Americans tend to think of the presidential election as a direct vote of the people. Most are aware that there is a subtotal of votes by state, with that state’s total “electoral votes” going entirely to the highest vote getter in that state. This is why we know that there are “battleground states” which have a relatively even split of voters, and are therefore hotly contested by the candidates.
Such an understanding would be incomplete. America’s founding fathers had only recently completed a revolution against a distant power that imposed “taxation without representation”, and were acutely apprehensive about ceding too much power to a central authority. They created an entirely new form of government, a federal republic of independent states with many checks and balances upon the powers of a national government. Congress was organized as a bicameral body, one with representation apportioned strictly by population (the House of Representatives), and another (the Senate) with equal votes for each state, regardless of its size or population. This format was intended to preserve the rights of the smaller states, and prevent them from being overwhelmed in government by the larger states.
The Electoral College (EC) today has 538 Electors. Each state is entitled to a number of electors equal to that state’s representation in Congress (Senate + House). Because each state has two Senators and at least one Representative, every state has at least three electors. Since the 23rd Amendment passed in 1961, Washington, DC has also had 3 electoral votes. Currently California has the largest number of electors: 55.
The electors meet in their respective state capitals about a month after the general election to cast their votes for president and vice president. These electors, who together form the EC, are the ones who actually elect the president. If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. This happened in 1800 and again in 1824. The choice in the House is made on a one-state/one-vote basis, which means, obviously, that the single representatives of Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, and North and South Dakota which combined represent about 1.4% of all Americans, have voting power equal to the combined delegations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, which represent about 40.3% of us. States rights are one thing, but does this sound remotely democratic to anyone?
States with many buffalo and few people, like Wyoming, derive disproportionate influence in national elections from the EC and are not keen on changing it. Since every state gets at least three electors, low-population states have far more political power than they would have in a direct election system. The number of voters per elector is about four times smaller in the three-elector states than in the more populous states. Direct election of the president would eliminate the current bias in favor of the Republicans, since there are five predominantly Republican three elector states and only two states and Washington, D.C. are mostly Democratic three elector entities. The Electoral Map below shows the current votes of each state and indicates whether their populations are overwhelmingly Democratic, Republican or mixed. It should be noted that the colors shown are for the states’ voting history in presidential elections. In practice, many of the states are “purple”, with the parties splitting the governorship and control of state legislatures.
It is curious to note that every state elects it’s “president”, a/k/a Governor with a strictly popular vote? If one person, one vote is the right way to pick every governor, why not the country’s president?
Some might argue that the Electoral College hampers democracy because it prevents 3rd party candidates from prevailing unless their support is concentrated in fewer states rather than widespread thinly across the country. But broad distribution of support is also required in order to be able to govern, so perhaps that is a good thing?
Having an EC affects voter turnout in various ways. Differences in turnout between swing states and non-swing states under the current electoral college system suggest that replacing the EC with direct election by popular vote would likely increase turnout and participation significantly.The Electoral College depresses voter participation in much of the nation. If one knows their vote will be overwhelmed by the other party’s advantage in that state, their vote doesn’t “count” and we retard participation. Also, a state with low voter turnout gets precisely the same number of electoral votes as if it had a high turnout. By contrast, a well-designed (more) direct election system could spur states to get out the vote.
Of course, one might question the notion that higher voter participation in elections would be a social positive. Some might note that one of the reasons the founding fathers created the EC was that the general public could not be entrusted to wisely choose their president directly. Of course, this was a time when women were disenfranchised and slaves, who of course could not vote, we counted as 3/5ths of a human in determining the apportionment of the slave states’ electoral votes and congressional districts.
Another artifact of the EC is that our candidates mostly campaign in the battleground states that might go either way in a general election. In 2004, for example, a full 99% of all advertising expenditures by the two major-party candidates were concentrated in only seventeen of the states. Florida and Ohio alone accounted for more than 45% ($111 million) of the $235 million spent in all of these states.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for scrapping the EC is that it does not serve the nation well when we have a closely contested election. On four occasions, 1876, 1888, 1960, and 2000, the winner of a plurality of the popular vote was not elected president.
So with all these problems, why don’t Americans demand an end to the EC? Isn’t it merely a relic of a bygone age? Getting rid of the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment. Amending the constitution is (by design) an exceptionally difficult process requiring not only 2/3 majorities of both houses of Congress, but also by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states.
A major criticism of the EC is its winner-take-all character. If Florida’s 25 electoral votes had been split in 2000 13 for George Bush and 12 for Al Gore, then Gore would have been president. There is nothing in the constitution mandating winner-take-all. The manner for choosing electors is regulated by state, not federal law. In fact, two states, Maine and Nebraska, do not use winner-take-all. In those states, the winner of each congressional district gets one elector and the winner of the state as a whole gets an additional two.
Diogenes believes that the fastest, easiest, and best to be hoped for solution to the problems posed by the Electoral College would be for each state to have directly proportional allocation of its electoral votes to each candidate. This would preserve a large measure of the disproportionate influence of smaller states in presidential elections while forcing candidates to run more truly national campaigns that would engage much higher proportions of the electorate. Any state that wanted to adopt this system need only pass a state law to do so. No constitutional amendment would be required.