The Current Electoral College is Like the World Series (Which is Why We Need to Change It)

by Devin McCarthy // Published July 2, 2012




Defending the current structure of the Electoral College is a difficult task. The winner-take-all method--in which states allocate all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate carries the state--is still used by the vast majority of states today. Its apologists, struggling to make this outdated and unfair system appealing to Americans, have tried to make it seem quintessentially American by comparing it to the most quintessentially American thing possible: baseball's World Series. This analogy, introduced by MIT researcher Alan Natapoff in the 1990s and widely circulated after the controversial presidential election of 2000, is still commonly cited today as a defense of a winner-take-all Electoral College. It should not be. If anything, comparing these two American institutions perfectly illustrates we why we need to get rid of the winner-take-all Electoral College rules and establish a fairer system of electing the president based on a national popular vote.

The basic argument goes like this. The World Series is divided into seven games. The winner of the World Series is the team that wins four out of the seven games, not the team that scores the most aggregate runs over the course of the series. Likewise, the winner of the Electoral College is the candidate that wins the majority of electoral votes through winning states, not the candidate that receives the most aggregate votes in the total population.

In both cases, teams or candidates must concentrate on the close games or states in order to win. A team would not waste its best relief pitcher in a blowout game; similarly, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are not going to waste any of their time and money campaigning in blowout states like Texas, New York, Vermont, Idaho, and dozens of others. The analogy works so far. In terms of structure and strategy, current Electoral College rules and the World Series share some similarities.

Every true-blooded American loves the World Series. Does that mean that, since it's structurally similar to the Electoral College, every true-blooded American should love our winner-take-all Electoral College as well?

Of course not. The argument falls apart when you stop to consider the purpose of these two competitions. The World Series exists to crown the champion of baseball in each year. But as any baseball scholar knows, the World Series is a terrible means of determining what the best baseball team in a given year actually is. It's a seven game series--in baseball terms, a tiny sample size. In any World Series, there is always a significant chance (usually at least 40%) that the inferior team will defeat the superior team.

So how do baseball analysts determine who is really the best team, if not by the winner of the World Series? Fortunately, baseball has a 162 game regular season--a much larger sample size, and thus a much better way of evaluating team effectiveness. Even regular season records are subject to the vagaries of chance, however. In order to more accurately determine the skill level of each team and predict their ability to succeed in the future, analysts look at a team's total number of runs scored and runs allowed. As the famous baseball statistical pioneer Bill James discovered, using the difference between these two numbers is a much better indicator of a baseball team's future success than their win-loss record.

Since there is now a general consensus that run differential over a season is a far better indicator of a team's skill than their performance in a seven game series, why don't we just pick the champion of each season based on that statistic and forgo the World Series entirely? Because that would be really boring. The World Series is a fittingly exciting and climactic way to end the baseball season.

Take last season, for instance. Game 6, bottom of the 9th, two outs. The Texas Rangers are one strike away from beating the St. Louis Cardinals and winning it all. The whole season comes down to one pitch from Neftali Feliz to David Freese. It's a deep fly ball to right field--if it's caught, the Rangers win. If not, the Cardinals tie the game and stay alive. Nelson Cruz comes within inches of catching it, but his outstretched glove falls just short of the ball. The Cardinals win the Series the following night.

High drama. Were the Cardinals the best team in 2011? No, they were the NL Wild Card team--they had the worst regular season record of any team in the playoffs, and only the eighth best run differential in baseball. They got hot at the right time and got lucky that Cruz wasn't standing a couple steps to his left when Freese hit that fateful fly ball. Texas, by contrast, not only won more games than the Cardinals in the regular season but had a run differential that bested that of St. Louis by over 100 runs.

Now, back to the Electoral College. Having winner-take-all rules by states does, admittedly, make for a more exciting election night, even if the outcome of most states is predetermined. Waiting for CNN to play dramatic music and flash the word PROJECTION on the screen every time they're ready to call a new state is fun to watch. It probably gets them better ratings than a popular vote election would.

But the purpose of presidential elections should not be entertainment on election night. Under the current Electoral College rules, the candidate who is lucky enough to win the right combination of swing states can defeat the better candidate--the one who actually won more votes. Just like the Cardinals defeated the superior Rangers.

We accept the outcome of the World Series because we all like October drama. I, for one, love the World Series, and would be loath to see it go. Electing the president of our nation, however, is more important than baseball. We can't leave that up to chance. We have to get it right, and choose the person who most Americans think will be the better president.

Furthermore, it's one thing to throw your worst pitcher out there for mop-up duty in a blowout; say, game 3 of last year's World Series, which the Cardinals won 16-7. It made sense for Texas to bring out the mediocre Mike Gonzalez to get hammered rather than waste their star closer Neftali Feliz on a game that was too lopsided to matter anymore. In a presidential election, though, it's not games that are getting ignored, it's entire states, filled with real people.

Texas is a lost cause for the Democrats in 2012, but that doesn't mean it deserves to have the horror of Mike Gonzalez inflicted on it. Texans, and millions of other Americans living in states that will not be contested this November, deserve the same quality pitching from the presidential candidates as the swing states. They deserve to be represented in the electoral process, rather than having their votes wasted in a blowout.

There are plenty of similarities between the Electoral College and the World Series. However, baseball's playoffs are structured to provide entertainment, not to determine the empirically best team. The presidential election should have a different purpose: allowing every American an equal say in choosing the leader that they think will best serve the people of the United States.

Totaling the runs scored and allowed of baseball teams tells you which team really played the best. Totaling the votes cast in a presidential election tells you which candidate really had the most voter support. After a World Series, the winner gets a trophy, and the season ends. After a presidential election, the president must lead the nation for four years. We need a system that will fairly produce the best leader as chosen by every American, not one that will give a trophy to someone who got lucky.

The Electoral College, as it currently functions, is similar to the World Series. That means it needs to be changed. The only connection between the president and the Fall Classic should be this: