As we make our ways to vote in the 59th United States Presidential Election, it is important to revisit the Electoral College and its role in deciding our Commander in Chief. Controversial almost since its very inception, the Electoral College has survived repeated threats and attempts to abolish it outright, yet it perseveres in mostly the same form in which it was established in 1787. This article will look at reasons why the Electoral College ultimately fails us as United States citizens and its very own purpose. We will look at historical failings, while also giving credit to where the system really works in an attempt to better understand what the actual problems with the system are and if, indeed, they may be fixed.
First, we need the author bias, as in the past few years, support for the Electoral College tends to be by Republicans (as it tends to favor them in this moment in time). I am a registered independent voter who is fairly moderate in his views and finds the extreme end of either major political party to be frightening. I have gone Democrat and I have gone Republican, just depending on who the candidate is. My belief is that our Government works best when one party holds two branches of Government and the other party holds the third to keep the ruling party in check. To me, fair is fair and the Electoral college is anything but that. So let’s dig in.
The Electoral . . . Compromise
Contrary to popular belief, the Electoral College was not some grand design put in place by some of the brightest minds of our young country, but was more or less a compromise that had many parts to it. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia had the goal of creating a whole new government and part of that was deciding how to choose the President. The argument over how to pick the President lasted around three weeks. The first solution was to have the House of Representatives choose the President. A majority of State Delegates agreed, but after debate, those delegates opposed this method due to it violating the already agreed upon Separation of Powers. There was also worry that a President would be beholden to the Congress that appointed them, so another way was sought.
James Madison stated more than once that, “the popular vote is the fittest way to elect the President, but the South wouldn’t go for it.” This is because in 1787, about 40 percent of the population in the southern states were black slaves, who couldn’t vote. These southern states (especially Virginia) wanted more power in representation of their actual population. A secondary fear was that almost the entire country was rural at the time and the belief was that most people would not be informed enough on the candidates to be trusted in directly choosing the President.
Getting the South to buy into any solution was vastly important because there was no way the Constitution would get ratified without those states. This is where the 3/5 compromise came into play. Three out of every five slaves would count for representation in the House and thus, the Electoral college. These slaves still could not vote and the compromise also had the effect of essentially okaying slavery in the South for some time. What this compromise did though was make Virginia the most powerful state in terms of the Electoral College. Pennsylvania was a so-called “free state” with a population of free people 10% greater than Virginia, but after the 3/5 compromise, Virginia ended up with 20% more electoral votes. It may come as little surprise that seven out of the first eleven U.S. Presidents are from Virginia.
So what we ended up with was a mashup of ideas. The popular vote does matter today on some level, with many States imposing laws to prevent faithless electors, but the original intent of the Electoral College was for districts to vote on Electors who would be trusted to vote essentially as they saw fit because they would be these wise men who had all the information at their disposal. It wasn’t long before state leaders decided that they were better off to appoint people sure to vote the same way. This is something Alexander Hamilton and James Madison said went against the intention of the Constitution, but Hamilton died before he could change it and it was later felt that there were then too many states to ratify such a change.
One reason that the Electoral College came into existence is something that seems to be forgotten today: No one thought it would ever actually decide the Presidency. That seems illogical today, but it’s true. The delegates believed the Electoral College would serve the purpose of nominating the top five candidates for Congress to choose from (there were no political parties in 1787), with George Mason stating that Congress would decide the President “19 times out of 20.” Almost immediately, parties formed, backing their candidate and the majority of elections became essentially one-on-one encounters. Congress has decided two elections to date (not since 1824), a far cry from what Mason predicted.
To sum up, we are currently using a system that was cobbled together as the best system that could be passed, was created steeped in racism, did not believe that people were smart enough to make informed decisions, and was not even intended to actually pick the President. So why do we continue to use it? The biggest issue is simply that it’s outlined in the Constitution and it would take a huge bi-partisan effort to overturn it and typically, the Electoral College will favor one side or the other at a given time period, so getting both sides to agree to abolish it would be a tall task indeed.
There are people who believe that “This is the way it’s always been done, so why change it?” The answer is simple: Because what worked in 1787 is not necessarily relevant today. The argument that an individual could not be trusted to make an informed vote probably was true in 1787 to some extent, with the country being predominantly rural, but that concept is ludicrous in today’s world. The Electoral College was also intended to prevent cabals having direct influence but parties formed almost immediately and persist to this day, despite the best of intentions.
There would be very little need to address the Electoral College if we didn’t have five elections where the popular winner did not win the Presidency, including twice in the past five elections. The first time was in 1824, when Andrew Jackson won a whopping 10.5% more of the popular vote than John Quincey Adams, but failed to win a majority of the Electoral votes, becoming the first election decided by the House of Representatives. In 1876, Samuel Tildon edged out Rutherford B. Hayes by 3% of the popular vote (and actually having a majority of the total vote), but with 20 Electoral Votes in dispute, lost out on the Presidency due to the Compromise of 1877. Just 3 elections later, Incumbent President Grover Cleveland edged out Benjamin Harrison by 0.8% of the popular vote but lost the Electoral College 233-168.
For over a century, every election passed without the controversy of having a popular winner lose the actual election, but then the Election of 2000 came and reignited the argument over the Electoral College once again with perhaps the closest election ever when Al Gore won the popular vote by .5%, but lost the Presidency to George W. Bush by 5 electoral votes, including the 27 votes of Florida, which Bush won by 537 votes. This was actually somewhat understandable, as the race was so close overall, that it wasn’t an egregious result, but in our last election, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the popular vote by 2.1%, but saw Trump claim 304 electoral votes to her 227.
People understand that fair is fair and that in an ideal world, the popular winner will still emerge victorious in the Electoral College, and if an aberration happened one time, we could look over it, but this aberration is happening in nearly 10% of elections, which seems at odds with “a full and fair expression of public will” as outlined in the original plan.
It's Not Just Democrats Who Have Spoken Against The Electoral College
Because in our current political climate where the Electoral College benefits the Republican Party and because Democrats have missed out on the White House twice in the past five elections despite winning the popular vote, we think that it is Democrats who mainly want to disband the Electoral College, but that was not always the case.
The closest the Electoral college has come to being abolished was actually a bi-partisan effort in 1969. Both President, Richard Nixon, and the man he defeated a year earlier, Hubert Humphrey, called for an end to the Electoral College in direct response to their battle in 1968, when George Wallace, running as a member of the American Independent party, won five states and 46 electoral votes, which put the winner in danger of not reaching the 270 threshold (though Nixon still reached 301 Electoral Votes to Humphrey’s 191). Nixon directly stated in 1969, “I believe the events of 1968 constitute the clearest proof that priority must be accorded to electoral college reform.”
The difference was the while Humphrey wanted a straight up popular vote, Nixon (who was fine with a popular vote) suggested a 40% plurality minimum threshold in the electoral college as opposed to a majority. In fact, Nixon’s proposal got a vote in the House and overwhelmingly passed that September. But once it reached the Senate, it was Filibustered into its eventual demise by southern senators who feared states with large populations having too much say.
I remember the election of 2000 and I talked with my late father about it shortly afterward about the apparent unfairness of Gore’s loss since my father was a staunch Republican. I asked him how he would have felt if things happened the other way, and I was met with the assertion that he wouldn’t have been upset because that’s the system we have in place. I knew him well enough to know that wasn’t really true, but it is something I have also heard from other Republicans I know in regards to the prospect. But we have a good idea on how the Republican Party would respond if they were to win a popular vote but lose the election, because it was a fear of the George W. Bush campaign in 2000. The New York Daily News talked with Bush Aides before the Election, who openly feared that the very scenario that happened to Al Gore, would happen to them instead: The core of the emerging Bush strategy assumes a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course. In league with the campaign – which is preparing talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged. “We’d have ads, too,” says a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted. Local business leaders will be urged to lobby their customers, the clergy will be asked to speak up for the popular will and Team Bush will enlist as many Democrats as possible to scream as loud as they can. After the election of course, there wasn’t a peep from the Bush campaign about the fact that “the Popular Will” was thwarted.
Modern Problems with the Electoral College
There are many arguments made for why the Electoral College works and some have more validity than others. Let’s look at the ones that are more easily debunked first, starting with the Electoral College gives small states a bigger voice. At first glance, this is true. According to the most recent 2010 Census, California has the largest population at nearly 37.2 million people, while the state with the lowest population was Wyoming, at a bit more than 500 thousand. This coincides with California having 55 electoral votes to Wyoming’s 3, which means that California has about 18 times as many electoral votes, yet 66 times as many residents. This is what people would point to when talking about small states getting a bigger voice. Now, what if the vote in Wyoming came down to one person and the vote in California did the same? The person in California’s vote would weigh eighteen times heavier than the person in Wyoming, simply because of the state they live in.
While the smaller states may have a say on some level, let’s not pretend that they have all that much power. Consider this: a candidate could win an election by carrying the 12 biggest states in our country. Or maybe it sounds worse if I said, a candidate could hold the 38 smallest states, but lose the election anyway. Those small states and their power don’t sound so good after hearing that, do they?
