want more information on the show or want to get tickets to attend a taping, you can learn more here. Feel free to spread this word to friends, family, co-workers, pets, you name it, because we want to bring you the very best, funniest, and weirdest ideas on the planet. Thanks.

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OLYMPIA SNOWE: You know, I had been fighting  to try to bring up issues that I thought were important to address, and basically the Senate had been shut down.

MUSIC: Fine Prince, “Log Lady, Instrumental” (from Lookout)

That’s Olympia Snowe, from Maine.

SNOWE: Yes, I served in the state legislature in both the State House and the State Senate prior to my 34 years in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate where I served 16 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 years in the U.S. Senate.

Over that time, the tenor of Congress changed a great deal.

SNOWE: In fact, the last Congress I served in, in 2012 — it was the least productive Congress in modern history.

Snowe was a moderate Republican, a coalition-builder, happy to work across the aisle. In fact, her support for some Democratic positions — on reproductive rights, on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, her votes for Democratic judicial nominees – this all came to anger her Republican colleagues, especially the new breed of hardliners. Over time, Snowe saw her brand of centrism essentially disappear.

SNOWE: And in fact, three political scientists conducted a study and said that we are experiencing the worst polarization since the end of Reconstruction, 1879. If you think about it, that is pretty serious. In an analysis up through 2013 that showed in 1982, there were 58 senators that came between the most conservative Democrats and the most liberal Republicans. Today — at least up to 2013, and I doubt that that has changed — for the fourth time in a row,  fifth time ever, zero senators come into that category. In the House of Representatives in 1982, there were 344 members of the House of Representatives that came between the most conservative Democrats and the most liberal Republicans. Today, there are only four in that category. So it tells you there is no Democrat who is more conservative than a Republican; there is no Republican more liberal than a Democrat.

This polarization became spectacularly manifest during the debt crises of 2011 and 2013, when Congress threatened to shut down the Federal government, and actually did so in 2013.

SNOWE:  I mean, I was stunned that we would be at a point in the United States Congress that we were prepared to take the country to the financial and political brink to make a political point.

Snowe had been planning to run for re-election to the Senate. Everything was in place. She was just 65 years old. She had the money and the organization. In her previous election she’d won nearly 75 percent of the vote. But, she decided that she didn’t fit in this Congress any more.

SNOWE: So they abandoned legislating and policymaking and just devolved into a series of gotcha votes, “my way or the highway,” and the all-or-nothing proposition that was really the road to nowhere. And I decided that I would take my fight on the outside because I realized that the change was not going to occur from within.

MUSIC: Big Bear Theory, “The Rolling Sky

Snowe joined the Bipartisan Policy Center, which addresses, as she calls it, “congressional dysfunction and political paralysis.” She wrote a book called Fighting for Common Ground: How We Can Fix the Stalemate in Congress. Many of her solutions have to do with re-creating a bipartisan Congress: less filibustering and grandstanding, more regular meetings between majority and minority leadership, more regular meetings between Congress and the President. Because that’s how it was in Snowe’s early years in Washington.

But over time, moderates were purged from both parties, and partisan battles became more intense, more destructive. So what’s to be done about that? And, since it’s election season, we might as well ask a bigger question: what’s to be done about all the other rotten things in American politics? Today on Freakonomics Radio, we ask politicians and scholars, donkeys and elephants and everyone in between: what’s the one political or electoral practice that deserves to die?

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We Americans may love our democracy, at least in theory, but at the moment our feelings toward the Federal government lie somewhere between disdain and hatred. Consider these numbers. In 1958, the American National Election Study found that 73 percent of Americans said they trusted the government either most of the time or just about always. So: 73 percent in 1958. As of last year, that number was 19 percent. Congressional approval ratings have plummeted: they now range from roughly 10 to 20 percent. So it’s probably no coincidence that the U.S. has one of the very lowest voter turnout rates in national elections among OECD countries, at just over 50 percent.

