The Electoral College: Why it's not a good idea
This is a rare non-techy article. I may be a geek, but I have opinions on non-geek things, too.
Much has been said about the fairness of our election process, especially regarding the Electoral College, shortly after Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Here are some facts and my take on the Electoral College.
My facts and commentary are party-neutral. It doesn’t matter what my political leanings are, which parties I support, or why. Please don’t assume to know based on my comments below, you may well be wrong. This discussion is simply about the appropriateness of the Electoral College and some simple math about how it affects things, nothing more is implied nor should be inferred from my words below.
People that support and believe the Electoral College serves a fair and proper function often say it’s because it balances out presidential electorate power. That is, it allows less populated states to have a voice – to not be drowned-out, so to speak, by more populated states. I believe that argument is flawed as I’ll describe herein.
For those unfamiliar, here’s a very brief overview of what the Electoral College* (EC) does. When you cast a vote for a candidate for president, what you are really doing is casting a vote for an “elector” -- an aggregating intermediary who then casts a vote for the candidate. Ideally, the candidate receiving over half the popular votes (votes by citizens) should also receive over half of the electoral votes (votes by the EC). When that happens then the process is fair -- the candidate that got the most popular votes wins the election. But because of how the EC works, it’s not always true that the candidate with the most popular votes wins.
Witness the presidential election of 2016. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, received just shy of 2.9 million more votes than Donald Trump, the Republican candidate -- a 2.1 percent margin. Close, but not exactly razor-thin. Yet Clinton lost the election. In 2000, Al Gore (D) received the most popular votes (by a thinner margin) but still lost the election to George W. Bush (R). The 2000 election had other big problems, but these numbers are still accurate. And these are only the two most recent examples. There are more such outcomes in our nation’s history*.
The office of president (P) and vice-president (VP) are the only two elected government offices in our country that are 1) voted on by US citizens of all 50 states, and 2) have an intermediary body (the EC) inserting itself into the process. And because these two offices are on a single ticket then both candidates either win or lose together (barring extremely rare exceptions). So, really, it’s just one vote that you cast, for two inseparably joined candidates.
The P and VP are part of the executive branch. They are not legislators. They don't make law. And the various agencies that the Executive Branch oversees serve the entire nation as a whole – not specific states.
The argument that the EC is needed to give voice to sparsely populated states is simply wrong-headed, to wit:
Offices in all federal elections (except for P and VP) are state specific. As you should know, the Senate has 100 members. But none of those members are voted-for by anyone outside their respective home states. So, although our senators serve in federal office, each are answerable only to the voters of their respective states. That makes them state representatives that serve at the federal level. Same goes for the House of Representatives.
Let’s do the math as it applies to the presidential election. Note, these population figures were accurate at the time of this writing.
To most visibly contrast the numbers, we’ll use the least and most populous states.
California has a population of approx. 38.3 million people and has 55 Electors in the EC.
Wyoming has a population of approx. 583 thousand people and has 3 Electors in the EC.
From the numbers above, we can easily arrive at electors per capita for these two states.
California has 1 Elector for every 696 thousand people.
Wyoming has 1 Elector for every 194 thousand people.
That means a Wyoming voter’s vote carries 3.58 times more weight* than a California voter’s vote. Or, said another way, in Wyoming, it takes only 1,000 voters to equal the power of 3,580 voters in California. Is that fair?
Children are remarkably sophisticated creatures when it comes to figuring out what is fair and what isn’t. If you gave one of your young children four cookies and gave another young child only one cookie, what do you think will happen? How are you going to explain that?
But.. but.. the smaller states neeeeed the extra voice or they’ll be ignored by the candidates during campaign season. I submit that argument is precisely wrong and here’s why:
In the present system, the P and VP candidates pretty much know which states are solidly in their camp and which ones are in play – the so-called swing states. Since most states (48 out of 50) use winner-take-all in awarding electors in the EC, then states that have a large-enough imbalance (lots of Republicans, but fewer Democrats or vice-versa) may be safely ignored. That means that all voters of that state will be totally ignored by the presidential candidates because those candidates are confident about that state's outcome -- win or lose. In this present system, the candidates are actually chasing electoral votes, not popular votes. And to the extent the parties are confident they'll win (or lose) that state’s electoral vote, they’ll ignore it, in order to focus time and money on the swing states.
For example, California is a reliably Democratic state, and the two major parties know it. So the Republicans don't spend a lot of time, money, or energy courting and making promises to California voters because they're likely to lose regardless. But the thing is, neither do the Democrats -- for the very same yet opposing reason. They know they are likely to win regardless.
That creates some mighty perverse incentives. Battleground states, like Florida, get all the love because there's no clear outcome in the general presidential election. That means candidates and other politicians from both parties pay a lot of attention and make promises to Florida voters. e.g. Mitigating damage from hurricanes and trying to address coastal flooding issues due to climate change.
But California doesn't get that kind of love. Calif has devastating wildfires pretty much every year now. They have a catastrophic water crisis looming, too. Imagine how much more attention they'd get from both parties if they, too, were a battleground state with no "preordained" presidential winner?
But if every vote went directly to the candidate, without the EC aggregating the votes together, then the election is no longer tied to the state’s EC electors. That means the candidates will have to fight for every single vote and not just for the votes in swing states. In fact, the entire concept of a swing state goes away because votes are no longer grouped together by that state’s EC contribution. Every vote stands on its own. Candidates would have to fight-for and earn every single vote regardless of where that voter lives.
Using our California example above, without the EC, the Democrats and Republicans both would have to dish out some love to those voters whereas presently they can safely ignore them.
Further evidence that smaller states don’t need “more power”:
Back to the 100 Senators. Every state, from sparsely populated Wyoming all the way to mighty California, gets exactly two senators -- members in the upper house. We can easily derive the relative power that voters in those two states have in selecting their Senators, and by extension, the power each voter has in influencing Senate action:
California, with its 38.3 million population, has 1 Senator per 19.15 million people
Wyoming, with its 583 thousand population, has 1 Senator per 291.5 thousand people.
That means that each Wyoming voter’s Senatorial vote is 66 times more powerful that a California voter's Senatorial vote. Or, said another way, in Wyoming, it takes only 1,000 voters to equal the power of 66,000 voters in California. Now THAT’S a huge power imbalance in favor of smaller states. Wyoming’s federal Senators have just as much voting power in the Senate, our upper and more powerful house of Congress, as do the Senators from California. Yet they were elected with 1/66th the number of voters (assuming a theoretical 100% voter turnout)
But that’s OK. That’s because our legislatively federated Congress has no national election. Each pair of Senators (and representatives in the House) are elected by, and speak for, the citizens of their respective states. The votes cast by citizens of one state do not influence the election outcomes for Senators (or House Representatives) for other states – only their own.
But that’s not true for the presidential election, because it’s a nationwide election! THAT’S why what the EC does is unfair for the presidential election. A large-state voter's vote power is directly diluted by the power of the small-state voter because they are voting for the same office. And, yet, amazingly, that’s the only election that includes a perturbating body -- the EC.
In the case of the House of Representatives, it’s true that smaller states have fewer reps, but they still have more reps per capita than do larger states. The ratios are identical to the EC, in fact.
So, THAT is where the states appropriately get their outsized voice -- in the Senate and House.
Electoral Votes: Apportionment vs. Winner-Take-All
Unfortunately, eliminating the Electoral College would take a constitutional amendment and passing same would be next to impossible. There's just no way that would happen even though nearly 2/3rds of Americans support doing away with the EC.
But there is another way. Replacing the winner-take-all system with an apportionment system could be done by regular congressional action. The constitution is silent on that point. Electors could be apportioned at the same rate as the candidate's popular vote in each state. While that's not as perfectly one-to-one as the popular vote would be, it's still a far cry better than what we have now with winner-take-all.
Under an apportionment arrangement then all our states, even small ones, would start getting candidate attention because winning at least some electors in those states becomes possible. That means highly imbalanced states, long ignored by presidential candidates of both parties, would start getting some love.
Using our California example again: California has 55 electoral votes. Currently, under winner-take-all, neither party spends much effort courting California voters for the reasons I stated above. But things change quite a bit under an apportionment system where a Republican presidential candidate will certainly win some California Electors. About 24% of Californian voters are Republicans so a Republican candidate could reasonably haul away 13 or 14 Electors, depending on district lines. That's more Electoral votes than 38 other states!
The same thing applies to small, heavily imbalanced states. Because electors would be apportioned and not winner-take-all, then even small states could see some candidate love. Every elector is critical. There's no way on Earth any candidate would skip a chance to pick up a few more electors in a state they previously had no chance in. And because the underdog (for that state) would be fighting for their apportion of votes, then so will the favored candidate. Two candidates fighting for your vote where before you had no-one fighting for it. Imagine that.
In this way, apportionment, similar to a straight popular voting system, would make all states a battleground. And with that comes renewed attention, more political engagement, and a fairer more representative election. What more could you ask for?
A lot is made of the near-mythical wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Smart they were, but not perfect and they certainly could not draft law on what might happen centuries later. Just because they decided to create the Electoral College during the Constitutional Convention of 1787 doesn’t automatically mean it’s the best way for all time – especially now, 230-plus years later, when mass communication and education is far more common and available. In fact, the EC was sort of a default position, a "third choice", if you will, because delegates could not agree on either a popular vote or a congressional-only election (where congress elects the president) so they compromised on the EC.
Things evolve in all matters of life: Medicine, Technology, Stewardship, Politics, Cosmology, the list is endless. Man knows far more today than he did 230 years ago. We Evolve. Even the constitution has mechanisms for amendment as needs and understanding evolve.
If the entire foregoing argument is still insufficient to convince one that the EC is an inappropriate perturbation to our presidential elections, then one must be ready to publicly and loudly declare the following:
I believe it’s fair and proper that the vote of one citizen should carry more weight and influence than the vote of another citizen based simply on accident of where they live.
I believe it’s fair and proper that candidates for P and VP should be able to win an election even if they lose the popular vote. In other words, unlike any other election in the country, the majority vote - the will of the people -- should not necessarily apply.
If you agree the EC is good, proper, and should continue to exist and in its present form, then are you ready to stand and deliver those statements to all as held beliefs? Explain that to your kid that got only one cookie.