It’s Time We Graduated from the Electoral College

The 2016 US Presidential Election is now a few months behind us, and the hecticity level, to borrow a phrase from my dad, has all but dropped to zero. Yes, I’m aware that the shitstorm Presidency continues, but for now I’m just talking about the actual election process itself. Leading up to election day, and for a few weeks afterwards, there was quite a bit of talk about the Electoral College (EC), and whether we should continue to use it to elect our leader.

If you’re not familiar with the EC, you can find a detailed description here. But in a nutshell, each state (and DC) is assigned a number of Electors based on how many members of Congress they have in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The number of Representatives is based proportionally on population, so a state that is twice as populous will have twice as many Representatives. The number of Senators is fixed at two per state. This means that the number of Electors weighs smaller states slightly more heavily, as the fixed number of Senators becomes more dominant. In other words, smaller states have more Electors per capita than larger states. On election day, the voters don’t actually vote for the President, they vote for Electors. Or more specifically, they vote for the candidate of the party they want to choose all of the Electors for their state (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, that assign their electors proportionally).

This is not a fair system.

Now, before I go any further, I need to disclose one basic assumption that I am making here. I am assuming that the President of the United States is elected by and for the people of the United States. The Constitution doesn’t specifically clarify this point, but it is certainly implied. And the framers of the Constitution did document their thoughts and motivations for writing it the way they did, in the Federalist Papers. In Paper #69, The Real Character of the Executive, Alexander Hamilton wrote:

The President of the United States would be an officer elected by the people for four years.

And don’t forget Abraham Lincoln (not involved with the Constitution, but he knew a thing or two about the Presidency), from the Gettysburg Address (my emphasis added):

… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

So I think I’m on pretty firm footing with my assumption here. The people of the United States are the ones that elect the President.

Why is the Electoral College system unfair? Because voters from smaller states have votes that weigh more heavily in the election process than voters from larger states. It seems to violate the Constitutional doctrine of one person, one vote.

Let’s look at some numbers. We know from 2016 (and 2000, 1888, 1876, and 1824) that a candidate can win the popular vote and still lose the election. But it’s even stranger than that.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to assume for this example that we have two candidates, Winner (who wins the election, but loses the popular vote) and Loser (who wins the popular vote, but loses the election). I am also assuming that all eligible voters vote, 100% turnout. Remember, you need 50% + 1 of the Electoral votes to win the election. Since there are 538 Electors total, that means you need 270 to win outright. Let’s say that Winner gets 270 Electoral votes by winning 40 of the smaller states (as displayed in the graphic below), and that Loser gets 268 by winning the 11 larger states. Since we know that voters in smaller states are represented more heavily, we can expect Winner to have fewer, but more heavily weighted votes, while Loser has more, less heavily weighted votes.

electoral map

In order for Winner to win their states, they only need 50% + 1 votes from each of their 40 states, and ZERO votes from the remaining 11. Using the voter data from 2016, we can calculate that Winner only needs 51, 193,111 votes from those 40 smaller states out of 226,076,953 total votes. Meanwhile, Loser can get the remainder 50% – 1 votes from the smaller states and 100% from the larger states, for a total of 174,883,843 votes.

That means, even with 100% voter turnout, Winner can win the election with a stunning 22.6% of the national vote. Meanwhile, Loser has won 77.6% of the national vote, and still loses the election.

If the voter turnout is less than 100%, but still is relatively uniform across the country, then the percentages stay about the same (e.g., 22.8% vs. 77.2% if the voter turnout rate is as it was for the 2016 election, etc.). But if the smaller states have a lower turnout, and the larger states have a higher turnout, then the percentage needed to win goes down, way down. To take it to the ridiculous extreme, if each of the smaller states has just 1 voter, the lowest possible turnout that still gives a decision (a few more for Maine and Nebraska, that assign Electors by district), then Winner could win with 47 votes nationwide, while Loser comes in second with a mere 123,690,732 votes.

It’s vanishingly unlikely, but the 2016 Presidential election could have been won with as little as 0.00003% of the national popular vote. The fact that is even possible highlights the absurdity of this approach.

The math is on my side.

Here are a few other points worth mentioning:

  • Under the EC, US citizens voting in the US territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Northern Mariana Islands don’t count. They are US citizens, 4.7 million of them, and their votes have literally zero effect on a presidential election because they are not assigned any electors.
  • The EC makes it easier to manipulate the system. Since it is focused around “swing states”, a handful of bottlenecks are created. A small influence on one or more of those bottlenecks can have a huge impact. You may remember in 2000 there were some issues with voter intimidation in Broward County, Florida. A small number of locations were affected, but that may have swung the entire race. Just a couple hundred votes made the difference there. In a typical election, the popular vote difference is in the millions of votes, much harder to overcome by cheating because there are no swing state bottlenecks.
  • Under the EC, each campaign focuses on small strategic targets. They talk all night about “flipping states”. So they end up spending massive amounts of money trying to convince a small number of voters to change their minds. In a national popular vote, there would be no swing states, which would encourage campaigns to focus on getting more voters to the booths, rather than changing the minds of a few. As the old advertising adage goes, “It’s much easier to keep a client you already have than to get a new one.” Imagine if all that campaign money were spent on improving voter turnout!

So why do we still have this? What are some arguments in favor of the EC?

In a democracy, as history has taught, governing by ‘the majority rule’ soon turns into mob rule — to the destruction of the rights of others.

But of course we’re not talking about majority rule. I’ll repeat that, we are not talking about majority rule. We’re merely talking about democratically voting on a single item, namely electing a president. It’s no different than how states elect a governor, states elect US Senators, congressional districts elect US Representatives, cities elect mayors, and just about every other elected official down to city council and school board. The people that are being represented by the official vote on who that official should be.

Besides, why would residency in smaller states be the only minority that gets a leg up? What about racial, social, religious, gender, sexual, and other minorities?

James Madison worried about what he called “factions”, defined as groups of citizens who have a common interest in some proposal that would either violate the rights of other citizens or would harm the nation as a whole.

That’s why we also have a Constitution, Supreme Court, Congress, etc., a system of checks and balances to protect the rights of all. Furthermore, these dangerous “factions” would be much less powerful on a national level, where the vote counts are in the millions.

Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers that the Constitution is designed to ensure “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

That’s the kicker. The framers of the Constitution put the EC system in place because they didn’t trust the voters. That’s the last, best argument in favor of the EC. It protects the country from making a stupid mistake. Michael Signer says it well in an article he wrote for Time.com:

The fact is that the Electoral College was primarily designed to stop a demagogue—a tyrannical mass leader who preys on our prejudices—from becoming President.

Consider what Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper Number 68. The Electors were supposed to stop a candidate with “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” from becoming President. The Electors were supposed to be “[people] most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice.”

They were to “possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations” as the selection of the President, and they were supposed to “afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.” They were even supposed to prevent “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

Does that sound like they’re talking about anyone we know?

Does it seem that the EC has saved us, or has it failed us in the most flagrant way possible?

We can’t drag our feet any longer on this.

For more information on the movement supporting a National Popular Vote, click on the image below.

national popular vote


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