The conventional wisdom is to wonder why so few Americans vote; but given the way we feel about government, a better question might be why so many bother. That said, we keep having elections, and relatively orderly ones at that. This year’s Presidential Election has already proven somewhat less orderly than usual, and may well get even weirder. So we thought we might do our civic duty here at Freakonomics Radio by taking a level-headed look at the American electoral system. Some time back we put out an episode called “This Idea Must Die,” where we asked scientists to nominate a scientific idea that had outlived its usefulness. Today, with apologies and thanks to Edge.org, from whom we stole that idea, we present: This Idea Must Die: Election Edition.

MUSIC: In The Nursery, “Funeral Part 2” (from An Ambush Of Ghosts)

You will recall that Olympia Snowe, the former Republican Senator from Maine, was so appalled by the partisanship in Congress that she quit — to try to reform the system from the outside. Among her proposed solutions: getting rid of gerrymandering through independent, nonpartisan districting; limiting the power of political action committees; and requiring a five-day workweek in Congress, which would, as she writes, “provide additional time to address the critical issues, while also fostering more opportunities for senators and reps to interact socially with each other in Washington.” But if there’s one idea that Snowe would personally like to kill off, it would be …

SNOWE: A closed primary.

Meaning a nominating contest that is closed to voters who aren’t registered with a particular party.

SNOWE: Today there are very few of what you would call centrist, moderate candidates on either side of the political aisle. And that’s the problem; you no longer have the middle in politics. There is the middle in America but they’re not producing the candidates because the primaries are so closed that it gets locked down, and so it’s only those who are the hardline activists that are ultimately voting in the primaries and therefore voting those who are more aligned to their views, that are not predisposed to building compromise or consensus that are nominated and therefore, that is the choice for many in the general election. And the bigger fear today among elected officials is facing a primary. Because that’s where you get the more hardline ideologues who are going to be participating as well as the outside groups that weigh in with millions of dollars and that will work to defeat these candidates. So that is the problem.

Open primaries already exist in 11 states, while a few more, including California, have what’s called a “top-two primary.” That lets voters choose any candidate they want in a single open primary and then the two top vote-getters advance to the general election, even if they’re both from the same party. So far, political scientists are split on whether open primaries really help. Some research shows that moderate candidates don’t do any better in an open primary; others argue the change in California has already led to more competitive elections and a more functional state legislature.

HOWARD DEAN: We need to change the way we currently vote.

MUSIC: J Minus, “Can I Count On You” (from Devil Music)

Howard Dean is the former governor of Vermont, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and former presidential candidate.

DEAN: If I could do a single thing in American politics, it would be to get rid of the single-vote for your favorite candidate. Right now, we vote for one person, and that person either wins or doesn’t win. That is, if there’s ten candidates in a race, you get one vote. There’s a system called ranked-choice voting, where you don’t get just your vote for the top choice that you have, you also get to vote on all the other choices. And you get to rank them. So that if your candidate doesn’t win, your second-choice vote counts. What that does is create as the winner, the person who is best respected and best liked overall in the electorate. It’s just a good system. The other thing about it is that it makes people behave themselves better. San Francisco put in ranked-choice voting a few years ago, and they had the most polite mayor’s campaign that you ever saw, because if you’re hoping to get somebody’s second or third choice vote, if you know you’re not going to get their first, you’re not going to say anything bad about them in the campaign, because you drive those voters away. And those are the voters that eventually get you elected. So ranked-choice voting simply means that you get multiple choices, you can weight your choices, and the candidate that the most people like — and usually the one that’s the most reasonable — becomes the next mayor, the next president, the next senator. And I think that makes voters happy, it makes politicians behave better, and it’s something that’s coming slowly to the United States and where we have it, it works well.

A lot of the people we talked to for this episode had similar-ish ideas about modernizing, or at least adding some nuance to, our current electoral habits. Rob Richie, for instance, of the electoral-reform group called FairVote.

ROB RICHIE: I’d like to get rid of winner-take-all elections to elect congress, state legislatures, and city councils.  So whoever gets 51 percent of the vote represents 100 percent of people. If you get 60 percent of the vote you not only represent 100 percent of people, but no one even cares about the election, because you’re going to win easily  And we’re left with elections that leave most people stuck in sort of lopsided one-party districts. The proposal that we put out — there was something called a Fair Representation Act as a draft, and we have some members of Congress who do want to put it in — what it does is a statutory change that within states, they would take congressional elections, go from having only one person per area, to bigger areas with more than one person. So, a state like Massachusetts might go from nine one-winner districts to three three-member districts, and then in each district, it would take about a third of the vote to win a seat. That degree of opening up the system does some really interesting things. One, it makes the general election matter. And it very methodically and reliably represents the left, center, and right of every district.

