Regis is doing well with his rehearsals for the BPI spring theatre production of The Gardener’s Lament. He spends hours each day working on his lines, which would interfere with his classes if BPI actually had any. It doesn’t interfere with his classes, but the play has interfered with his social life. His guirrel friend didn’t audition and quickly grew bored of sitting in the audience watching rehearsals. So she mostly goes out with their other friends in the evenings. Regis isn’t jealous, but he does miss having fun. Last night he offered a familiar university lament: “I wish I had more parties.”

“You sound like an election reform advocate,” I said.

Every four years, groups emerge or reemerge to rail against “the two party duopoly.”

The ideas sound good in theory, but theory and reality often don’t match up very well. For starters, consider research on the paradox of choice. It turns out that humans easily get baffled by lots of choices, especially when they have incomplete information about the alternatives. In fact, humans can get baffled enough to make choices that do not serve the interests they set out to accomplish. The more options in the mix, and the less clear the information, the more likely that people will not choose the option that best serves their stated interests. In decision theory terms, the two-party system serves a “satisficing” function, both narrowing the number of choices and offering imperfect but useful information shortcuts. For example, this …

… isn’t a complete answer, but it’s still a useful information shortcut.

But criticizing multi-party theory with decision theory – even decision theory backed by decades of research – is still … theoretical. A much clearer criticism lies in history and the Twelfth Amendment, which provides:

The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.

Translated from 19th century legalese, that means a candidate must win a majority of the Electoral College to be elected president. If no candidate wins a majority of the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chooses a president from among the top three candidates. Each state delegation gets one vote, and a candidate must win a majority of the states. So the House would choose the candidate whose party controls a majority of state delegations.

That actually happened once, in 1824. There were four candidates that year. Andrew Jackson won 41% of the popular vote and 11 states totaling 99 electoral votes. John Quincy Adams came in second, winning 31% of the popular vote and 7 states totaling 84 electoral votes. The other two candidates, Henry Clay and William Crawford, won 13% and 11% of the popular vote respectively. Each carried three states totaling 37 and 41 electoral votes, respectively.

No candidate came close to the 131 electoral votes needed for a majority, and on February 9th, 1825 – 187 years ago today – the House of Representatives voted as between Jackson, Adams, and Crawford, who finished fourth in the popular vote but third in the Electoral College. Of the 212 House members, 87 voted for Adams, 71 for Jackson, and 54 for Crawford. So no one won even a majority of the House voters. But, again, each state delegation gets one vote. Of the 25 states, Adams won 13 – a bare majority – while Jackson won 7 and Crawford 4.

Thus John Quincy Adams became our 6th president, despite winning less than one-third of the popular vote. Why did this bizarre outcome happen only once, in 1824?

Because apart from our first two elections, when George Washington was unopposed, 1824 was the only presidential election that did not have exactly two major parties. In 1824 the Federalist party had dissolved, leaving only the Democratic-Republican Party as a major force. All four candidates came from that party. By 1828, the Democratic-Republican Party had split into the Democratic Party and the National Republican Party. The Democratic Party has remained ever since. In 1833, the National Republican Party was replaced by the Whig Party, which in turn was replaced in 1857 by the Republican Party.

With two major parties, one or the other will almost certainly win an Electoral College majority, as has happened every four years since 1828. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton won a landslide 370 Electoral College votes, but only 41% of the popular vote. In 1996 President Clinton won 379 Electoral College votes, but again less than 50% of the popular vote. I needn’t mention 2000.

If you like the idea of the House of Representatives electing our president, then by all means join the chorus for a third party. But remember that Republicans hold majorities in 33 House delegations, so a third party candidate who carried even a handful of states would all but guarantee a Republican president.

In politics, as in college, “more parties” is not always a good thing.

Good day and good nuts.