The bigger issue is that the small states only really matter if they are battleground states and New Hampshire is the only small state that qualifies as such, which is why it gets more attention than the other small states combined. Why would a candidate spend much time campaigning in a state they already are sure to win? The answer is that they don’t and the small states get ignored because for the most part, we already know how they will vote. So their “power” isn’t in attracting candidates to campaign there, but it is only in the fact that they get the minimal 3 votes as outlined in the Constitution.
How the Electoral College is set up actually makes it so candidates now only campaign in a handful of swing states. We’ll hear for months about a candidate’s stance on the state of the steel industry when they are spending a ton of time campaigning in Pennsylvania because that’s what Pennsylvanians want to hear about and that’s whose votes candidates are really after. It feels like half of all rallies take place in Ohio and talk about issues the people of that state care about, which is usually not the issues that the country as a whole is interested. We all want to be courted and made to feel like the candidates are speaking to us on some level and with the currant system, most of us don't get that.
The fact is that only around 10 states actually matter in a modern election. The rest of us are just along for the ride. You’ve probably seen maps online against a popular vote stating, imagine you are a voter in this giant rural area and you disagree with these tiny spots of high populations. What they ignore is that in our currant system, the Presidency often is decided not just in a handful of states, but in a handful of counties. Imagine being in the other 99% of the country knowing the Presidency will be decided by a county in Ohio, Florida, or Wisconsin. Or imagine being a Republican in the state of Connecticut, which you know will be carried by any Democratic nominee pretty much no matter what. These maps point out one possible problem, while ignoring the others.
If we went to either a straight up popular vote or a proportional electoral vote, campaigns would be forced to have more variety in terms of topics they focus on and places they visit. Candidates would also likely have to be more honest about a position as they couldn’t just give one answer in Texas and an opposite answer in California, but whereas they currently just focus on a handful of states, it is hard to tell if they are speaking truthfully on a position or if they are just currying favor with the voters of that state they desperately need to win.
The Big City Fallacy
We also see people who defend the electoral college point to the big city arguments. Usually, this is posted with a map like I mentioned above. Another popular one states how it was genius of the makers of the Electoral College to make sure big cities did not dominate elections. I want to look at both of those arguments, starting with the latter.
The thing is, in 1787, the country was almost all rural, so much so that it would be hard for anyone of the time to foresee the cities we know today. Sure, there were cities and they were expected to grow, but let’s look at the first census of 1790. In it, we see a total population 3,893,635, with 17.8% of those being slaves and the 3 largest cities being New York (33,131 people at 0.85% total population), Philadelphia (28,522 people at 0.73% total population), and Boston (18,320 people at 0.47% total population). Keep in mind, our growing country was very small with just a handful of cities and yet the biggest city didn’t even account for 1% of the population. In the most recent 2010 Census, we have a total population of 308,745,538 with the top 3 cities being New York (3,792,621 people at 2.6% of the population), Los Angeles (3,7,92,621 people at 1.2% population) and Chicago (2,695,598 people at 0.87% population).
Our 3 biggest cities today have a bigger percentage of the population than in 1790, despite the fact the country expanded exponentially and we have more cities to live in. New York is still the most populous city, but has over three times more population percentage than in 1790. Or to put it another way, our total population is over 80 times that of 1790, but New York’s growth has even outpaced that, at 114 times that of the first Census. We have and continue to gravitate to cities in a way that no one would have been able to foresee.
We always have this preconceived notion that some areas are just strongholds and that places like New York would completely decide an election in a popular vote. It makes it sound like New York votes 100% Democrat (or Texas 100% Republican, if you want) and this is simply not true. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won New York easily, but with 59.01% of the vote. Sure, that’s substantial, but hardly an amount that is overwhelming (especially when you consider how much of the Mid-West votes Republican). There were actually four states and the District of Columbia where Clinton performed better percentage-wise. The maps like the one above and others like it look so bad because of the All or Nothing state winners. They do not take into account that there are still an awful lot of people voting the other way.
The big city argument also tends to fall apart when you realize that the fifty biggest cities in the entire country add up to just 15% of our total population, not even close to a majority even if every person in those cities voted the same way. Those cities also tend to be the most diverse areas of the entire country with people from all backgrounds, views, and economic status. The argument just doesn't make sense.
