In Praise of the Electoral College

“America’s Constitutional system aims not merely for majority rule, but rule by certain kinds of majorities… All 537 of those elected to national offices – the President, Vice President, 100 Senators, and 435 Representatives – are chosen by majorities that reflect the Nation’s federal nature.” George F. Will 2004

“To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of Electoral College or by… the House of Representatives.” – President Andrew Jackson, December 8, 1829, first Annual Message to Congress.


Americans elect a President through the state-by-state mechanism of the Electoral College, rather than direct nationwide popular vote. Today, all but two states award all of their electoral votes to the statewide winner. Ever since Andrew Jackson was denied the Presidency by the US House in 1824, some have called for its abolition. It is timely to consider the value of this vital and controversial institution devised by our Founders in 1787 in the world’s oldest Constitution.

Three criticisms of the College are made:

  1. It is “undemocratic”
  2. It permits the election of a candidate who does not win the most votes
  3. It’s winner-takes-all approach cancels the votes of the losing candidates in each state

Is it undemocratic? Those who call the Electoral College “undemocratic” often claim it represents the Founders’ fear an of an imprudent electorate, whose choice for President is best confirmed by wise and dispassionate electors. This view ignores the great debate of the Constitutional Convention between the small and large state delegates. The US Congress itself reflects this struggle. Each state has two US Senators regardless of size, while US House seats are apportioned by population.

The Electoral College evolved from a similar compromise. Fearing dominance from the populous states of New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia (which included West Virginia in 1787), small states proposed election of the President by the 13 state legislatures – each holding a single vote. Some wanted the US Congress to elect our President. Large-state delegates such as Madison of Virginia naturally favored direct popular election. The Electoral College was an ingenious compromise, allowing the popular election of the US President, but on a state-by-state basis. Citizens vote for President, with the winner in each state taking all the state’s electoral votes based on the number of seats that state has in the US Senate and US House combined. In this sense, the Electoral College is no more “undemocratic” than is the US Senate or the US Supreme Court. Without this large vs. small state compromise, the Convention of 1787 may not have succeeded. Without this system, states such as Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, the Dakotas and Delaware might never see a Presidential candidate.

Against the will of the majority? The second criticism of the Electoral College is the most challenging. One must defend the Electoral College not as perfect, but as a better solution than the alternative, i.e. direct popular election of the President. In very close elections, victory can be denied the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred four times in 57 Presidential elections: Adams (1824), Hayes (1876), Harrison (1888), Bush (2000) – and only once since 1888. The Electoral College requires the election of a President by majorities, but state-by- state. Two political wills are thus engaged — that of the citizenry of each state, and that of the 50 states acting together. As a “nation of states,” this is part of American federalism. In 53 of 57 US elections, this state-by-state system has meant that the winner build support across the Nation, not in just a handful of large urban areas.

Those who would abolish the Electoral College advocate using a simple majority vote rule, i.e. the candidate receiving 50%+ of the popular vote is the victor. However, often no one receives 50% of the national vote because of third-party candidates such as Roosevelt and Debs (1912), Wallace (1968), Perot (1992)… and Nader (2000). In the 57 presidential elections since 1789, no candidate received 50% of the vote on 18 occasions, including Lincoln (39.7% – 1860), Wilson (41.8% – 1912), Truman (49.6% – 1948), Kennedy (49.7% – 1960), and Clinton (43% – 1992 & 49% – 1996) to name the most famous “minority Presidents”. In contrast, all won a majority of the states’ Electoral College votes!

The Electoral College creates a national majority for new Presidents, regardless of the popular vote margin. Reflecting the will of majorities in the 50 states, the College legitimizes the result. A sharply divided America gave Lincoln only 39.7% of the vote in 1860. However, Lincoln won 180 electoral votes – more than double the second place finisher, Breckinridge. This gave his election legitimacy at a critical moment in American history. Moreover, if America used direct elections, many more “third party” candidates would arise to render US election vote margins even more inconclusive than in the past. Most third party candidates receive no Electoral College votes. In 1992, Ross Perot received 19% of the vote, but no Electoral votes.

In a continental republic of 310 million people, the Electoral College discourages political atomization and focuses the minds of our citizens on two main candidates. Look at the scene today. Senator Sanders is running for the nomination of the Democratic Party, even though he is not a member of that party – he is a Socialist. Mr. Trump is running for the Republican nomination even though his allegiance to either of party has been tangential. Sanders and Trump are not running as Independents because Electoral College state-by-state victory requirements require them to connect with our two-party system. This is a good thing. In sharp contrast, the multi-party political systems in Europe are replete with “coalition governments” and intractable “gridlocks”. Self-rule is hard. “Simple” solutions can beget complicated, and even harsh results.

Are votes wasted? The third criticism is that the “winner-takes-all” provision cancels the votes not cast for a state’s Presidential choice. For example, Virginia votes cast for Mondale in 1980 were “cancelled” because all 13 of its electoral votes were given to Reagan. In fact, all elections have this effect given that there is only one winner in every contest. In 1980, 37.6 million Mondale votes were “cancelled” by 54.5 million Americans who voted for Reagan. We inherited the idea of “winner takes all” elections from the British Parliament, by the way.

The rise of sectional and ideological divisions? The abolition of the Electoral College would have significant negative impacts on our political system. First, a President would no longer be elected by the collective will of the 50 states. Small states like Delaware might be wholly ignored. Second, candidates would tend to campaign in urban areas, no longer seeking to “win statewide”. This might alienate millions in small towns and rural states such as Iowa, Wyoming and Alaska. Third, a focus on urban areas and away from statewide politics would undermine a two-party system that serves our continental republic well. A splintered and incoherent set of regional and issue-oriented parties would likely spring up. Atomization at the Presidential level would be sure to spill over to our state legislatures and Congress. They might move from binary to multi-party “governing coalitions” – as fragile, ineffective, and short-lived as those in most EU Parliaments today.

Fourth, the number of Presidential candidates would rise sharply — not to win, but to deny any candidate 50% of the vote. This would lead to a national run-off election with political deal making and ballot litigation that would make Florida’s 2000 recount seem like a minor dust-up. Recounting Florida was grueling; a national recount of 100+ million ballots is impossible! Finally, citizens of small and rural states – ignored by Presidential campaigns – might consider leaving a “union” that no longer valued their voices or votes in choosing a President. The historic small vs. large state Constitutional compromise of 1787 would be dissolved. Forces of disunity the Founders sought to avoid would arise. We have enough of that already today.

The Founders’ Electoral College is a unique republican mechanism. It creates Presidential majorities, engenders national Presidential campaigns, and maintains a robust federalism, which operates most effectively within a strong two-party system. When someone says, “let’s abolish the Electoral College”, it is fair to ask, “With what would you replace it, and how would the new system affect American federalism, our two-party system, and the unity of the United States? Removing one gear from a watch affects the entire mechanism. Let’s keep the Electoral College system!

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14 Comments

  • 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 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!

  • 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), Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska, the Dakotas and Delaware do not see or hear (much if anything) from Presidential candidates after the conventions.

    In 2012, Delaware had $0 in TV ad spending and 0 visits.
    Same for Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska.
    South Dakota $1,810, 0 visits.
    North Dakota $346,490, 0 visits.

    In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention 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.

  • The Electoral College does NOT require the election of a President by majorities, state-by- state.

    With the current system of electing the President, none of the states requires that a presidential candidate receive anything more than the most popular votes in order to receive all of the state’s or district’s electoral votes.

  • 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).

    38 states, like Delaware, were taken for granted, ignored, politically irrelevant.

    In the 2012 presidential election, 1.3 million votes decided the winner in the ten 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.

  • 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.

    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 National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the majority of Electoral College votes for the candidate who receives the most (not necessarily a majority of) popular votes in the country. It creates a national majority for new Presidents that ratifies and legitimizes the vote of the people. It does not abolish the Electoral College.

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes. There would no longer be a handful of ‘battleground’ states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 80%+ of the states, like Delaware, that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The National Popular Vote bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    In 2011, the Delaware House of Representatives approved the National Popular Vote bill. The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 11 jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    http://www.NationalPopularVote.com

  • A survey of Delaware voters showed 75% overall support for a national popular vote for President.

    Support was 79% among Democrats, 69% among Republicans, and 76% among independents.

    By age, support was 71% among 18-29 year olds, 70% among 30-45 year olds, 77% among 46-65 year olds, and 77% for those older than 65.

    By gender, support was 81% among women and 69% among men.

    In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in every state surveyed recently. In the 41 red, blue, and purple states surveyed, overall support has been in the 67-81% range – in rural states, in small states, in Southern and border states, in big states, and in other states polled

    Most Americans don’t ultimately care whether their presidential candidate wins or loses in their state or district . . . they care whether he/she wins the White House. Voters want to know, that even if they were on the losing side, their vote actually was equally counted and mattered to their candidate. Most Americans think it is wrong that the candidate with the most popular votes can lose. We don’t allow this in any other election in our representative republic.