JOAQUIN CASTRO: If there’s one thing that I could do differently in our democracy, it would be doing away with straight-ticket voting.

Joaquin Castro is a Democratic Congressman from Texas.

CASTRO: Straight-ticket voting means that you can go into a ballot booth and without looking at any of the individual candidates or races on the ballot, at the top of the ballot, you can simply mark that you want to vote for all the Democrats or all the Republicans. And what it’s done is it’s allowed a lot of people to go into the ballot booth really on autopilot, without considering the specific candidates in a particular race. So if I could retire straight-ticket voting, I would.

Norman Ornstein is resident scholar at a conservative think tank called the American Enterprise Institute. He too is troubled by the overt partisanship in politics.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: So I’ve become a big proponent of the Australian system of mandatory attendance at the polls. In Australia — this is a system that they’ve used for eight decades or so now — you don’t have to vote. But you do have to show up at the polls or write a plausible excuse. If you don’t show up and if you don’t write the excuse, you’re subject to small fine. In my various trips to Australia and my discussions with politicians of all political stripes there, they will tell you that when you know that your base is going to be turning out to the polls, and when the other side’s base you know is going to be turning out to the polls, your focus turns to the persuadable voters in the middle. And it changes the way you talk about politics. You don’t talk in the most strident and extreme terms in ways that are designed to gin up your base or to scare them to death. You don’t work on wedge issues, things like abortion or transgender bathroom issues. Instead, you talk about the issues that matter most to the broad range of voters, and especially those persuadable ones. The big-ticket items. And you’re forced into talking in ways that look at the issues so that you can persuade people.

MUSIC: Teddy Presberg, “Nancy” (from Outcries From A Sea Of Red)

I think you’d agree we’ve already heard some interesting ideas. But none of them is particularly radical. OK, so how about this one? It’s an idea called “quadratic voting.”

ERIC POSNER: My name is Eric Posner, and I’m a professor of law at the University of Chicago.

And what’s the idea Professor Posner would like to kill?

POSNER: And I want to kill the idea of one person, one vote. So in place of our current system, what I’d like to see is a system in which people would have lots of votes.  Imagine, for example, that you’re given a kind of a currency — let’s say, a hundred credits, and every time there’s an election, you could allocate those credits among different candidates in different races.

In other words, you could use credits to buy votes.

POSNER: So, for example, if you really cared about somebody, you could buy lots of votes for that person; and if you cared only a little bit about another person, you could buy just a few votes for that person. And then there’s a final element in this game, which is a little more complicated but also important, which is that when you use your currency to buy votes, you pay the square of the number of votes that you cast for a particular person.

The square of the number meaning you multiply it by itself — to square, from the Latin “quadrum” — which is why this idea is called “quadratic voting.”

POSNER: So I could, for example, in the presidential election, buy two votes for Hillary Clinton by paying four credits, and then I would have, you know, other credits that I could use for other candidates I care about. So, for example, in the mayoral race, I might care a lot and pay 25 credits to buy five votes, or 81 credits to buy nine votes, until I have no credits left. So now I have a way of registering how intensely I feel about a candidate. Now here’s why this could matter. As people have known for thousands of years, democracy is prone to various problems, like tyranny of the majority. And one interpretation of tyranny of the majority is that a majority of people who don’t really care about a particular outcome or a particular candidate, let’s say, but nonetheless favors that candidate, could outvote  a large minority of people, who passionately care. And most people think that that’s not a good outcome; that we want people who passionately care about an outcome to have more influence on it. Of course, they could be outvoted if the majority is huge, but you do want to give them the chance to register the intensity of their preferences.

MUSIC: Tim Seely, “Funeral Music” (from Funeral Music)

If quadratic voting isn’t radical enough for you, consider this one.

BRUCE ACKERMAN: The idea I want to kill is that we’re spending too much money in politics.

Pardon me? You mean we’re not spending too much money in politics?

