Why The Electoral College Doesn't Work
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
The electoral college is something I’ve always taken for granted as a system that just makes sense, like the cat having permanent dibs on all the chairs in the house, or giving my wife all my money. It turns out, upon further inspection, something may be a bit off here.
I’ve never given much thought to it beyond the standard belief that “it exists so that big cities don't dominate Presidential elections.” Seems reasonable.
The 2020 election made me want to re-examine everything I knew about US elections, including the electoral college. The facts led me to change my opinion on it, let me explain how I got there.
What I wanted to better understand going in was:
1. How did the founders land on this system?
2. Does it work the way they intended?
3. What are the side effects?
4. Is this our best option?
THE REAL REASONS WHY THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE WAS CREATED
Why did the founders develop the electoral college system in the first place? Nothing like it had existed prior at this scale, it’s mostly an original idea.
The standard answer to this question, the answer I believed until now, is “so that voting power isn’t consolidated in large cities, forcing presidential candidates to campaign across the country and hear the concerns of rural America.”
Essentially it's a means to ensure that rural America has a seat at the table. The founders didn’t want a presidential candidate to hang out in New York, Philadelphia, etc. and gain enough votes to win by just making promises to big cities with lots of people.
There are a couple pretty simple reasons why that wasn't what the Founding Fathers were thinking about while they worked this out.
At the time of the creation of the electoral college, there was no such thing as a “Presidential Campaign.” Not simply because there hadn’t been one under the new constitution yet, but because it was not considered socially acceptable for candidates to openly campaign for votes directly to the American people. That sounds incredibly strange to us now, but that’s how things were.
The first presidential candidate that actually campaigned on the road was William Henry Harrison in 1840. He rode around in a carriage and gave a total of 20 speeches, like a boss. For context that’s 53 years after the Constitution was written. WHH was the 9th President of the United States and died of pneumonia less than a month into his Presidency after refusing to wear a coat at his inauguration… freakin legend.
Ok, but even though presidential candidates didn’t campaign it’s still valid that this system was developed to prevent big cities from holding all the power.
Closer… but not really…
The Constitution was written in 1787. At the time you had to be white, male and (in almost every state) own land to vote. New York & Rhode Island allowed you to vote without holding land as long as you owned $40 of personal property, in New Hampshire it was $50 of personal property, which was a significant amount.
Notably there wasn't an abundance of people that met the criteria. Barely anyone voted 2 years later in the election of 1789. Delaware had 3% of its population vote, 2059 ballots cast. Georgia had a 5% turnout. New York had a 3% turnout. Rhode Island had a 0.7% turnout, it was like 1 dude named Pawtucket Pat casting a ballot in RI.
These voting restrictions nullified the population advantage of “big cities” and would continue to do so for decades after. You know where white men are less likely to own land? Cities. For the Founding Fathers it was never about the cities.
Ok, so the electoral college wasn’t created to make presidential candidates travel around and listen to rural America, and it wasn’t created to make sure big cities didn’t have all the power, so what was the driving force behind this thing?
There are 2 main reasons we ended up with our current electoral college system...
1. To prevent a small number of more populous STATES from coming together to consolidate power.
This is why I said “closer” above. The logic is relatively the same, but the founders were afraid of big states not cities.
I’m not trying to split semantic hairs here, it’s worth calling out the difference to highlight that we frame this debate today as “big cities vs. rural towns” which was not the problem the Founding Fathers were trying to solve for at the time. They were thinking far more regionally in their decision-making process, and a lot less surgically than the gerrymandered district lines we operate within today.
They had reason to be concerned...
There were only 59 total members in the House of Representatives in 1789. It was much easier to pool power, you didn’t really have to convince that many states to join your group to form a majority. You could get to a 30 person majority with Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and either Maryland or New York. Just 4 states.
They quickly added North Carolina and Rhode Island to bring the House total to 65 and make it so you needed +1 state to get there, but the point is this was a very real and pressing concern for them.
It’s accurate to say that the Founding Fathers developed the electoral college to defend against having the needs of a few states dominate the agenda.
That’s only half the story however, the boring half it turns out...
2. They were afraid that a direct democracy would lead to an unqualified President and the fall of America.
Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, in his argument against a direct democracy, rapped that it would allow an “unprincipled man” to “exploit public passions.”
Think within the framework of the problems of 1787. I’m going to repeat that, think within the framework of the problems of 1787.
How does the average voter in North Carolina gain a comprehensive understanding of foreign affairs, enough to cast an informed vote for the President of the United States? Are they Googling policy positions in 1787? No. They have no possible way to make an informed decision at the time, the news doesn’t move quickly or comprehensively enough, not to mention a significant portion of the US population can’t read.
The Founding Fathers were concerned that a direct democracy would be easily exploited.