    NationalPopularVote.com

  • In elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most votes throughout the entire jurisdiction served by that office, historical evidence shows that there is no proliferation of third-party candidates and candidates do not win with small percentages. For example, in 905 elections for governor in the last 60 years, the winning candidate received more than 50% of the vote in over 91% of the elections. The winning candidate received more than 45% of the vote in 98% of the elections. The winning candidate received more than 40% of the vote in 99% of the elections. No winning candidate received less than 35% of the popular vote.

  • The current state-by-state winner-take-all system does not protect the two-party system. It simply discriminates against third-party candidates with broad-based support, while rewarding regional third-party candidates. In 1948, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace both got about 1.1 million popular votes, but Thurmond got 39 electoral votes (because his vote was concentrated in southern states), whereas Henry Wallace got none. Similarly, George Wallace got 46 electoral votes with 13% of the votes in 1968, while Ross Perot got 0 electoral votes with 19% of the national popular vote in 1992. The current system punishes third-party candidates whose support is broadly based.

  • The National Popular Vote bill ensures that every voter is equal, every voter will matter to the candidates, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    Under National Popular Vote, every voter, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would matter in the state counts and national count.

    The National Popular Vote bill would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the presidential candidate they did not vote for. Now they don’t matter to their candidate.

    And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state, are wasted and don’t matter to presidential candidates.
    Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004.
    Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000 “wasted” votes for Bush in 2004 — larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes).
    8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

    In 2008, voter turnout in the then 15 battleground states averaged seven points higher than in the 35 non-battleground states.
    In 2012, voter turnout was 11% higher in the then 9 battleground states than in the remainder of the country.

  • If regionalism were a threat in elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most popular votes, we would see some evidence of this after over 5,000 gubernatorial elections since 1789.

    In large and diverse California, there is no Los Angeles party, no Central Valley party, no Bay Area party, and no Northern California party. There is no farmers’ party, labor party, Catholic party, women’s party, or vegetarian party.

    And there certainly is not a history of extremism when governors, senators, and representatives have been chosen in elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most popular votes.

    Four states elected their governors by popular vote when the Constitution took effect in 1789, and since then, all states have adopted popular election of their chief executive.

    After over 5,000 gubernatorial elections in which the winner was the candidate receiving the most popular votes, the two-party system has yet to break down.

  • Not a single legislative bill has been introduced in any state legislature in recent decades (among the more than 100,000 bills that are introduced in every two-year period by the nation’s 7,300 state legislators) proposing to change the existing universal practice of the states to award electoral votes to the candidate who receives a plurality (as opposed to absolute majority) of the votes (statewide or district-wide). There is no evidence of any public sentiment in favor of imposing such a requirement.

    If an Electoral College type of arrangement were essential for avoiding a proliferation of candidates and people being elected with low percentages of the vote, we should see evidence of these conjectured outcomes in elections that do not employ such an arrangement. In elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most votes throughout the entire jurisdiction served by that office, historical evidence shows that there is no massive proliferation of third-party candidates and candidates do not win with small percentages.

    Americans do not view the absence of run-offs in the current system as a major problem. If, at some time in the future, the public demands run-offs, that change can be implemented at that time.

    And, again, with the current system of awarding electoral votes by state winner-take-all (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), it could only take winning a plurality of the popular vote in 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.

  • The idea that recounts will be likely and messy with National Popular Vote is distracting.

    No recount, much less a nationwide recount, would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 57 presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.
    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.
    “It’s an arsonist itching to burn down the whole neighborhood by torching a single house.” Hertzberg

    The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush’s lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore’s nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

    Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state by-state winner-take-all methods.

    The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

    The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

    We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

    Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

    The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a “final determination” prior to the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their “final determination” six days before the Electoral College meets.

  • Support for a national popular vote is strong in rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states.

    With the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes, none of the 10 most rural states is a battleground state. They, along with 80%+ of states are politically irrelevant in presidential elections.
    The current state-by-state winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes does not enhance the influence of rural states, because the most rural states are not battleground states, and they are ignored. Their states’ votes were conceded months in advance 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. When and where voters are ignored, then so are the issues they care about most.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

    The 25 smallest states voted Republican or Democratic 12-13 in 2008 and 2012.

    In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions after Mitt Romney became the presumptive Republican nominee on April 11. 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.

    Voters in states, of all sizes, that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group

    Among the 13 lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in 9 state legislative chambers (including the Delaware House of Representatives), and been enacted by 4 jurisdictions.