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The Electoral College and Sports
Rick Garlikov

I have explained in "Constitutional Safeguards For Majority Rule" why 'simple' majority rule is not always fair, and about actual and potential mechanisms for trying to take into account majority interests while preventing them from becoming an unfair tyranny of the majority.  As explained in that essay, the bicameral nature of Congress, for example, is one way to try to prevent 51% of the people from controlling 100% of the laws.  The methods of amending the U.S. Constitution are another means.  The electoral college in the United States is also one of the mechanisms which can help do prevent tyranny of the majority by trying to make sure that it is not just simple majorities concentrated in highly populated voting blocs with the same self-interests based on common, particular circumstances which elect the President, but that the  choice is  the person more broadly voted for, and thus more broadly representative, as well.  This is not to say that the particular form of the electoral college is the best design for doing this, but I want to explain here that the concept involved is not as foreign or strange to us as the results of the 2000 and 2016 Presidential elections make it sound to many people when they argue, because their candidate won the popular vote but lost the electoral college and thus also lost the Presidency, that whoever receives the most total votes across the U.S. as a whole should be declared the winner of the Presidential election.  We take for granted many systems that are like the electoral college in a major area of social life -- sports -- without batting an eye about it, for the most part, except in certain anomalous situations.  What is sought is the fairest and most objective and precise, automatic way to determine winners of contests, whether in sports, elections, or legislative votes.  While the winner in sports competitions seems for the most part straightforward where objectively measurable results are involved, such as runs scored in baseball or points scored in football, and strokes in golf, as opposed to contests like Olympic diving or gymnastics (where judges decisions are more subjective and less precisely measurable), it is not as straightforward as it appears in any of the major sports.  And I am not talking about disputed calls or possible conflicting or inadequate rules in sports when anomalous situations arise where adherence to the (letter of the) rules clearly violates the spirit of them and the game they are meant to define (such as in Dean Smith's University of North Carolina basketball team's "Four Corner Offense" that essentially turned basketball games into games of "Keep-Away" in a way different from the early period of basketball where games were low-scoring because of patient offenses trying to score, not just trying to run time off the clock).

What I want to point out is that what determines the winner of, say, a baseball or football game is not the same thing that determines the winner of a division title or a championship in the sport.  In football, the winner of the game is the team that scores more points, but the winner of the championship is not necessarily the team that scores the most points in the season.  Similarly with baseball in regard to runs.  Tennis is particularly convoluted in this way, but it is not the only sport that determines winners (particularly of championships) by some means other than the most total points (or runs in baseball) scored, or by the fewest total strokes in golf.  Medal play tournament golf (explained below) is about the only major sport that does determine championships by fewest or most of whatever measure normally determines winners of individual games or contests.  And that is different from match play golf (also explained below), which is more like the other sports and the electoral college.  All this will be clear shortly.

Notice that in a baseball game, as just pointed out, the team that scores the most runs wins the game, and in a football game the team that scores the most points wins.  But the winners of the World Series or the Super Bowl are not necessarily the teams that scored the most runs or points during the season, or even during the World Series or the playoffs in either baseball or football.  It is not even necessarily the team that outscores its opponents by the most points or (what amounts to the same thing) has the highest runs scored to runs given up ratio.  The team that wins a football championship is not necessarily the team that scores the most points or has the highest point differential total against opponents over the entire season.  A baseball team that wins every regular season game (162 games, as of this writing), say, 1-0, will outscore its opponents 162-0 during the season and will win all its regular season games and its division title, but a team that wins half its games 10 - 0, and loses the other half 1-0 will outscore its opponents 810 - 81, a difference of 729 runs and yet only have a '.500' season that will not likely earn it any title or playoff spot.  In baseball and football, it is not the number of runs or points you score, but the number of games you win that matter during the regular season.  And nobody ever says the team that outscored its opponents 810-81 over the season should have been the winner of the championship because they scored the most runs or outscored all their opponents by the most runs collectively.  Even though they did that, they did not win the most games during the season. 

