The Case for Keeping the Electoral College
The current debate over the fairness of the Electoral College for picking United States presidents is based on misconceptions and ignorance about how it operates. This is what it does.
1. The Electoral College Is Designed To Let the States Choose the President
The Electoral College was created by the framers of the Constitution to keep the selection of the president in the hands of the states and out of the hands of the federal government itself. It is one of the crucial checks and balances in the Constitution. The men who wrote the Constitution gave the president veto power over acts of Congress. The way the founders chose to make the Office of the President a co-equal branch and independent of the Congress was to give the power to choose him or her to the states. Just as the President can not pick the Congress, neither Congress nor the courts can pick the President if the branches of government are to remain equal.
The president is chosen, not by voters directly, but by electors. Electors are state officials, governed by state law, who are elected by the voters in the November General Election. The winning electors then travel to their state capitols in December to cast their ballots for President. The Electors are elected state public officials designated to vote for President on behalf of their states. Their ballots are then sent to Washington, D.C. where they are counted by the presiding officer of the United States Senate, who is the Vice-President. Then, a winner is declared. If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, then the decision is made in the House of Representatives where each state's delegation has just one vote.
Nothing could be clearer. The authors of the Constitution intended to let the states pick the president.
The electors are candidates for statewide office. That's what makes the unit rule. They run as a slate pledged to a candidate, and they either all win or all lose. When a voter casts a ballot for a candidate, they are casting a ballot for a slate of candidates who say they will vote for the candidate whose name is on the ballot.
The only constitutional requirement for an elector is that "no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector." [Article II, section 1, clause 2.] The people designated to pick the president are those who are not connected with the federal government in any way. Could anything be clearer?
The framers of the Constitution wanted the people who choose the president to be ordinary folks, as free as possible from federal government influence, and who would be free to vote their consciences. While the uncertainty of what is called faithless electors is seen as a threat to democracy by some, it is a safety valve that can be used to counteract blatant fraud in election practices at the state and local level. An elector's independent judgment is another hallmark of the Constitution, balancing powers between different entities.
The Constitution puts the ultimate power of picking the president in the hands of its citizens to guard against local government corruption and malfeasance. This is why the president is chosen by intermediaries and not by the straight number crunching of a popular vote. In the 1876 Hayes-Tilden election, allegations of Black voter suppression in the deep South led to challenges to 20 electors. The House of Representatives created a commission that ultimately awarded all 20 electors and the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes who had lost the popular vote, but he might have won it had everyone been allowed to cast ballots. Without electors, there is no possible remedy to possible local vote suppression and destroyed or stolen ballot boxes.
2. The Electoral College Favors the Large States
As every state has two Senators, and a state's electoral vote is equivalent to the number of members in its congressional delegation, it is undeniably true that voters in small states are disproportionately empowered to pick electors. The problem is that the election is not about choosing electors, but about picking a president. A proper analysis is a two-step process. First, who has more power to pick a slate of electors; undeniably, the voter in a small state. However, the second question is, how likely is that state's block of electors to change the outcome of the presidential contest? In the second case, the answer is equally undeniably the big states.
Where is the proof that the Electoral College favors the small states? The 11 states with the most electors alone can elect the president, whereas the 39 smallest states plus the District of Columbia cannot. The claim that the small states are favored comes from the idea that voters in the small states have more power to select their electors than voters in the big states. The only reason people see small swing states as having disproportionate power is that the big states usually split.
So, the question is whether the less voting power of the individuals in the big states is compensated for by the fact that they are deciding on a bigger block of votes.
For example, Wyoming has 300,000 voters who pick three electors, while California has 19 million voters who pick 55 electors. On its face, the Wyoming voters are 3.5 times more powerful than the California voter (Wyoming has one elector for every 100,000 voters while California has one for every 350,000.) But Wyoming picks only 1.1% of the electors required for victory, while California picks over 20% of the electors.
According to the Banzhaf-Penrose Power Index, a mathematical analysis of elections where votes have different weights, a voter in California had 2.5 times the chance of changing the outcome of the presidential election than a voter in Wyoming.
It is obvious that presidential candidates devote a disproportionate amount of campaign time and resources to the big states because it is impossible to win without at least one of them and it is easier to win with them.
3. Geographical Distribution
Another important function of the Electoral College is that it guarantees that the winning candidate for president has support from all over the country, not just in one area. No matter how big a majority a candidate accumulates in a state like New York or California, the margin can never completely silence the voters in Wyoming.
This prohibition on vote margin rollover, so to speak, is the reason Trump won in 2016. Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, but she carried California by 4,269,978 votes. In other words, Clinton's entire national popular vote margin and more came out of California. Hillary's margin of victory in California was bigger than the total number of votes cast in Alaska, Delaware, Washington D.C., Hawaii, Montana, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming combined. That's nine states and the District of Columbia whose total votes were less than Clinton's winning margin in California.
Without the Electoral College, candidates would campaign almost exclusively in the big metropolitan vote-rich areas. Spending scarce time traveling to distant places with few voters would be seen as waste during the crucial final weeks of campaigning. When small swing states are in play, the Electoral College prevents candidates from avoiding contentious issues that may be important to a small segment of the population.
The Electoral College represents the land as well as the people in the political process. Although undemocratic, the physical plant is important because prosperous, viable farms and rural areas are as essential to the wellbeing of people in the cities as it is to the residents themselves.
To be elected president, a candidate needs to carry at least one state in each of the five geographic regions of the country: the Atlantic Coast, the Pacific Coast, the Gulf Coast, a state bordering on the Great Lakes, and a landlocked state. This requirement is why Florida, which fulfills two of the five requirements, is so important, especially for the Democrats.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost badly to Ronald Reagan and carried only eight states: Hawaii (Pacific Coast); Minnesota (Great Lakes); Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C. and his home state of Georgia (Atlantic Coast), and West Virginia (landlocked). Carter failed to carry any states on the Gulf Coast.
Jimmy Carter got 41% of the vote and won only eight states. Twenty-four years later, John Kerry got 48.3% of the vote and carried 19 states plus the District of Columbia, but he did worse than Carter. He carried four Pacific Ocean states (Alaska saved Bush), seven states that touched the Great Lakes (if you include Vermont's Lake Champlain that goes up into Canada) and nine states that abut the Atlantic Ocean. Kerry did not carry a single state on the Gulf Coast, nor one that was landlocked. Voters can be very, very subtle.
The Elections Where the Popular Vote Loser Became President
Critics of the Electoral College cite the five presidential elections in which the popular vote loser entered the White House as proof that the Electoral College needs to be abolished. The Electoral College was responsible for only two of the flipped contests.
The elections of 1824 and 1876 were decided by the House of Representatives. In 2000, it was the Supreme Court that picked the winner. Only in 1888 and 2016 did the operation of the Electoral College itself put the popular vote loser in the White House.
An interesting side note is that the relative of a former president: son, grandson or wife, was a candidate in four of the five elections where the popular vote loser won the election.
Are Elections Fair?
Another criticism of the Electoral College is that it appears to give outsized influence to small swing states. Without these crucial contests with small constituencies, all our leaders would be chosen by the mass media. Presidential candidates have to get out, press the flesh, and meet the voters in New Hampshire and Iowa in person.
Most people never see a presidential candidate in their entire lives, much less sit down and talk to a president. Citizens of the big states depend on the voters in Iowa and New Hampshire to do an early vetting of the personalities and character of the candidates. The crucial small swing states in other parts of the country during the General Election campaign serve the same essential function.
Is the Electoral College a fair way to pick a president? Not entirely. But the House of Representatives, supposedly based on equal population, is not fair either. There is no way to apportion 435 House seats among the 50 states so that there is no significant variation in population. Montana's House seat represents 994,000 people, almost double Delaware's which represents 568,000. These anomalies abound in all electoral systems.
And in the Senate, of course, where every state has two Senators regardless of population, the 39 states that together can not elect a president hold 78% of the power.
So, while no part of the American electoral system is perfectly democratic, the whole system, because of the checks and balances, is fairer than any of its parts. To change one part, willy-nilly, without carefully assessing its impact on the whole, would be foolhardy. Abolishing the Electoral College with its big state bias and moving to direct popular vote or apportioning electors would not make the system more democratic, it would just shift power away from the states, and increase the power of the Senate, the least democratic part of the federal government.