I’m from a small state and I don’t care if there are a ton of people in California, New York, or Texas. One person, one vote works for me because we are all citizens of the United States. And I know enough just from working with a lot of people who would appear to be similar on many levels who have many different views on everything. I can’t be in a room with five members of my own family who think alike, but we suddenly believe entire states do just because a majority votes one of two ways. I can handle it if my view isn’t the majority, but in the age of social media where likes and shares equate to our worth, most people no longer feel that way.
What the Electoral College Does Right and is it salvageable?
All right, I’ve hammered home reasons why the Electoral College makes little sense in today’s landscape, so how about I give it some credit? There are a few reasons where the Electoral College is very successful as a system and thought should be given to modifying it as opposed to abolishing it outright. The first of these reasons is quite simple: Fraud. When the Electoral College was established, tainted elections were a much more likely proposition than they are now, with people potentially voting numerous times and with very little way of keeping track. But it still holds true that if an election were tainted at a state level, it would be contained within that state and its votes, as opposed to contaminating the whole voting pool.
As a country, we have been lucky and avoided the disaster of a candidate winning the general election and dying before inauguration day, but if that were to ever happen, the Electoral College serves as a bit of a buffer in that they do not meet until December, about a month before inauguration day. If something were to happen to a candidate before they met, the College would be in a much better position to navigate such an event than trying to potentially hold a whole new election or see the matter dragged into the courts for who knows how long.
Think back to the 2000 election when George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the state of Florida by 537 votes, thus winning the Presidency. There were talks of recounts and how long recounts would take, and the United States Supreme Court got involved and it was nearly a complete disaster. That was essentially at the state level. Now imagine the same scenario playing out on the national level. Trying to do a nationwide recount would be the very definition of a nightmare.
I started this paper believing that the popular vote was the best method to choose the President and although it is the fairest way to do so, I have changed my mind a bit. I like some of the safe guards that the Electoral College has enough where I would be just as happy to simply modify the system. This is why it is important to look at all sides of things; sometimes, you just may learn something. So what could we change?
33 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws against faithless electors and I would like to see the other 17 states follow suit or simply see an amendment to the Constitution. I would also like to see some sort of proportional representation in the Electoral College. Currently, Nevada and Maine are the only two states that do this and I will first-hand tell you that it works. Remember that small state I live in? It’s Maine. We have four total Electoral votes with the winner of District 1 and 2 each getting one vote and the overall state winner getting the other 2. At times, all four certainly go to the same candidate, but in 2016, Donald Trump nabbed one of the two districts and getting a vote and he and others will throw a campaign event here now and again because of that possibility.
The reason I feel proportional representation in the Electoral College works is because it does not disenfranchise voters in quite the same way that the all or nothing method most other states use does. I have a busy life. So do you. If you are a Republican living in a solidly Democratic state, are you going to make as much effort to vote as you would if you knew your candidate could nab at least some of your state’s votes? Less disenfranchised voters equates to more engaged voters and we need those, no matter what side of the aisle one falls on. We need them more so on the local level than even the national one. I also believe that proportional voting would truly see results that more closely matched the popular vote, so we would have less aberrations in the results. Fair is fair. If a Republican won more votes, I’d want that person in the White House. If the Democrat won more votes, I’d want that person in the White House. It’s as simple as that.
Do I think this would help every single problem? Of course not. Every possible system we could come up with would have its flaws. But a proportional method would likely result in Elections that better reflected the popular vote while keeping some of the safeguards the Electoral College has put in place to keep chaos from happening on Election Day and beyond.
Will Any of This Matter in Four Years?
It is almost a miracle that one party has not simply dominated the other just based on the geography and voting trends, but what if I said that may be about to happen? Texas used to be the Republican’s biggest state (the state with the second most electoral votes overall with 38), not voting Democrat in a Presidential Election since Jimmy Carter, but the state is now purple and trending its way to blue, possibly even in today’s election, but certainly by the next one if trends hold. Republicans will not be able to sniff the White House without Texas for some time unless they either A) win every battleground state in an election or B) find a way to replace Texas with other states that turn solidly red. This would be another reason to go to a proportional model because a party could stand a big state swinging slowly if they are still getting a proportional share, but would be decimated for some time to come if a state swung totally with all it’s votes.
Ultimately though, divvying up votes proportionally is up to the states and there appears to be a greater push for the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact than there appears to be for states to simply divvy up their votes in some sort of fair way.
The Electoral College was a compromise put in place in a world over two hundred years ago that simply does not exist today and is in need of great change to be of value to us in the world today. It has features within it that we should build upon to make sure our elections are safe and more fairly represent who actually wins the election. But until both sides of the aisle decide to work on this issue, it looks like we are stuck with it, at least until the next aberration causes another uproar all over again.