Medal play golf (the currently normal way of playing the four major professional golf championships and most weekly professional U.S. pro tour tournaments) is one of the few sports where the winner of a championship is determined by overall strokes during the period of play rather than, as in match play, the most matches won by winning the most holes won against a particular opponent during a particular match.  In medal play golf, a high score on one or two bad holes for you adds to your overall stroke total for the tournament and can cost you the tournament.  But in match play golf, if you were to tie your opponent on 15 holes, and lose one hole by 6 strokes because you had a whole lot of trouble on that hole, but win two holes by one stroke each, you win that match -- because you won more holes than your opponent, even if s/he had a lower overall score for the round.  In match play, it is not about who played the whole course better that day, it is about who played the most holes better on the course.  If baseball games were played like match play golf, the team that wins a baseball game would not be the team with the most runs at the end of the game, but the team that won the most innings during the game.  E.g., if you outscore your opponent by 1 run in each of five innings, it wouldn't matter how many runs they score or how few you score in the four innings they win.  You could be outscored 40 - 5 in the game (if you won your five innings each 1-0, and lost the other four innings each 10-0).  In fact, if baseball were played that way, if at any time during the game either team gets ahead by more innings won than are left to play for the other team to catch up, the game would be over.  Match play golf matches end before all scheduled holes are played if one player gets ahead by more holes than are left for the other play to win to catch up.  Matches in match play golf often end when players are 3 'up' (3 holes ahead) with 2 to go, or they end "5 and 4", or "2 and 1", where the first number indicates the greater number of holes already won and the second number indicates the number of scheduled holes left to play in the round.  In baseball and football, teams "clinch" a division championship or place in the playoffs prior to the end of the season at any point they become more games ahead of all other teams than are left in the schedule for those teams to win, and it doesn't matter that they might outscore their opponents in the remaining games by a great many points/runs.  Similarly a series is clinched and over, when one team wins the majority of the games scheduled for the series.  During the regular season, the remaining games are played anyway, but not during the playoffs.  If it is a best of 5 series, then the series is over when one team wins 3 games; a best of seven series is over when one team wins 4 games.  The only time either series plays all originally scheduled games is when neither team has won more than half the scheduled games before the last scheduled game is played.
So, in baseball and football, the team with the most runs/points wins the game, but it is the team that wins the most games, regardless of who scored the most runs or points for the season, that wins the division championship and gets into the playoffs.  And that is not considered odd in the way that winning the most electoral votes is instead of the most popular votes.  In Presidential elections, the popular vote determines the winning electors, but it is the winning electors who determine the President.  Championships in football and baseball are determined by winning the most games (during particular periods -- during the regular season for one period, and each playoff round for a different period, etc.), not scoring the most overall points or winning the most overall innings or quarters.  One commentator who thought the electoral college system was unfair used as a reason that even if you lose a large state by just one vote, all the votes for you in that state -- possibly millions and millions of votes -- do not then count at all for you in the general election.  That is true, but is not necessarily unfair any more than it is unfair that none of the runs you score in any losing game in baseball count toward your standings in the race for the division championship.  The games are counted once decided by the runs, but the runs themselves no longer count for anything after that.  In football, if two teams were to tie for a playoff spot, and they each won the same number of games in the season and in their division, and they each won one of the two games they played against each other, the playoff spot could be determined by which team had the most points combined in the two games they played each other.  But in baseball, there would be a single playoff game between the two tied teams, just after the end of the regular season to determine the playoff spot.

Tennis has one of the more unusual or complex forms of what it takes to win a championship.  It is not the most points scored in a tournament, not the most games won, not the most sets won, but the most matches won.  In fact, tennis is structured in such a way that it has been said to win a tournament you only need to win the last point of the tournament (in your division).  (Volleyball and table tennis have that feature too, as does any sport/game where the first person or team to a certain score wins.) Of course, to win the last point of a tennis tournament or volleyball tournament, you have to win a lot of other points, but ....  To win a tennis match, you need to be the first person to win either 2 sets in a  3-set match or 3 sets in a 5-set match.  To win a set, you need to be the first person to win six or more games in the set by a margin of two games (or win a tie-break game by at least two points).  To win a game you need to be the first to win four points by a margin of two points in the game.  If you win six games in a set by scoring four points to your opponents two points, and your opponent wins four games in that set without you winning any points in those games, you will have won the set and scored 24 points (i.e. 6 games x 4 points/game), but your opponent will have scored 12  points in his/her 6 lost games (2 points/game x 6 games) and 16 points in his/her 4 won games (four points x 4 games), for a total of 28 points in the set, four more points than you scored, though they lost to you. 

