Background

Established in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is the formal body which elects the President and Vice President. It’s appointed every four years for this sole purpose by state legislatures, and consists of Electors in a number equal to each state’s congressional delegation (Representatives and Senators). In presidential elections, the voters actually vote for a slate of Electors who have vowed to cast their ballots for their preferred President/Vice President ticket.

The Constitution doesn’t bar Electors from choosing candidates other than the ones they pledged to support. Most states however use oaths and penalties to bind them. “Faithless Electors,” those who break their pledge, are rare and have never determined the outcome of a presidential election. Nearly all states follow the winner-take-all system, awarding all electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in that state. Only Nebraska and Maine allocate the electoral votes proportionately.

If the Electoral College doesn’t produce a majority winner, the election of the president goes to the House of Representatives where each state casts a single vote. Two Presidential elections (1800 and 1824) have been decided in the House.[1]

Prior to 1804, Electors made no distinction between candidates when voting for president and vice president. This created situations where rivals could occupy those posts. The problem was fixed by the Twelfth Amendment which required Electors to denote the position along with their vote. The closest Congress has come to amending the Electoral College since 1804 was in the late 1960s when the House passed a resolution eliminating the College altogether and replacing it with direct election and a runoff election if no candidate received more than 40% of the vote. The resolution cleared the House 338 to 70, but failed to pass the Senate.[2]

Calls for reforming the College grow louder every time it produces as the winner a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote. This has happened five times: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald J. Trump in 2016.

Critics want the College abolished. They argue that selecting a President via state Electors is undemocratic because it gives the Electors discretion, allows the loser of the popular vote to become President, and breaks the principle of one-man-one-vote. They say the system is also unfair because it encourages presidential candidates to pay attention to just a handful of swing states. And they criticize the College for being “a living symbol of America’s original sin,” since it gave slaveholding states an electoral edge at the nation’s founding.[3]

There have been movements to enact state laws requiring Electors to vote for the winner of the popular election.[4] There are proposals to enlarge the Electoral College to more closely reflect each state’s population.[5] And there is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an effort to get the states to agree to assign majority electoral votes to the winner of national popular election.[6]

Current Debate

“Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College” [Book by Jesse Wegman reviewed in The New York Times by Josh Chafetz; March 17, 2020][7]

Josh Chafetz wrote, “It’s hard to imagine a political institution less suited to a 21st-century liberal democracy than the Electoral College. It arose from a convoluted compromise hammered out late in the Constitutional Convention, and the rise of political parties in the late 18th century and the spread of democratic ideals in the early 19th quickly undermined its rationales. If it didn’t exist, no one today would consider creating it.

“But the Electoral College is worse than merely useless. Its primary function is to malapportion political power, and it does so — indeed, has always done so — with strikingly awful consequences. …

“Because a state’s number of electors is based on total population, not actual voters, it gives the states no incentive to enfranchise new groups of people, or to make voting easier for those eligible. And because states want to maximize their influence in selecting the president, they also have a strong incentive to use a winner-take-all approach to awarding electors, which all but two states currently do. The result — as we’ve now seen twice in the last two decades — is that a popular vote loser can be an Electoral College winner.”

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“A Definitive Case Against the Electoral College” [Interview of Jesse Wegman by Sean Illing; October 16, 2020][8]

Illing: Why have all the attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College failed?

Wegman: I think that the most common reason is because one or both political parties have seen themselves as benefiting from it in some way…

Illing: But the dynamics have changed, right? Now the Electoral College benefits the Republican Party almost exclusively.

Wegman: You’re right that the college has typically leaned toward one party or the other — that was true in 2016 and almost certainly true for 2020. But I’d also say that it’s harder than we think to say that definitively in advance of an election. Republicans won the 2004 election, but the Electoral College actually gave the Democrats a boost. If 60,000 votes went the other way in Ohio, George W. Bush would have won the national popular vote by 3 million votes, but John Kerry would’ve been elected. So the advantages aren’t so fixed…

Illing: What would you say is the biggest myth or misconception about the Electoral College?

Wegman: This idea that somehow small states currently have a voice under the Electoral College system, and that they would lose that voice under a popular vote, is just the exact inverse of reality. Right now, small states have no voice because they, like big states and medium-size states across the country, are not battleground states…

Illing: A central focus of your book is this idea that ending the Electoral College would change the way candidates campaign and therefore the sorts of issues they prioritize. Why is that a big deal?

