(IPP Policy Brief n°60) Trapped by the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the United States Presidential Election Needs a Coordination Device

IPP Policy Brief n°60, October 2020

Authors: Héloïse Cloléry, Yukio Koriyama


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The system according to which the President of the United States of America is elected, the Electoral College, has often raised concerns. Among those, the winner-take-all rule is often criticized for potentially – and in recent years effectively – bringing to power a president who has not obtained the majority of the popular vote. This note shows that most of the reform proposals have failed due to the structure of the problem: the US Presidential Election is trapped by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Each state would rationally choose the winner-take-all rule in order to best reflect its citizens’ preferences on the federal decision. However, the outcome of such a choice, if adopted by all states, would not be desirable for the nation as a whole, because it prevents the optimal aggregation of all citizens’ preferences. A weighted proportional rule, if used by all states, would make all citizens better off by reflecting their preferences on the final decision more accurately. However, since each state has an incentive to adopt the winner-take-all rule regardless of the choice of the other states, it is impossible for all the states to adopt such a rule without a coordination device. We therefore analyze interesting attempts to escape from this dilemma, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, and how our framework applies to representative democracy.

Key Points

  • The winner-take-all rule has been used almost exclusively in the US presidential elections since the 1830s, but has been criticized for various reasons. One of these is the occasional discrepancy between the election winner and the national popular vote results (e.g. George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000, and Donald Trump vs. Hilary Clinton in 2016).
  • The structure of the problem can be described with a game-theoretic analysis, at least partially: the Electoral College system is trapped by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. States could benefit from cooperating, but they do not achieve this because each state does not have any guarantee that the other states would join a cooperative action.
  • A coordination device is necessary in order to escape from the dilemma. Some interesting attempts, such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, are underway.
  • The same structure of the dilemma appears in representative democracy. Party discipline may induce distortion of the preference aggregation and thus may be welfare-detrimental for the society.

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