The men's singles championship match in the 2019 Wimbledon tennis tournament is an example of this.  Novak Djokovic won three of five sets, all in tie breakers, therefore winning the match and thus the championship.  But in almost all ways he was outscored by Roger Federer, according to the information in black in the chart below from a Google search of the men's singles finals, a chart for which I cannot find the URL.  That chart shows the ways Federer outscored him, though to no avail.  Federer won more points and more games, but Djokovic won more crucial points and games.  This is one example of the logical equivalent of gerrymandering in sports.  And it is not unfair:

FinalยทCenter Court Wimbledon 2019 Mens' Singles
1N. Djokovic
2R. Federer

10Aces26Federer had 16 more aces
9Double faults6Federer had 3 fewer double faults
61%First serve %65%Federer got in a higher percentage of his first serves and
74%Win % on 1st serve78%won a higher percentage of  points on them
56%Win % on 2nd serve56%
Break points
Federer won 4 more break points
3Tiebreaks won0
64Receiving points won79Federer won 15 more points receiving serve
204Points won218Federer won 14 more points overall during the match
32Games won36Federer won 4 more whole games during the match
3Max games won in a row4Federer won more games in a row
7Max points won in a row8Federer won more points in a row
140Service points won139Federer lost only one more service point
26Service games won29Federer won 3 more service games

Fairness/Unfairness in Determining Sports Champions
For the most part the system for determining champions in sports, particularly professional sports, goes unquestioned and is thought to be fair.  That is particularly true when seasons allow for everyone's playing each other sufficient times to make the winner of the most games significant.  In college football, there are far too many teams to play each other, and the teams that win the most games may just be those with the weakest opponents in their schedule. That doesn't allow a champion to be determined objectively by who won the most games with everyone having played everyone else an equal number of times.  Therefore a system is used that involves judgment about which team was the best during the season, and that has caused various controversies over the years.  Currently the NCAA football championship is decided by a two-game playoff system where two pairs of teams play semi-final games and then the winners of those two games play each other for the championship.  That allows the top four ranked teams to play in the combination of #1 playing number #4 in one semi-final and #2 playing #3 in the other semi-final.  In the past, national champions might not have played any of the teams ranked just lower than them, and were determined by how well coaches or sports writers thought they would have done against each other or which team was just judged/guessed to be the strongest by the most coaches or sports writers.  That was often considered unfair because they didn't necessarily play each other or the same opponents.  The current system at least lets the four teams judged to be the best during the regular season play for the championship, but again there are some problems: 1) they don't play each other in a round-robin format, so it is possible that the strongest team overall might not get into the finals because they happen to lose the semi-final game.
When the number four team, for example, wins a short playoff series (i.e., two games), it does tend to cast a shadow on the idea that the national champion is the best team, rather than the team that just got hot at the right time -- depending on how they win those two games.  If they dominate and blowout both opponents who each play up to their capabilities, that gives them a stronger claim on the championship than if they happen to eke out victories against teams who seem to be having bad days compared with their usual performances.  Single elimination tournaments/contests have that problem in general, as do any short-series, such as best two out of three, where the team wins that was considered to be the usually weaker one.  2) In some cases, what many people might be considered the two strongest teams of the four play each other in the semi-final, making the final (i.e., the championship) game anti-climactic or at least less interesting even if the lower ranked team wins.  And 3) there are sometimes disputes as to which teams should be considered the top four in the first place. 

But the point is that no matter how football and baseball championships are decided, it is not by total points/runs or point/run differentials during an entire season, but by individual victories which are based on most points or runs.  In the electoral college, the most votes in each state determine the winner of state
(except for two states at the current time that divide electors proportionally to the popular vote in the state).  However the number of votes each state then casts for President is in proportion to its population size (meaning larger states have more electors and cast more votes for the candidate who won that state).  To be elected President, a candidate has to win the majority of votes cast by the states, or the election goes to the House of Representatives where a different method is used to determine the winner -- based on the number of states won, as determined by the majority of the members of Congress from each state.  So again, it is not the most individual member of Congress votes, but the most states.   That means that California and Rhode Island are equal in this round, even though the population of California is much larger and even though they have many more members of Congress, and even though they were far from equal in the general election or the electoral college. 

While all this sounds convoluted with regard to Presidential election, there are reasons for it, or should be.  Whether those reasons hold up or not, I am only trying to point out that the concepts are not all that alien to us, because sports does the same sort of thing, and in various different ways, depending on the sport or the league.  And notice that some games in some sports are determined by who has the most points at the end of a given time period (as in football and basketball); some are determined by who has the most points at the end of a different way of determining what the end is -- as in baseball, where an inning is of no definite time, but requires three outs to be made, and the winner of the game is the one that is ahead when the requisite number of innings are over; and some are determined by the first team to score a particular number of points (usually by a particular margin) as in volleyball or table tennis.  Notice that college and pro football considers the end of the game to be when one is team ahead at the end of regulation time, but if they are tied then, the winner will be the first to score in overtime (in the pros) or the one who who has the most points at the end of equal number of possessions (in the NCAA).