ACKERMAN: Each year, automobile companies spend roughly $25 billion on advertising. In contrast, four years ago, all candidates for the House, Senate and the Presidency spent $7 billion, roughly 30 percent of what auto companies spend each year.

Bruce Ackerman is a Yale law professor.

ACKERMAN: The problem isn’t that candidates are spending too much money letting us know where they stand. It’s that the rich are dominating the conversation. During the present election season, big donors who give more than $2,000 have given 30 percent of all the money.  And donors who have given more than $500 have given half of all the money. Even the rest of the money – small donations – are not being given by ordinary people. To change this picture, the citizens of Seattle have come up with a fundamental reform. At a referendum last year, they endorsed a program that will provide each registered voter with a democracy voucher to spend in support of whoever they favor for candidates for municipal office. One person, one vote, one voucher. This is the formula for reclaiming democracy in the United States. Suppose, for example, that we took the Seattle idea national. Under my proposal, federal legislation would provide every registered voter a special credit-card account containing 50 “democracy dollars” during presidential years and lesser amounts during off-year elections, funded by tax revenue. Account holders could send their democracy dollars to a government website that would credit the money to their favored candidates and political organizations. About 130 million Americans went to the polls in 2012. If they all spent their democracy dollars, they would have injected about six-and-a-half billion dollars into the campaign, dramatically changing the balance of economic power in politics.

Ackerman has written a book about this idea, with his Yale Law colleague Ian Ayres. It’s called Voting With Dollars.

ACKERMAN: Only one point needs emphasizing here: the voucher program is perfectly constitutional under current Supreme Court doctrine. There is no need to wait for a constitutional amendment or a dramatic change from the Roberts Court. All we need is a serious political movement to push the Seattle idea forward. In fact, “democracy dollar” initiatives are on the ballot this fall in the states of Washington and South Dakota. This is a reform whose time is coming. 

MUSIC: Jack Miele, “Danny’s Theme”

So the democracy-dollar idea wouldn’t need a constitutional amendment. But what if it did? What happens when a good modern idea is stymied by an antique document?

SANFORD LEVINSON: I think that one of the significant weaknesses in American democracy is the difficulty of amending the U.S. Constitution.

Sandy Levinson teaches Constitutional law at the University of Texas at Austin.

LEVINSON: In fact, the United States Constitution is, among world constitutions, probably the single one which is most-difficult to amend.

Our Constitution is also generally thought of as the longest-surviving operational national Constitution in the world, which may be something to be proud of. But, as Levinson suggests, it may lead to a lack of flexibility.

LEVINSON: My proposal is actually to learn from  a number of the state constitutions, including very importantly the New York Constitution. The most interesting and important election that will be held next year, that is in 2017, will be in New York where the New York electorate will have the opportunity required by the New York Constitution to vote every 20 years on whether or not there should be a new state constitutional convention in order to assess the degree to which the current New York Constitution is working well and the extent to which it needs to be amended. New York, in fact, has had five constitutions over its history, and, of course, there have been a number of amendments, many of them coming through previous conventions. I believe that the United States Constitution would be a far better Constitution if, in fact, the national electorate had the same opportunity. And I think it is a serious blemish on our democracy that we venerate the Constitution, we celebrate it, but often very thoughtlessly. And we prefer to attack each other and to attack the deficiencies of certain alleged leaders or political parties rather than to confront the possibility that it’s the 1787 Constitution itself — in its surprisingly unamended form — that is afflicting our politics in the year 2016.

MUSIC: Peter Mulvey, “Eyes Front (See Through You)” (from Trouble With Poets)

What would happen if the U.S. held a national referendum on Constitutional reform? There’s only one way to find out! Although we should note that if you actually call a referendum and the citizenry of your country passes it – well, it’s not necessarily all sunshine and rainbows.

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MUSIC: Boat, “Prince of Tacoma” (from Setting The Paces)

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The idea that I would like to die, unmourned, buried as quickly as possible, no funeral, is the notion that we have to have a live, cheering, jeering audience at presidential debates.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

JAMIESON: The reason I want to get rid of that idea, and I want to get rid of that concept, as quickly as possible is that we know that the audience response in the auditorium to the debate content affects the audience at home, and as a result can bias not only what people learn, but their evaluation of the candidates.

For instance: one of the Ronald ReaganWalter Mondale debates in 1984.

JAMIESON: When the audience applauded and laughed at the exchange between Reagan and Mondale on Reagan’s age, we can show experimentally that benefited Reagan substantially. What does that say? The audience in that auditorium shaped perceptions of those viewing the debate at home. We can show the same thing with the disadvantage to Dan Quayle out of the audience that was disapproving of his answer to Bentsen.

That debate was in 1988, with the Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen up against Republican v.p. candidate Dan Quayle.

JAMIESON: That’s highly problematic. That audience can include partisans whose jeering and cheering is choreographed. There’s no reason to think that audience is representative. It has a whole lot of donors in it, among other things, and that’s problematic, because we shouldn’t have donors as the primary in-studio audience for a presidential debate. And also, it’s problematic because when you have a jeering, cheering audience, the candidates have to respond by increasing their volume in response to each other, and when you edit those responses by the candidates into sound bites, they can sound unhinged. That’s not fair to the candidates. So, unfair to the audience, unfair to the candidates, unfair to the process.

MUSIC: Eric Mingus, “Tired Of Love” (from Healin’ Howl)

KARL ROVE: I’m just saying if you think it’s bad today, it was worse before!

Karl Rove has also thought about what we can do to improve our elections.

ROVE:  I write a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal. I’m a Fox News contributor and helped found the Super PAC American Crossroads. I was previously senior advisor to President Bush and deputy White House Chief of Staff.

DUBNER:  Let’s start briefly with your most recent book, The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters. So tell us why the election of 1896 does matter.

ROVE: Well, for two reasons. One is: the politics of the era look like today, only worse. I didn’t set out to write a book drawing parallels. I set out to write  a durable history of the 1896 election. The election of 1896, while acknowledged by political scientists to be one of the five great realignment elections in American history, we spend more time talking about the guy who lost the election, William Jennings Bryan, and the guy who follows McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, than we talk about the guy who actually brought about this election victory and whose subsequent administration ushered in a 36-year period of Republican dominance. So the first reason I wrote it was I wanted to have a durable history of a very interesting race. But the more I got into it, the more back then looks like now only worse. Broken political system; political gridlock; the two parties locked in a death struggle with each other, both of them facing serious challenges; a rapidly changing demography of America; economic anxiety brought about by a generation of disruptive innovation and change and globalization; and some really interesting characters. So who could argue with that?

DUBNER: So as with many things in life, the good old days — including the political system and the electoral system — were not so good, you’re saying. For those who look at our current political and electoral systems and say, “Ugh, get me to Canada. Get me to Bhutan. Get me anywhere. It’s horrible. The American political system is crap.” For people who feel that way — and there seem to be quite a few — talk to me about the ways in which it was different or worse.

ROVE: Well, we had five Presidential elections in a row, in which, no one received 50 percent of the vote. Every one of those elections was settled with a winner taking a plurality, a minority of the vote. Two of those elections involved somebody who won the Electoral College and lost the popular vote, came in second. One of those elections involved a five-month long dispute about the outcome in Florida. A third President won the Electoral College and won a plurality of the popular vote nationwide by 7,000 votes.  The two parties were at each other’s throats. They not only hated each other because they had  deeply different ideologies, but they were still fighting the Civil War.

DUBNER: From what you’ve written, I gather that you are not a big Donald Trump fan, although that may be evolving. You’ve called him “graceless and divisive.” You’ve called him “a petty man consumed by resentment and bitterness.” You’ve said that he’s “denigrating the party he seeks to lead.” This was all written I should say before he was your party’s nominee. But you also wrote this: “A longtime Republican who has toiled in the vineyards can expect loyalty for having given it. Mr. Trump on the other hand has donated generously to Democratic Senator John Kerry in 2004, he’s also savaged past Republican Presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.” So, Mr. Rove, my question is this: Other than the fact that Mr. Trump has “savaged” the President that you worked for, among others, why is party loyalty such a good or important thing? Because to me it represents the kind of tribalism that creates political problems, not solves them.

ROVE: Well, you assume that political tribalism doesn’t exist outside of a two-party system. There’s even more tribalism outside of a two-party system, and it is of a more destructive nature because it is oft-times based upon one simple issue or one personality. And that’s one of the great things about our two-party system. Both parties tend to move away from their extremes in order to win elections. And sometimes they tend to share a great commonality when it comes to the public agenda. They differ in big ways, no doubt about it, but imagine a system in which everybody could organize around personalities, single issues, and highly developed and very narrow ideologies. We’d get something like Italy. It’s had 41 prime ministers and over 60 governments since World War II. Now maybe it’s good that Italy topples its governments with great regularity, but I think it fundamentally undermines the confidence of the people in the system of government and in the system of democracy and in the system of the economy, as well.

DUBNER: OK, so considering the fact that a lot of Americans don’t like politics very much, either the governance end or the electoral end, when there’s an election especially like this one going on, something it would seem needs to change. So, in keeping with the theme of this episode, what in your view is one idea, whether in politics or in governance, that needs to be spiked and why?

ROVE: Well, mine’s a preventive measure, not something that will improve the system; it will keep it from getting worse. And that is the idea that we ought to abolish the Electoral College. That needs to die.

Just to be clear: Rove thinks the idea that must die is the idea that the Electoral College should die. In other words, he thinks the Electoral College should live on.

ROVE: The Electoral College pushes us towards a two-party system and that thereby promotes stability by providing a barrier against multi-candidate races and the kind of disasters that we see democracies in Western Europe and elsewhere, where the electorate is fragmented by a multi-party system with a wide range of parties, some of them based around personalities, some of them based around regional interests, some of them based around ideological constructs, others of them based around a single issue, some of them based around simply the idea of blowing up the existing system.

Howard Dean, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, disagrees with Rove.

DEAN: The Electoral College is an anachronism that was created around the founding of the nation, because it was very hard to travel from one place to another. There was no telegraph; there was no telegram. And so, in order to elect the president, somehow you had to get the vote totals to a place that they could be counted. And the way the Founding Fathers devised it was that each state would have a number of electors that was proportional both to their Senate clout — which was equal by state — and to their population — which was the number of Congressmen. You add the number of senators and the number of Congressmen together, and that is the number of each state’s electors.

That, by the way, is still the case, although each state’s number of electors rises or falls over time as the state’s population rises or falls relative to other states.

DEAN: And so those people would gather several months after the presidential election, and they would elect the president. Now, that is not necessary anymore. Today, we have vote-counts that are almost instantaneous. Within 24 hours, with the exception of Bush vs. Gore, we knew who the next president of the United States was. So you don’t really need electors to all go and cast their votes. In fact, there’s some danger in it. Roy Neel, who was my third campaign manager, and very close to Al Gore, just wrote a wonderful book called The Electors. It’s a fantasy book about what happens when electors do what they damn well please. And there actually is no law that prevents them from doing that. So you could actually have a group of 535 electors meeting, and 15 of them could decide they weren’t going to vote the way the state told them to vote. So I just think it’s a 235-year institution that needs to be gotten rid of, because it’s doing more harm than good.

ROVE: I think the abolition of it would make these problems that we have of confidence and a sense of personal efficacy, worse. The Electoral College prevents, for example, presidents with a deeply minority vote. It keeps us from engaging in runoffs like we’ve seen recently in Austria and Italy and France that further scramble and weaken the two parties. It provides the winner a sense of a national mandate that helps the new president govern.  It forces both parties also to campaign in diverse states —  big states like Florida and Ohio, medium states like Colorado and Virginia, and small states like New Hampshire and Iowa, not just sort of big cities, big concentrations.

DUBNER: But it’s interesting to me in your support for continuing a two-party system and continuing to support the Electoral College, you’ve elsewhere been advocating for new and nimble businesses and technologies, for decentralization, things that give consumers a larger choice set, things that give people more ability to express heterogeneous preferences, right? So why is that good for consumers or for veterans who need medical care, but bad for voters?