Someone could ride a horse through the countryside telling voters that candidate Reginald Beauregard Pennyworth is going to sell Delaware back to England and the people would have no possible way to vet that information prior to voting.
That's a ridiculous example, but that's the idea, they were afraid you could say anything you wanted to win the votes of an uninformed voting public in a direct democracy.
They came up with a rather genius idea in the context of that day. People wouldn’t vote for the President directly, instead they would vote for local smart people they knew who would travel to Washington and cast a vote for President on their behalf.
Let me explain the logic...
Let’s say you live in a small town in Georgia in 1789. You don’t know much about what’s going on in national politics, nobody in your town really does, you don’t even know the names of half the presidential candidates. You can’t possibly know who would represent your best interests as President.
You do know Theodore though. He’s lived in your town his whole life, is trusted by everyone. Theodore can read and write well, can reason well, just a stand out intelligent guy. Theodore understands your town's struggles and is smart enough to make a good choice on your behalf.
Your town gets together and decides that Theodore is going to represent you in the electoral college. It’s his job to go up to Washington in December, listen to and learn about the presidential candidates, and make an informed decision on which one is best suited to the needs of your town.
The town votes for Theodore to be their "elector," and in December after properly vetting all the options in Washington he casts an informed vote for a presidential candidate on behalf of the town.
That’s the electoral college in a nutshell. We didn't vote for the President on November 3rd, we voted for a bunch of (theoretically) smart people called a “slate of electors” that represent our state in Washington DC in December and cast informed votes on our behalf to decide the next President.
At least that was the original intent.
Over time this slate of electors stopped making independent decisions and started simply casting their ballots in line with the popular vote in their state. At this point the role of “elector” still exists, real people still go up to Washington DC to cast electoral college ballots, but it’s entirely ceremonial.
… most of the time. The norm of having electors cast their ballot in line with the popular vote of their state is not actually a law in most states. It’s an honors system, one that is broken from time to time. Electors that don’t vote in line with the popular vote in their given state are called “Faithless Electors.”
The most Faithless Electors we’ve ever had in a single Presidential Election was in… checks notes … 2016?! 10 members of the Electoral College broke from the popular vote of their state in 2016, mostly breaking against Clinton in case you were curious.
Back to the topic at hand...
So we’ve established that the reasons the founding fathers created the electoral college were A) they wanted to avoid the consolidation of power among a small group of states and B) they wanted to take the actual decision making out of the hands of an uninformed public and place it in the hands of a select group of informed electors.
DOES THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE ACCOMPLISH WHAT IT WAS DESIGNED TO DO?
On the scoreboard… no, the electoral college is 0-2 when it comes to accomplishing the goals it was specifically designed to hit.
The electoral college failed to prevent the consolidation of power to a few select states, it simply changed the states. Instead of our elections being dominated by 4-5 large states, they are instead dominated by 4-5 “swing” states.
In the 2020 election there was a serious debate over fracking. Everyone was talking about fracking. Why?
Pennsylvania is a swing state, and they care about policy related to fracking. To stay in power you need to talk about fracking because you need Pennsylvania. Once you take office you need to push policy related to fracking to keep Pennsylvania happy.
Do people in Iowa give a frack? Who knows, who cares, they’re not swing state.
Does either party talk about issues specific to Kentucky like they do the fracking issue in Pennsylvania? Do we have debate questions on the national bourbon stockpile? No, Kentucky is solidly in the red column, you don’t need to travel there, you don’t need to talk about their issues in a debate, they are locked in.
Same goes for California in the blue column. If California was a swing state the presidential debates would be filled with questions related to wild fires, or… vineyards… I don’t know, the point is they’re not a swing state so candidates don’t focus on their problems.
Arguably this is worse than the original problem it's attempting to solve. At least if the largest states dominated the dialog during a presidential campaign more Americans would be heard. As it stands the states deciding elections, the states holding all the focus, are not the largest states, therefore we have fewer total Americans being listened to.
What about the second part? Having an informed slate of electors travel to Washington to listen to the candidates and make an educated decision based on what they feel is best suited to the needs of their community.
No. We threw that concept out a long time ago, the position of elector is purely ceremonial at this point.
So that’s 0-2 Electoral College... 0-2.
"But we've kept it around, so there has to be some positive effect it's having on elections."
You're right voice in my head, let's examine both the positive and negative effects of the electoral college.
POSITIVE SIDE EFFECTS
It is not a complete failure. The electoral college does establish very valuable norms.
Over time swing states change, meaning the conversation moves a bit with each presidential cycle depending on who is running and how the demographics of a state have changed.
In 2020 Georgia became a swing state. In 2024 Georgia will be central to the strategy for both parties. Georgia’s unique issues will be elevated in a way they haven’t been for decades.