One reason (and perhaps the main one) behind counting the most games won in a season rather than the most runs/points scored is that games are played under the same conditions between the two teams.  Two teams playing in terrible weather conditions might not score as many runs/points as two teams playing in ideal conditions.  Or in baseball parks, more runs may be scored in smaller parks than in ones with more distant fences.  That would give a team with a smaller park an unfair advantage in scoring runs over a season, but not an advantage of scoring the most runs during a particular game.   Medal and match play tournaments in golf show the differnce most clearly when wind and/or rain and/or temperature, humidity, ground dampness conditions change a lot during the day.  In medal play, the players whose rounds occur during the better conditions have an unfair advantage over those whose rounds occur during worse conditions for playing well.  But that problem is eliminated in match play, because both players are playing the same holes at the same time under, normally, the same conditions.  It is, of course, possible the odd gust of wind might arise during one player's shot and not another's on a given hole, but for the most part that doesn't happen and both are equally susceptible to its occurrence; one will not be playing at a time of day with dried out firm greens while the other is playing with soft, wet ones that hold a shot better.

As pointed out before, match play tournaments -- as in tennis, or in playoff rounds of baseball, basketball, and football -- seem to be fair, except when a clearly weaker player or team has a good and victorious day against a normally stronger player or team playing subpar early in the tournament and skews the brackets for the later rounds.  When it is games that matter rather than total points for the tournament, fans tend to want to see the best or at least near best two players in the championship game or series, not someone who is there because the better players in his/her bracket or division were beaten on bad days.  Also, in sports like football and baseball, where leagues or divisions are permanent and perennial, there can be long periods of time where one division or league is far weaker than the other, and the champion of the weaker
division/league/bracket might not be nearly as good as a lower place finisher in a stronger division/league/bracket.  That can cause fans to lose interest in championship rounds because they feel the best teams are not going to play (each other) for the championship.  That is the impetus behind "wild card" playoff slots -- to potentially allow second place teams in stronger divisions/leagues to have a chance to defeat the champions of a weaker division or league and advance in the playoffs.  The problem with that, of course, is that you then can have a team playing in a championship game or series against the team that has already proved to be better than it during the regular season.  When that happens, particularly if the second place team wins the championship, it just reinforces the point that the championship is not really a "season" championship or crowning of the best team for the season but the playoff or series championship that recognizes the best team of the playoffs or series. 

Medal play golf eliminates that problem because the leaders of the last round can all lose the tournament by having poorer rounds and poorer overall tournament scores than players who were not playing quite as well the first three days; and in fact, it is often the case that a normally weaker player leading a golf tournament going into the last round will not be able to hold the lead and win.  But that also means a player with a losing score might have just had one or two bad holes while otherwise playing better than everyone else on all the other holes.  In the 2009 British Open, for example, Tom Watson, playing with a replaced hip and then two months shy of being 60 years old, led the tournament for 71 of the 72 holes, and only had to par the last hole to win.  He put his approach shot right onto the green in what seemed to be a perfect shot, but the green did not hold it, and the ball went off the back edge into high grass.  Watson bogeyed the hole to send the tournament into a playoff which he lost.  It broke a lot of hearts and in some ways seemed unfair, though, it wasn't, given the rules of the tournament.  But in that case the rules seemed unfair -- particularly having to go into the playoff immediately after the round and that one bad hole that cost him the victory instead of the next day, as some tournament playoffs are.
What is interesting is that while all these different ways of determining champions or winners of games can be different, all seem fair, because they are the same for everyone and because they seem to meet the spirit of the game, except for when some anomaly occurs that allows the seemingly much weaker player or team to defeat the stronger one because of some circumstance that seems to thwart the format for trying to determine the best player or team.  We have intuitions about which players/teams are best and should win, and we have various formats we think are fair to show that in some objective way.  It is only when problems arise that make the two conflict, particularly over a number of seasons or tournaments, that we tend to change the format for reasons of fairness.  We also change the formats when, though the previous format was fair, it diminishes fan interest -- as when pro football went to sudden death instead of a whole other quarter between exhausted teams, or when tennis went from having a tied 6-6 set go to the first player to win by two games, which could last a whole other day, to playing shorter tie-breakers that had a different format from how games were played during a set.  And we change formats or create formats in the first place, for determining winners of games or championships whenever a good reason can be shown as to why a particular existing format or original format under discussion is theoretically unfair and perhaps likely to cause winners not to be seen to be the most deserving players or teams in general.