Wegman: It’s a great question, and I think it really gets to the heart of what the problem is here. When candidates only visit a few states and even a few regions in those few states, you really see a warping of policy priorities. Both Democratic and Republican candidates focus on issues that are important to, say, coal miners in Pennsylvania or auto workers in Michigan, but those aren’t the only issues in the country. And if you have a campaign that is forced to pay attention to everyone in the country and has to treat every vote as equally important, which is what a popular vote election would be, this would solve these problems and it would be more fair to the country as a whole.

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“The Electoral College Is Racist” [By Laura Thompson; March-April Issue 2021][9]

Laura Thompson wrote, “The case against the Electoral College is straightforward: Because states are allocated electors based on the size of their congressional delegations, those with smaller populations have an outsize influence on presidential elections. The result is that a small number of voters in certain battleground states become kingmakers. By one analysis of the 2012 presidential election, four out of five voters had virtually zero influence on the outcome.

“The Electoral College was established by the framers of the Constitution as a last-minute deal, a gift to Southern states trying to protect slaveholders’ power and leverage the three-fifths compromise.

“But Trump’s ushering in of an ultraconservative minority-­rule presidency, and the threat that he would do it again in 2024, has established Electoral College reform as a serious progressive issue—especially following the Capitol Hill insurrection.”

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“The Electoral College Saved the Election” [By Christopher DeMuth; January 8, 2021][10]

Christopher DeMuth wrote: “Scholars, pundits and progressives widely despise the Electoral College. They think it antiquated, irrational and undemocratic and argue for scrapping it in favor of a national popular vote.

“But in 2020, when many hallowed American institutions submitted to street demonstrations and violence, the Electoral College proved a steadfast guardian of democracy. It can’t solve our problems on its own, but has given us a measure of stability to try for ourselves. A national popular election in 2020 would have made our problems immeasurably worse.

“The main complaints against the Electoral College are that it can elect someone who didn’t win the nationwide popular vote and that it causes candidates to campaign heavily in ‘battleground states’ while ignoring those they think they are certain to carry or not.

“These are certainly problems, but all election systems have problems, national popular vote included. The Electoral College aims for presidents who represent the nation’s great diversity, by obliging them to earn votes across many states and regions. It frequently bestows a broad-based majority mandate on a candidate who has won only a plurality of the national popular vote, which is particularly important in messy elections with three or more candidates. Abraham Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote in 1860—but 59% of the Electoral College. Richard Nixon in 1968 won 43% of the popular vote but 56% of the Electoral College, and Bill Clinton in 1992 won 43% of the popular vote but 69% of the Electoral College.

“Election by national popular vote would dispense with the need for continental diversification. Campaigns would focus on large, voter-rich metropolitan areas and media markets, and on appeals to national demographic and occupational groups. Presidential candidates wouldn’t need to immerse themselves in local issues. States, battleground or not, would disappear from the electoral calculus. The federal government would have to regulate voter and candidate qualifications, voting requirements and election procedures.

“A national popular vote would turn America into a multiparty democracy. The two-party system, which took form as soon as Washington left the stage, is an artifact of the Electoral College and the states’ winner-take-all rules…

“In 2020, the Electoral College began showing its stuff in March, when Joe Biden, who had done poorly in early primaries, suddenly emerged from a pack of far more vivid candidates to become the presumptive Democratic nominee. Party elders, led by Barack Obama, realized the key to the general election would be moderate suburban voters, including Trump-weary Republicans—many of whom were terrified of Bernie Sanders’s socialism and Elizabeth Warren’s economic populism. Mr. Biden’s opponents soon abandoned their campaigns.

“A national popular vote would have accentuated rather than moderated the zealous enthusiasms roiling the Democratic Party.”

This Blog’s Opinion

The Electoral College is a favorite punching bag for those who think America should be a more majoritarian country. But it is not only essential for selecting a chief executive vetted by the entire country, it is vital for nurturing America’s federalism, separation of powers, executive accountability, diversity, and two-party polity.

The College delivers a Chief Executive vetted not just by the people of every state but also by their state governments. Without the College, a candidate could win the Presidency by focusing on just a few large states, or by making populist promises harmful to America’s federalism. The College was devised to quell fears of parochialism in the selection of the President. Originally it did make direct election acceptable to slaveholding states, but its long-term purpose was to restrict Congress and certain large states from choosing the President, and thus reduce the danger of “cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” as Alexander Hamilton noted.[11]

Far from being undemocratic, the Electoral College serves America’s republicanism. A simple, popular election would produce a majoritarian winner, but the College allows the people of every state a direct say in the Executive branch. Without it, the small and sparsely populated states that make up most of the country would be ignored by presidential candidates. Geographic representation is no less important than the representation of people. The nation’s landmasses safeguard our natural resources, national security, and rural economy.

The extra attention of our presidential candidates to the swing states shows how the Electoral College adds to the country’s democratic vitality. Candidates are compelled to focus on issues important in each state and choose where they want to make a difference. This not only brings federal attention to each state, but provides a fillip to America’s diversity.

The Electoral College is also essential to our nation’s political cohesiveness. The direct nationwide presidential election, augmented by the Electoral College, reinforces America’s two-party polity. Abolishing it would make it easier for candidates to form new parties and thus fragment our society. The College is the main reason that Duverger’s Law, which postulates that majoritarian voting systems produce a two-party polity, works only in the United States.[12]

The College is also a brilliant alternative to runoff elections. Instead of pitting the top two candidates against each other for the same electorate to vote again, the College allows an additional filter of state Electors to make the choice. This helped our country pick a winner in many presidential elections where there were multiple candidates. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was elected in a four-way race, receiving only 40% of the popular vote but 180 of the required 303 Electoral College votes.

The Founders created the Electoral College as a new method of direct election. Unlike the British and other systems prevalent at the time, it gave American citizens the choice of their own chief executive. It was also a savvy compromise. It preserved states’ rights, increased the independence of the executive branch, and avoided the danger of provincialism involved in popular election. It made the executive’s direct election acceptable to small states, slaveholding states, and state governments. Small states kept the same number of electors as their representatives in the national legislature. Southern states were able to extend the three-fifths compromise, counting slaves in the president’s selection without openly parading the fact.  And state governments retained the power to appoint the electors. 

Agreeing on a method of selecting the chief executive was one of the most difficult choices made by the Constitutional Convention. The framers struggled for months considering the alternatives: direct election; legislative choice; gubernatorial election; even lottery. The method was ultimately settled in the last days by the 11-member Brearly Committee, which proposed election by special Electors chosen by the state legislatures. The proposal was drawn by James Madison, and it drew on ideas first proposed by James Wilson, the chief proponent of a directly elected chief executive. Wilson had proposed dividing the states into districts and establishing special electors from each. But Madison used an already accepted formula of state representation.

Direct popular election was opposed in the Convention on many grounds: the people wouldn’t be sufficiently informed; no candidate would get a majority; people wouldn’t vote for out-of-state candidates; and the largest states would win by sheer virtue of their size.  George Mason argued that giving the people this choice was like referring “a trial of colors to a blind man.”

Speaking on behalf of the Brearly Committee, Gouverneur Morris said the chief reason for the Electoral College was “the indispensible necessity of making the executive independent of the legislature.” “Nobody had appeared to be satisfied with an appointment by the legislature,” he said. “Many were anxious even for an immediate choice by the people.”[13]

The plan was met with a great sense of relief and passed 8 to 3. Wilson said it was “a valuable improvement.” “It gets rid of one great evil, that of cabal and corruption; and Continental characters will multiply as we more and more coalesce, so as to enable the electors in every part of the Union to know and judge of them.” Mason noted that the College “removed some capital objections, particularly the danger of cabal and corruption.”

Political scientists generally support keeping the Electoral College.[14] “The Electoral College is the devil we know,” wrote Yale constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar.[15]


[1] https://history.house.gov/Institution/Electoral-College/Electoral-College/

[2] https://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Electoral-College/

[3] The New York Times, Editorial; 19 December 2016; https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/opinion/time-to-end-the-electoral-college.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

[4] https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/

[5] Sabato, L. J. (2007). A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize Our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country. New York: Walker Publishing.

[6] https://www.nationalpopularvote.com/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/books/review/let-the-people-pick-the-president-jesse-wegman.html

[8] https://www.vox.com/21142223/electoral-college-2020-election-jesse-wegman

[9] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/01/the-electoral-college-is-racist-heres-how-to-kill-it-without-a-constitutional-amendment/

[10] https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-electoral-college-saved-the-election-11610133725

[11] The Federalist No. 68

[12] Duverger’s Law is a dead parrot. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2012/06/20/duvergers-law-is-dead/

[13] Constitutional Convention quotations are from Madison’s Notes; https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1909#Elliot_1314-05_2172

[14] https://www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/faq.html#changes

[15] ‘Actually, the Electoral College Was a Pro-Slavery Ploy’ by Akhil Reed Amar, The New York Times, 6 Apr 2019