The electoral college as it stands today allows states to shift in and out of pole position over time. Texas may become a swing state in the coming years as the demographics change. When it does Texas will enjoy an increased amount of focus, and the country will learn a lot more about issues specific to Texas.
This allows room for special interests to take center stage. Using the fracking example again, fracking isn’t necessarily a part of the national conversation without Pennsylvania being as important as it was in 2020. Fracking is an important issue but is relatively regional. It’s good for everyone in the country to learn a little something about fracking, even if it’s not an issue specific to where they live.
+1 point: The electoral college spurs that diversity of interest over time.
It is much harder to cheat in the electoral college system. If you're reading this in 2020 you're going to have to temporarily remove yourself from the 2020 election noise to follow me on this one.
The electoral college, because it boils the election down to a select group of "swing" states, is incredibly hard to cheat. There is just a much smaller and more scrutinized collection of voting precincts that matter as compared to a national popular vote where any place in the country could fudge the numbers and have it effect the outcome.
If there was a national direct popular vote every corner of the country would have incentive to doctor their numbers to maximize the vote total in favor of their preferred candidate.
+1 point: The electoral college is much harder to cheat.
It doesn’t allow for New York, LA and Chicago to own presidential elections. That’s got to be a positive effect even if it wasn’t the original intention, right?
I’m going to include my view on this here because I believe people will be expecting to see this point in the Positive Effects column for the electoral college. Facts don't really lead me to this conclusion.
In 2020 161M people voted in the presidential election. If we elected our president strictly based on popular vote that means you’d need roughly 81M votes to win, all else the same.
To accomplish that using cities alone, you’d need every single vote in the largest 200 cities in America. 200 cities located across 44 states.
You'd never get every vote in a given city. You would need a significant portion of Suburban and Rural America to vote for you to win. It would be impossible to consolidate power simply by winning cities.
You may feel like a direct popular vote would give all the power to the cities because that's what we've all heard for our entire lives, but the math shows that your feelings on that are not based in fact. I was in this exact same boat until I actually looked at it for myself.
+0 points: The electoral college defends against the red herring that cities would become too powerful without it.
NEGATIVE SIDE EFFECTS
The electoral college creates an imbalance in voting power. 1 person does not equal 1 vote, mathematically your vote counts more or less depending on where you live.
It’s very simple math. Electoral College Votes per State = # of Congressmen + # of Senators
The number of Congressmen each state gets is based on that state’s population. The number of Senators is fixed at 2 per state regardless of population.
Wyoming has 3 electoral college votes. They only have 1 Congressmen, as their total state population is 578k (about the same number of people that are in the city of Albuquerque, NM). They get their 3 electoral college votes because of that +2 Senator boost.
Wyoming; 578k / 3 = 1 Electoral College Vote per 193k People.
California gets 55 electoral college votes, 53 Congressmen + 2 Senators. California has a population of 39.5.M people.
California; 39.5M / 55 = 1 Electoral College Vote per 718k People.
So, 1 person in Wyoming has the same voting power as around 4 people in California under the current Electoral College system.
-1 point: The electoral college creates a voting power imbalance.
Short tangent here…
Generally, minority populations in the US don’t live in places like Wyoming. Minority populations live in large cities, as rural America hasn’t been very welcoming to them historically.
What that effectively means is that most of the minority population in America lives in states with bigger cities where their voting power is diminished by the electoral college.
Due to this the question comes up occasionally, is the Electoral College racist? I would answer this question "No, the electoral college is not racist."
It’s not direct enough to be classified as racist in my estimation. We need to draw the line somewhere, everything that disproportionately effects minority communities can’t be classified under the single catch-all term "racist." Eskimos have 8 different words for snow, we need to come up with some variation in the concept of "racist."
Do the side effects of the Electoral College disproportionately, negatively effect minority communities? Yes. Does that make the Electoral College a racist system, No.
I would contrast this against the Justice System where arrests and sentencing are a very direct exercise. I would classify the current Justice System as racist because people’s individual bias directly effects every stage in the process, and the system itself nurtures racial bias in its participants.
Classifying the electoral college using the same term is too big a stretch for me.
Another negative effect of the Electoral College is that it discourages participation in states that aren’t “swing” states.
If you’re a Republican voter in California (there are 4.7M registered Republicans in the state of California), what is your incentive to participate in a Presidential election? You’re not going to win any electors, there are 8.6M registered Democrats in your state, you're wildly outnumbered.
Are you going to stand in that line for a half hour on principle? Do people care as much about down-ballot as they do about the Presidential election? Some do, but not most.
States with the lowest voter turnout are the states where the outcome is locked in. Oklahoma 55%, Arkansas 56%, West Virginia 57% as compared to the “swing” states Minnesota 80%, Wisconsin 76%, Michigan 74%, Florida 71%.
Quick call out here, Maine splits its Electoral College votes based on congressional district and enjoys a 79% voter turnout. Nebraska does the same and is up around 70%. More on this later.