Bringing this back to the electoral college, if there are some specific reasons to believe it allows inferior candidates to win unfairly and/or regularly, it should be changed to a system that is more fair, but that intended fairer system cannot just be to go by the simple majority popular vote because that will too easily allow a majority bloc to always win and to tyrannize the numerical minority.  As pointed out in the essay linked above, whatever system is used, to be fair it must try to prevent tyranny of the majority.

The best way to do that is to devise a system, as I think the founding fathers thought they may have done, that forces government officials, and those seeking elected government offices, to propose or create programs and laws that have the broadest appeal to the most people and to the most groups of people as distinguished by any particular characteristic whether race, gender, urban/rural, small/large city/state, age, ethnicity, religion, economic class, etc, so that no group or person feels they didn't have a fair chance to elect the people they want or have the laws and programs they think best.  As John F. Kennedy told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 Presidential campaign in trying to explain that his religion (Catholicism) should not be a reason against voting for him (no Catholic had ever won the Presidency, and there was great fear that a Catholic President would be controlled by the Vatican or favor Catholic policies), "If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole Nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people."

Now theoretically it is reasonable that laws and programs could be devised that meet the best interests of the most possible people (not a majority, but the most possible people in the group) in a cooperative enterprise, rather than simply winning majorities in whatever system by dividing and conquering.  If, for example, some law or program would be best for 98% of the people would be fair to everyone and another program would be best only for 51% of the people and/or unfair to the others, the former program would be the right one and it would be an unreasonable equivocation to consider or claim that both programs benefit the most people just because both benefit majorities.  Majorities do not constitute "the most people" in the same sense as constituting "the most possible people".  A majority of 82% is larger than a majority of 51% of the same group.  And what governance (and therefore politics) should be about ideally is doing what is best and fairest for the largest possible majority, not just the easiest and/or smallest majority the candidate or party can likely win.  The latter is divisive politics, not inclusive politics.  And we should be geared to seeking the most inclusive politics -- governance that is best and fairest for the most possible citizens, not just the policies best for any simple majority of citizens, no matter how small a majority. 

There could be ways to do that, though possibly not through formal mechanisms, which, as will be explained, are subject to gaming by unscrupulous people in a community who confuses formal systems with best, or the only good, practices.  But there are better ways to do things usually.  For example, if people are considered two hands to help rather than just individual mouths to feed, it should be obvious that helping people succeed economically should offer everyone more than it costs them -- if the people you help succeed add new or different contributions rather than replacing and displacing someone else already making a contribution.  And for example, farmers seem to operate by a kind of unwritten code of brotherhood whereby when farmers in part of the country suffer a hardship, they are helped by farmers in another part -- perhaps sending extra hay for the cattle of those experiencing drought or snow whose cattle would otherwise starve or wither.  Those who send the hay know that if they were in need, the others would help them if they could.  It is a system of mutual trust and mutual assistance, and in a sense an informal system of mutual insurance, not one of just pure competition in a zero-sum game that has to have losers to have winners. 

Another example would be better players on a team sport helping other players to improve their skills, instead of just competing against them for a given position.  Clearly, helping everyone on your team improve gives you a better chance for having a winning team and season.  On the off-chance you help another player improve so much, that player replaces you in the line-up, then 1) that is still good for you as a member of a better team, but 2) it should also help you earn some sort of reward as a great teacher and essentially assistant coach, so that it helps you personally instead of being a case of self-sacrificing martyrdom.  I understand life doesn't always work in the fair and best way and that you need to take that into account, but it is a goal we should strive for so that good people are rewarded or at least not penalized for helping others improve their skills and lot in life.  Unfortunately, politics and even governance

Theoretically in a fair and great economic system, everyone can and should be a winner.  (For a long and full explanation of this, see my Ethical and Philosophical Foundations of Economics). We can certainly do better than we do now, and in times of emergency we often do -- at least many people do (see "The Intersection of Ethics and Economics)."  One way to improve the system is to adopt the perspective, principles, and behaviors for normal circumstances that we generally (except for greedy looters or other criminals) already have in emergencies and natural disasters.

