Does The Electoral College Still Work?
Our founding generation would doubtless be surprised to discover that America’s presidential election system has become the subject of some controversy.
Indeed, our Founders were rather proud of the process they’d created.
“The mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1788, “is almost the only part of the system . . . which has escaped without severe censure . . . . I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”
Of course, Hamilton knew something that today’s history textbooks too often forget: The Electoral College and other constitutional protections were created so that we might accomplish the near-impossible: be self-governing, even as we strive to avoid mob rule and majority tyranny.
[For more, please see yesterday’s post about the Electoral College’s origins.]
Has anything changed since Hamilton wrote his words? Does the Electoral College still accomplish its intended purposes today, despite all the technological and other advances that we’ve made?
Yes! Technology may have changed, but human nature has not. Humans are still fallible. Power still corrupts. Bare majority groups can still bully others, left to their own devices.
The checks and balances in our Constitution—including the Electoral College—are still needed to safeguard liberty in our imperfect, human world.
The Electoral College operates today as a unique blend of democracy and federalism. We have a two-phase election process in this country. Taken together, these two steps ensure that both individuals and states are taken into consideration when a President is elected.
The first step in our presidential election is an entirely democratic process. We hold 51 of these purely democratic elections, each and every presidential election year: one in each state and one in D.C. Voters who head to the polls on Election Day in November are participating in this part of the process. Their ballots decide which electors will represent their states in the second phase of the election.
In 2012, for example, most voters in Ohio cast a ballot for President Barack Obama. Thus, the state of Ohio appointed 18 Democrats to serve as its electors. If Mitt Romney had won, then 18 Republicans would have been appointed instead.
While the first phase of our election is a democratic election among individual voters, the second phase is a federalist election among the states. This election is held in December. It usually gets much less media attention, but it is this December vote—not the November vote—that determines the identity of our next President. The Constitution provides that the candidate who gets a majority of states’ electors (currently 270) wins the White House.
Our election system is nothing if not unique! This unique blend of democracy and federalism provides many benefits that sometimes get taken for granted.
First, the system encourages presidential candidates to build national coalitions of voters. Candidates can’t focus too exclusively on regional majorities or special interest groups. Polling large margins in isolated regions of the country will doom a candidacy to failure.
In other words, Hillary Clinton can’t rely solely on big cities in California. Republicans can’t rely solely on Texas. To be successful, a candidate must win simultaneous, concurrent majorities in many states nationwide. As a matter of history, such victories tend to be achieved by the candidate who does the best job of reaching out to a wide variety of voters in many different parts of the country.
Those who do the very best job of it win in landslides, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in 1936 and Ronald Reagan did in 1984.
By contrast, Reagan once succinctly described what our elections would look like without the Electoral College: “Presidential candidates would be tempted to aim their campaigns and their promises at a cluster of metropolitan areas in a few states and the smaller states would be without a voice.”
The Electoral College provides another benefit that tends to go unnoticed: It controls the effect of fraud and error on national vote totals.
Think about it: In order to influence national vote totals today, you have to know when and where to steal a vote. And if one person can predict this location, then every poll watcher/lawyer in the nation can, too! Moreover, when problems do occur, these issues can be isolated to one or a handful of states.
Now consider a world without the Electoral College: Any vote stolen in any part of the country would always affect the national tally. Dishonest people could easily steal votes in the bluest California precinct or the reddest Texas one, knowing that they would be affecting the final outcome. Fraud would be rampant.
An American historian once wrote of the Founders’ views on their presidential election system: “[F]or of all things done in the convention,” Max Farrand wrote, “the members seemed to have been prouder of that than of any other, and they seemed to regard it as having solved the problem for any country of how to choose a chief magistrate.”
Surely they would be prouder still if they could see how well the Electoral College has stood the test of time.
Tara Ross is the author of Enlightened Democracy: The Case for the Electoral College. More information about Tara can be found at www.taraross.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Alexander Hamilton’s statement in Federalist No. 68 saying that the Electoral College is “excellent” is frequently quoted out-of-context in order to suggest that Hamilton (and perhaps the whole Founding Generation) would have favored our current system of electing the President. In fact, Hamilton’s statement does not refer to the current state-by-state winner-take-all system but instead, to the Founders’ never-achieved vision of a “judicious” and “deliberative” Electoral College.
Hamilton’s statement that the Electoral College is “excellent” was made in the Federalist Papers during the debate on ratification of the U.S. Constitution—that is, before Hamilton or anyone else could see how the Electoral College would operate in practice.
Hamilton’s only known statement on the method by which a state should award its electoral votes is contained in an 1800 letter in which he advocated that New York switch from legislative appointment of presidential electors to popular election using districts. There is no record of Hamilton ever endorsing the currently prevailing system in which states conduct popular elections to award all of their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the state.
Hamilton was dead for a quarter century before the winner-take-all rule become prevalent in most states (including his own state of New York).
In 1789, in the nation’s first election, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors by appointment by the legislature or by the governor and his cabinet, the people had no vote for President in most states, and in them, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.
The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes used by 2 states, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by states of winner-take-all or district winner laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.
The current winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes is not in the U.S. Constitution. It was not debated at the Constitutional Convention. It is not mentioned in the Federalist Papers. It was not the Founders’ choice. It was used by only three states in 1789, and all three of them repealed it by 1800. It is not entitled to any special deference based on history or the historical meaning of the words in the U.S. Constitution. The actions taken by the Founding Fathers make it clear that they never gave their imprimatur to the winner-take-all method. The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes became dominant only in the 1830s, when most of the Founders had been dead for decades, after the states adopted it, one-by-one, in order to maximize the power of the party in power in each state.
The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding a state’s electoral votes.
To be successful, a candidate does not need to win simultaneous, concurrent majorities in many states nationwide.
With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), it could only take winning a bare plurality of popular votes in only the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with a mere 23% of the nation’s votes!
In the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten battleground states with the closest margins of victory.
Analysts already conclude that only the 2016 party winner of Florida (29 electoral votes), Ohio (18), Virginia (13), Colorado (9) ,Nevada (6), Iowa (6) and New Hampshire (4) is not a foregone conclusion. They will continue to dominate and determine the presidential general election.
The only states that received any attention in the 2012 general election campaign for President were states within 3% of the national outcome.
The indefensible reality is that more than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states in 2012.
Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).
There are only expected to be 7 remaining swing states in 2016.
The predictability of the winner of the state you live in, not where it is in the country, determines how much, if at all, your vote matters.
In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention (polling, organizing, ad spending and visits) at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. They were ignored despite their supposed numerical advantage in the Electoral College. In fact, the 8.6 million eligible voters in Ohio received more campaign ads and campaign visits from the major party campaigns than the 42 million eligible voters in those 27 smallest states combined.
In 2012, candidates in the general election ignored 38 states and their voters. Texas and California, Wyoming and Vermont are politically irrelevant and ignored.
Many people believe big cities are bigger than they are, and that they are more Democratic than they are. And many people don’t understand how real-world political campaigns are run.
Candidates for governor and other offices in elections in which every vote is equal, and the winner is the candidate who receives the most popular votes, campaign wherever there are voters.
In a successful nationwide election for President candidates could not afford campaigning only in metropolitan areas. There are not enough votes.
With National Popular Vote, big cities would not get all of candidates’ attention, much less control the outcome.
One-sixth of the U.S. population lives in the top 100 cities, and they voted 63% Democratic in 2004.
One-sixth lives outside the nation’s Metropolitan Statistical Areas, and rural America voted 60% Republican.
The remaining four-sixths live in the suburbs, which divide almost exactly equally.
The main media at the moment, TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. Candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.
The political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows, is that when and where every voter is equal, a campaign of polling, organizing, ad spending and visits must be run everywhere.
Former Colorado Congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo (R) said, “The issue of voter fraud … won’t entirely go away with the National Popular Vote plan, but it is harder to mobilize massive voter fraud on the national level without getting caught, than it is to do so in a few key states. Voter fraud is already a problem. The National Popular Vote makes it a smaller one.”
A nationwide vote for President would make effective voter fraud more difficult than the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes.
Executing electoral fraud without getting caught requires a situation in which a very small number of people can have a very large impact.
Under the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes, fraudsters know that a small amount of fraud in a closely divided “battleground” state can affect enough popular votes to flip all of a state’s electoral votes, and hence, possibly, the national outcome.
Under the current system, all of the general-election campaign events in 2012 (and virtually all the advertising expenditures) were in the 12 states within 3% of the national outcome. Flipping a few thousand votes in these closely divided “battleground” states, that everyone can easily identify, can flip all of that state’s electoral votes, and thereby change the national outcome.
Having the presidency determined by the most popular votes in the country would make executing fraud more difficult than the current system, because affecting the national outcome in an election with 130,000,000 votes would require flipping hundred sof thousands, if not millions, of votes without getting caught.
If anyone is concerned about voter fraud or error, a nationwide vote for President is far safer than the current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes.
Anyone who supports the current presidential election system, believing it is what the Founders intended and that it is in the Constitution, is mistaken. The current presidential election system does not function, at all, the way that the Founders thought that it would.
Most of us find it hard to believe the Founding Fathers would endorse the current state-by-state winner-take-all system where 80% of the states and voters now are completely politically irrelevant.
10 of the original 13 states are ignored now.
Four out of five Americans were ignored in the 2012 presidential election.
After being nominated, Obama visited just eight closely divided battleground states, and Romney visited only 10.
More than 99% of polling, organizing, ad spending and visits was showered on voters in just the ten states in 2012 where they were not hopelessly behind or safely ahead, and could win the bare plurality of the vote to win all of the state’s electoral votes.
Now the majority of Americans, in small, medium-small, average, and large states are ignored.
Only 3 of the 27 smallest states receive any attention.
None of the 10 most rural states is a battleground state.
24 of the 27 lowest population states, and 16 medium and big states like CA, GA, NY, and TX are ignored.
38 states and their voters were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns.
Once the conventions are over, presidential candidates now don’t visit or spend resources in 80% of the states.
Candidates know the Republican is going to win in safe red states, and the Democrat will win in safe blue states, so they are ignored.
States have the responsibility and constitutional power to make their voters relevant in every presidential election.
While the Electoral College has its issues it still accomplishes one thing the founders knew had to be a part of our elections. That is, in order to govern on has to have wide support, the majority pf people in the majority of the country. Thus, the Electoral College was born. (And yes, the founders did not have much faith in the citizenry and this also gave a safeguard to a “populist” taking office.)
It is possible to win the presidency with just 13 states, the 12 with the greatest number of votes plus any one of the remaining states. But, those states are from the west coast, thru the south, up to the northeast, and into the midwest. The whole country is covered. With a national popular vote it is possible to win the presidency with just a couple key sections or two or three large states. In both systems people will be left out in that they will NEVER see a candidate pass through – no chance to question candidates face to face. However, the Electoral College minimizes that more than a national popular vote system and does assure that the elected president does have as wide of support as possible, even if that support is limited to 13 states.
I agree with Kohler, not because I want a democratic process for electing President but because the Electoral College has been corrupted by winner take all and it is no longer judicious and deliberative. The result is a system that is designed mainly to to serve the two ruling Parties, not a Republic or a free society.
The assertion the “The first step in our presidential election is an entirely democratic process. We hold 51 of these purely democratic elections.” is a gross over reach. Some states hold caucuses, others winner take all, others proportional, and then there are super delegates. I fail to see how that purely democratic.
I further dispute that the primaries should democratic. How the Parties select their candidates is 100% up to them. Although the notion of cigar smoking party bosses selecting candidates is repugnant to our sense of democratic process; it can be argued that much better qualified candidates were presented to the public than the current process. Juliette Turner’s essay to Millennials provides compelling arguments that modern media has dramatically impacted the election process, and not necessarily to the good.
Vote rigging/fraud are always a risk. If that is a major concern then let the College collected from electoral districts. Candidates then have to win the majority of 435 districts, not winner take all States.
The 2000 election shows that even at the State level individual votes [legal, illegal, fraud, stolen, etc.] can become critical. So to say that winner take all States addresses vote fraud is false. When close, the impact is magnified in winner take. 1 in 12,000,000 could give all of CA’s 55 electoral votes to a candidate. Hard to have 435 1 votes decisions.
The original Electoral College was one of many great, albeit not perfect idea coming from great men. What we have today is NOT the Electoral College, except in name only.
I reject that TX can be my proxy in LA because its a southern neighbor.