-1 point: The electoral college discourages voter participation.
The additional effect of the imbalance in voting power is that we’ve regularly run into a situation where the people in charge do not represent a majority of the people they’re in charge of.
The core American ideal is that power is derived from the people, not a ruling class or a king.
Bush 2000 lost the popular vote. Trump 2016 lost the popular vote. That’s 8 years in the last 20 (40%) where power was not derived from the will of the majority, it was instead a result of the system.
It’s not sustainable. American’s don’t generally take kindly to being ruled over by a non-majority representative group of people, we had a tea party about it back in the day.
-1 point: The electoral college makes room for a ruling class that is not reflective of the majority of the American people.
Finally, it's a ticking time bomb.
Faithless Electors (electoral college votes that go against the majority will of the people in a given state) have never swayed the outcome of an election, but that doesn't mean they couldn't.
We got very close to a scenario in the 2020 election where the candidates could have been separated by 2 electoral college votes. That's not hyperbole, if you shift ~200k votes across a couple states you would have seen a 270-268 victory.
That means if 3 Faithless Electors emerged (and again there were 10 in 2016) they could completely subvert the outcome of the election and give the presidency to the loser.
That's a glaring problem with our current system that's just sitting there, and is likely the fastest way to a 2nd Civil War that could possibly exist. There is no way either candidate would concede if candidate A won, and candidate B was granted the presidency in a completely constitutional but obviously unfair manner.
-1 point: The electoral college could lead to Faithless Electors deciding the outcome.
If you're keeping score that's +2 for the EC, -4 against.
While designing the electoral college the Founding Fathers simply couldn’t see the future, there was no way for them to know how the country’s population, geography and technology would develop over time.
It leaves us with a system that was designed for a world that we simply don't exist in anymore, which begs the question, should we change the system?
IS THERE A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?
I think there are 2 possible paths to reform the electoral college if that’s the direction we choose to go; toss it completely in favor of a direct popular vote, or some combination of the electoral college & popular vote that I’ll outline last.
First, what would a direct popular vote look like in the US?
Nobody really knows.
If historically we elected our President strictly based on popular vote the Democrats would have won 7 of the last 8 Presidential elections.
The real reason Republicans fight against a popular vote can be found right here, it’s the desire to hold onto relevance without compromising on policy positions.
If you think of popular vote elections as a free market, the electoral college would be socialism. You're taking influence away from one group and giving it to another arbitrarily in the name of "fairness."
In a free market system if demand for your policy positions isn't high enough to win you need to adjust your policy positions. If you'd rather hold firm to your principles and lose every single election, fine, welcome to the Libertarian party brother. One of us... one of us... one of us...
Instead what's being done is that Republicans are holding onto a system that tips the scales in their favor. It allows for the party who is poor in votes to enjoy an equal level of success.
Election socialism. Hate it all you want, it's an accurate analogy.
What would likely happen if we went to a popular vote is that the Republican party would start to compromise to stay competitive.
You'd also likely see the rise of a 3rd party. Those who would traditionally opt out because they hate both major parties could now vote 3rd party and have something to show for it.
I personally would NOT like to see a direct, popular vote election anytime soon.
My biggest aversions to this method are ::deep breath:: election fraud and a completely broken media environment.
On the fraud point, no, not the conspiracy stuff, I'm talking about the inability for any of our current methods and technology to properly vet for voter fraud at the theorized grand scale of a national popular vote election.
You might be able to get around this by de-centralizing control of the process to collect votes, but even that would be incredibly difficult to keep clean.
On the second point, I think we can all agree that we're still an uninformed voting public due to our failure to agree on facts, which I lay at the feet of our media (both traditional and social) environment. This is a serious problem in any voting system, but I think it's most impactful in a direct democracy.
Bottom line, we're just not ready.
So what's behind door number 2?
I'm personally a fan of an intermediate step. Assigning electoral college votes proportionally based on popular vote % in a given state. A slight deviation from the way Maine and Nebraska do it today to avoid encouraging gerrymandering, but directionally the same concept.
It does not completely eliminate the voting power imbalance, but it mitigates it substantially, and still safeguards against overwhelming voter fraud as an area's voting power would be capped to an extent.
It would also encourage more engagement. If you're a Democrat in Wyoming, you're not going to win the state, but can you win 34% of the state and get 1 of Wyoming's 3 electoral votes?... probably. You're far more likely to get out and vote to try.
In this system the outcome is far more in line with the will of the majority of Americans, and the impact of fraud is capped out and easier to vet.
I would then do away with the potential for Faithless Electors by making it law that you had to cast your electoral ballot in line with the popular vote %.
It still isn't perfect, but it's likely the best option we're realistically going to be able to shift to in the short term, and I think we need to shift, as the current system is becoming less and less sustainable.
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