Another way to see the benefits of cooperation as opposed to just competition is the idea of parity in major league sports, whereby the more chance each team has to win a championship, the more fans are attracted to the sport in more cities.  So it is in each team's best interest financially overall to have the sport and league be the strongest it can be, even if it means that no team can dominate.  This is a form of what is often called "enlightened" self-interest as opposed to short-sighted or short-term self-interest.  Pete Rose expressed and exemplified the concept in one of the most competitive situations, showing that competition and cooperation were not mutually exclusive.  In the 1975 World Series in Major League Baseball, the Boston Red Sox defeated the Cincinnati Reds in game 6 of the series to send it into a deciding game 7.  The game was one of the most tense and exciting games in World Series history, going into extra innings and having a great many game-saving, "heroic" plays made by each team until Carlton Fisk's twelfth-inning game-winning home run, in which he, as Doris Kearns Goodwin said, not only hit the ball over the fence but "willed it" to be fair, as was seen in the instant replay afterward where as soon as he hit the ball and saw where it was going, started motioning for it to move to the right to stay or move into fair territory, as it just barely did.  That prevented Cincinnati from closing out the series in game 6.  Pete Rose was interviewed before game 7 and asked whether that loss wasn't just totally demoralizing in a way that might then make it difficult for the Reds to play and win game 7.  Rose, with his usual dynamic enthusiasm, said essentially no, that just being a part of one of the greatest World Series games ever played was so exciting it just energized you to want to go out and play again and try to top that.  Competition, even in losing, produced something better than just losing.  The Reds won game 7 and the World Series, and had Rose said what he did after game 7, it could have been dismissed as just hypocritically, self-serving lies to appear gracious, knowing that the loss in game 6 didn't matter, in the sense of costing them the Series, in the end.  But since he said it prior to the game, it seemed to really represent his true belief and attitude. 

In The Inner Game of Tennis, author W. Timothy Gallwey points out that in playing tennis, you want to win by outplaying your opponent at his best, not winning by default because he has a heart attack on the court.  Jimmy Connors -- certainly one of the most competitive athletes ever to play sports, as was Pete Rose -- brought this to life in  a rematch with Manuel Orantes that was privately sponsored with a million dollar purse for the winner.  Orantes had defeated Connors in the 1975 U.S. Tennis Open for the title, even though Connors had played one of the best games of his life and Orantes simply had played unbelievably, chasing down and hitting back almost every shot, no matter where Connors placed it or how hard he had hit it.  You couldn't watch the match without thinking that Orantes couldn't possibly keep it up, but that he did.  At the end, during the championship presentation Connors expressed, not disappointment in defeat as much as simply awe for what he had experienced on the other side of the net.  During the rematch Orantes suffered a severe leg cramp, and a trainer worked on trying to rub it out.  When the umpire said there was a time-limit before the match would be forfeited to Connors, Connors went over and started trying to frantically massage out Orantes' cramp himself, while pleading with the umpire to ignore the normal default rule since this was a private match, and give Orantes whatever time he needed to get over the cramp.  Connors did not want to win by default, even a million dollars.  The competition was meant as a collaborative effort to bring out the best in both players, not just see who could win (by luck or happenstance that had nothing to do with good play).

Unfortunately once any system is in place, it can possibly be 'gamed' in a way that turns it unfair in the sense of bypassing its intent.  Not everyone understands what Pete Rose and Jimmy Connors understood.  'Gaming the system' works against making the system function at its best to get the best result for everyone.   And it is difficult to prevent a 'gaming' (winning-by-any-means within stated rules) attitude when competition is considered to be about rule-oriented, legalistic self-interest alone and greedily getting the most one legalistically can instead of a getting or trying to get a fair distribution of, and for, what one contributes to creating.   For example, until Dean Smith invented the Four Corners Offense, a shot clock in basketball was not thought necessary.  The shot clock remedied that problem, but had the bad side effect of harming, minimizing, or eliminating offences that relied on patience and overall ball-handling skill to get optimal shots, particularly against strong defenses, rather than individual shooting ability, which is perhaps not the most or only interesting aspect of basketball.  Imagine football putting a shot clock, rather than downs, on possessions.  Football, of course, has a shot-clock between plays, but not during play, other than when a team has to race the game clock to be able to score sufficient points to tie or win a game.  But would you really want a whole football game to be merely a succession of essentially what would be frenetic "two-minute drills"?  Maybe, but not likely.  Even "hurry up" offenses in football are not meant to make individual plays shorter, but to speed up the flow of the game, giving a strong offense more chances to score, not just to score more quickly.  They don't shorten the time of each play but shorten the time between plays and they allow for more plays to be run, even if the plays themselves take longer to develop.  Sports has a sense of both fairness and worthwhile goal (worthwhile and interesting for both players and spectators) that the formal rules try to capture and make objective and clear.  Gaming the rules by simply exploiting them defies that sense of fairness, and sometimes the sense of value of the game or its goals -- as the Four Corners Offense did -- in a way most people see and realize is wrong, and then try to remedy with new or amended rules. 

But it is very difficult to capture the spirit of a game and our unconscious understanding of fairness by means of rules in formal systems.  That is made even more difficult when rules are thought to be important on their own and a system is co-opted and corrupted by gamers who then simply exploit the rules for their own advantage and argue they are not doing anything wrong, because they are following the rules.  So we end up with formal, rule-governed  institutions, taken over by gamers, as has been done in Congress and Wall Street which  don't really achieve in a fair way all we want from them, even though the rules were originally intended to facilitate their doing that.  When there is a disconnect between the rules of an activity and its spirit, the rules need to be modified to make them better capture the intended spirit, but that is difficult when a rule-governed system is taken over by gamers who think the explicit wording or 'letter' of the rules are more important than the principles, ideas, or spirit they are meant to capture, and who then simply exploit that wording of the rules for their personal gain, arguing that rules are meant to be, and need to be, followed simply as stated.

The electoral system has all these problems and can be gamed, as can be a system based on popular vote.  It is really difficult to formalize fairness, and it is far more difficult when people who run the system are not seeking fairness, but simply seeking the most advantageous ways to exploit any rules. That is in fact what tends to happen in some elections, particularly where the electorate is polarized and candidates try to win just the most electors or the most popular votes of whichever bloc they can get to vote in larger numbers for their proposals (some of which are even intentional equivocations or lies) instead of trying to devise programs that satisfy both or all blocs or categories of voters.  Instead of trying to get the most votes most broadly distributed by devising policies and programs that will benefit the most possible people, candidates and parties will concentrate on just trying to get the simplest majorities that will let them win in whichever system is in place -- electoral college or popular vote.   If the 2016 Presidential election had been based on popular vote, Secretary Clinton could have won by totally ignoring the voters who felt her party was already ignoring them and who felt that they had at least hope for help from Mr. Trump and his proposals.  Had either candidate known for sure which states and their electoral votes they needed and could win, they could have ignored the states that were either "safe" for them or "lost" to them no matter what they said.  That is in fact what tends to happen in elections based on either popular or district voting.  And that is the impetus behind gerrymandering districts into safe or lost ones, where the majority party in the legislature doing the gerrymandering hopes to create a majority of safe districts for their own party.  These practices divide the electorate and then try to prey on the divisions, rather than trying to unite the electorate with plans and programs that gain the most support most widely spread among all segments of the population.

Moreover, under the current electoral college system, it is possible for eleven states out of the fifty to elect the President regardless of what people in the other 39 states might want, even if all of them wanted the other candidate.  At the current time a candidate needs 270 electoral votes and the following eleven states currently have a total of 270 votes:

California: 55
Texas: 38
Florida: 29
New York: 29
Illinois: 20
Pennsylvania: 20
Ohio: 18
Georgia: 16
Michigan: 16
North Carolina: 15
New Jersey: 14

What keeps that from happening and being a serious problem is that these states have diverse enough populations with diverse enough needs and interests that, as politics now occurs, it is highly unlikely that anyone will appeal to all eleven of these states (especially without also likely appealing to most voters in most other states also).  So it is not the formal mechanism that keeps these eleven states from electing the President regardless of what other residents of other states want or need, but their own diverse needs and interests which will not likely coincide for the same candidate or party.  If it were possible to successfully woo and win (the majority of voters in each of) these states, however, without winning the majority of voters in other states, then the electoral college system really would be unfair, and would be seen to be that way by probably most people, and would need to be changed.  But as it stands now, the system, though sometimes giving what seem to be unfair results to some when the popular vote and the electoral college vote do not line up, is difficult to amend in a way that is not just an ad hoc way of changing the result, and just being unfair in a different way.

[By the way, if sufficient voters for one party moved from states where their votes did not matter to make a majority of their party's voters in these eleven states, that would also allow their party to win the Presidency no matter how the other states voted.  Or in general, whenever a party has a sufficient popular majority, but loses the electoral college vote, if sufficient voters for that party moved from states where their votes did not matter, to swing states where they did, that would also turn the electoral college in the favor of their party's candidate.  E.g., in the 2016 Presidential election, Hillary Clinton had 2.8 million more popular votes than Donald Trump.  If a relatively small fraction of those 2.8 million voters had lived in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. Mrs. Clinton would have won both the popular vote and the electoral college vote, because she lost those states by very narrow margins.  This shows how the distribution of voters can be at least as important as their total numbers.  The concept of having broad support for a candidate or issue in an election is important, even though the way that is measured can be somewhat arbitrary or accidental.]

Imagine that a city had a high scoring sports team and argued, whenever their team did not get into the playoffs or win a championship because they lost too many games by narrow margins, that the playoff berths or championships should be awarded on the basis of most total points or runs scored during the season or during any short series.  That would be tantamount to the position taken by those now who want the total popular vote to determine the Presidency.  It is not that either system would be unfair, but that they would do different things and allow the sport or political races to be gamed in different ways.  Sports teams would be built to run up scores rather than to be balanced in ways to win the most games.  While defense would be somewhat important, it would likely take a back seat to trying to develop high powered offenses, and that may or may not diminish the excitement of the sport, particularly taking away contests between strong defenses and high-powered offenses.  But it would not do you any good to have a strong defensive team in a league that awards championships based on point differentials, if most other teams have porous defenses that allow high powered offensive teams to score lots of points.  You could win all your games by a few points each, and be low in the standings because all the teams you beat scored far more points than you did against the many other teams with weaker defenses.  It would be about beating spreads overall (both as winners and losers) rather than winning individual games, though, of course, teams would have to win some games in order to have the best total seasonal scores.  Of course, if you could build your team to have the strongest defense and the most high powered offense, you would increase your chances of winning the championship no matter how it is determined, but then you also would be in tune with building the best football team period, which would make your goal consistent with the point of football.  Of course, if you do that consistently, someone might want to introduce a handicap system into the mix in order to keep one team from being the strongest year after year -- as when professional sports has their teams draft college players in reverse order of their previous season finish.  And interesting enough, some teams even tried to game that system by purposefully losing games near the end of an already (unintentionally) bad season so that they had the top pick in the draft.  The NBA then tried to fix that by making it so that finishing lower gave you only a higher probability of having earlier draft picks.  All this highlights how difficult it is to develop a system that seems fair and then formalize it in a way that prevents gaming that makes it unfair in a different way.

In sports, the notions of fairness are 1) perhaps easier to articulate than those of governing a country, and 2) are easier to make new or amended rules for when coaches or teams meet the rules but violate the spirit of the game in a way that discourages fan interest.  Overall fan turnout and viewing interest is far more important to athletes, teams, and leagues than overall election turnout in general is to politicians or their parties.  In elections, if you have 100 voters and your opponent just has 80, you happily win and will declare your supposed mandate, but a team with a 100,000 seat stadium or a league with a potential 20 million viewers each week (and the advertising revenue that would bring in), would not be happy to have 100 fans of winning teams viewing or attending their games and 80 fans of the losing teams viewing or attending.  That would put the leagues out of business, but it doesn't put politicians out of business to appeal to few voters, as long as they appeal to more voters than their opponents do.  When that happens, it is a sign of the system being gamed instead of policies and programs being proposed that have the most appeal and benefit to all.

When the NCAA was contemplating a method (which turned out to be the four team playoff method) for determining national football championships, reporters asked Alabama coach Nick Saban what system he would like to see.  Saban hates such questions, and answered simply that he did not care, and that he would work with whatever system they devised as long as they told him what it was.  But he assumed they would have something fair and open to all, and that it would have something to do with being the best team.  Saban is all about having the best possible team and having each player develop to be able to make the greatest team contribution possible.  That way the system for determining championships, as long at it is in any way fair and reasonable in regard to determining the best team, doesn't matter.  Government would similarly be better served if politicians and government officials concentrated on programs and laws that did the best for the  most possible people in the fairest ways.  Then any reasonable system of elections, whether by popular vote or by electoral or district or state voting would not matter and any of them would be fair.  Until that happens, however, politicians and elected officials will continue to try to game the system in all the legal ways they can in order simply to win, not do the most good.  And they will continue to have deserved low approval ratings outside their own specific voters (and sometimes even within their own voters who felt they voted, not for the best candidate, but for the least worst one, and had to 'hold their nose' to do it).

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