ROVE: Well, because they’re two different things. In one, we’re trying to have something that garners the support of the country. In the other, we’re trying to satisfy the individual desires of consumers. You don’t need — to sell a good phone, you don’t need to get a 50 percent-plus one on the market share. If you want to win the presidency, you have to, in order to govern effectively. Parties are intensely different than our individual consumer choices. You may like your double macchiato with Madagascar cinnamon; I like a cup of decaf coffee. I mean, it’s—

DUBNER: How’d you know? How’d you know that’s what I like?

ROVE: Well, I’ve read the file on you, man. I’ve read the file. The National Security Agency, it’s amazing the amount of information they collect on you.

DUBNER: It sure is. Now let me ask you this: how much is your current view of the Electoral College and the value thereof influenced by the fact that you were the architect of President George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, including the contested 2000 election after which a lot of people changed their thinking about the Electoral College. How much did it change yours?

ROVE: It didn’t. It did create the number-two thing I would have on my list of practices that we ought to stop, and that is exit polls in which the data is collected and made available to the media before the polls close across the country. If you take a look, and remember 2000, there were erroneous exit polls that suggested that Al Gore was going to sweep the election and that he was going to carry Florida by a wide margin. And this colored all the coverage. So you’ll remember, the networks all declared Florida relatively early. In fact, they declared Florida in Gore’s column while Florida was still voting, because Florida is split between two time zones and the heavily Republican panhandle, which is in the central time zone, was still voting when they declared that Florida was going to be won by Al Gore.

That Florida call was shortly rescinded.

MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “Pocket Watch Chain Gang” (from Download, Dig It Or Die)

ROVE: Now why did this matter? Draw a line across the country. To the east of that line are the states whose polling had closed when the media announced that the election was now in effect over, that Al Gore had won Florida. And to the west of it are the states where voting is still going on. And you’ll notice something. The turnout in the states to the east of that line whose polling had closed before the networks made their erroneous call, turnout in those states increases generally compared to 1996. Take a look at the states to the west of that line. Those states, turn out generally, almost in every instance, does not increase from 1996 but drops. And why? I remember sitting in the headquarters here in Austin, Texas and we got a call from our California chairman.  And he said, “I don’t know what to do.” He said, “I’m getting phone calls. Everybody’s watching the television on our phone banks and they’ve seen the networks call it for Gore and they’re getting out of the phone banks and going home. People are getting out of the voting lines because they’ve heard Bush has lost Florida and the election’s over. What do I do?” So my second idea to abolish would be to say you can do these exit polls, but the exit poll data cannot be collected and aggregated until the country’s polls have been closed. Use it to explain what happened in the election, don’t use it to color the coverage.

That’s our show today, thanks for listening. Maybe it’s given you a few new things to think about during this very long and very trying election season. For what it’s worth: if you feel an urge to quit paying attention already to the Presidential election, you are not alone. A recent Pew survey found that, with four months still to go until the election, six in 10 Americans were already “worn out by so much coverage.”

I hope this episode hasn’t worn you out even further. Whatever the case: let us know what you think about this or any episode. You can find us on Twitter and Facebook; you can leave comments on the Freakonomics Radio page on iTunes, where you can also subscribe to this podcast. You can write to us at radio@freakonomics.com. And be sure to listen for our show on public-radio stations across the country. If your station doesn’t carry it yet – well, there’s a cause worthy of your political activism. Make it happen.  

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. The rest of our staff includes Arwa Gunja Jay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Christopher Werth, Caitlin Pierce, Alison Hockenberry, Jolenta Greenberg and Emma Morgenstern. Our intern is Harry Huggins.

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Tallboy 7, “Retro Game Show”
Emlyn Ellis Addison, “Toward A New America” (from Melodies for Relaxation, Yoga And Meditation)
Fullscore, “Evil Military March”
Additional scoring by J. Cowit

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


  • Olympia Snowe, former U.S. Senator and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Howard Dean, former Governor of Vermont and former chairman of the Democratic National Committee
  • Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote
  • Joaquin Castro, U.S. Congressman from Texas
  • Norman Ornstein, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
  • Eric Posner, Professor at University of Chicago Law School
  • Bruce Ackerman, Professor at Yale Law School
  • Sanford Levinson, Professor at University of Texas at Austin
  • Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor and Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania
  • Karl Rove, Political commentator and former senior advisor and deputy White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush