A Quick Guide on Why the Electoral College Needs to Go
For the second time in sixteen years, the U.S. presidential candidate who received the most votes will not become President. Thanks to the Electoral College and laws in most states which award electoral votes on a winner-takes-all basis, winning the presidency does not require winning the popular vote.
Whether or not the Electoral College was a vital institution when it was created in 1787, it seems clear that in this era any utility it may have is outweighed by its detrimental effects on national unity and popular confidence that government will in fact represent the governed. Today the Electoral College as it is should be removed or reformed to ensure that the presidency will go to whoever wins national the popular vote .
- The current system ignores how few places are very red or very blue: For all the talk about how divided our country is, and if you spend much time on social media it seems like the brink of civil war, almost every county in the US had its fair share of Hillary voters and Trump voters. Almost no states were truly blue or red. And despite the popular perception that red states are almost uniformly conservative and blue states almost uniformly liberal, the data does not support that perception. The “reddest” state by votes in this election was Wyoming, where Clinton got 22.5% of the vote (55,949 people). In the “bluest” state, Hawaii, Trump still got 30% of the vote (128,815 people). We talk about most states as if they are monoliths, and one candidate or the other has no support there. But even 20–30% of a state is a significant number of people. And those are the most polarized of all 50 states. Most of the traditionally “red or blue” states had a 30–40% share of voters who voted for the second place candidate for that state. But in the winner-take-all system that almost every state employs, those votes have no tangible influence on election results. In some swing states, the margin is less than 1% of voters, meaning that one candidate could theoretically get one more vote in a state and receive all of the electoral votes, leaving the opposing candidate in the same position they would be in if they hadn’t even recognized the state’s existence.
- Mutes the votes of the minority party in heavily red or blue states: Closely related to the point above, it deserves emphasis in light of a common argument I hear against moving to a national popular vote. “Candidates will only focus on the big states and no other areas of the country will be heard.” Ask a Republican in Massachusetts or a Democrat in Oklahoma how much influence they feel they have during any presidential election. Urban or rural, north or south, if a state is not at least somewhat “competitive” then candidates will not spend time and money trying to earn even 10% more votes if they know they’ll come away with zero electoral votes for their efforts. With a national popular vote, even those who feel outnumbered in their states can affect the election’s outcome. Plus, candidates will have an incentive to take a chance at reaching out to “hostile” territory, knowing any new supporters they gain are not silenced simply because their neighbors disagree with them.
- We ignore regions: Candidates are discouraged from reaching out to regions (such as Appalachia) that are typically dominated by more populous areas of their states. I offer my home state of Kentucky as an example of how state lines are not the final arbiter of affinity or shared interests. The coal-producing Appalachian counties in the east have more in common with West Virginia than with Louisville. And Louisvillians usually have more connections to southern Indiana and perhaps even Cincinnati than they do with counties on the Missouri border. For all of the talk during the election about coal mining, the Appalachian coal fields are divided among states and largely neglected by the more prosperous areas which dominate each state’s politics. With the exception of West Virginia, people in Appalachia have little political power in their state governments. As a single voting bloc, they could have a notable influence on the national popular vote. But as things are, presidential candidates know focusing on the needs of this region will not likely pay electoral dividends. So Appalachians get empty promises to “bring coal back” without bothering to share how many jobs, if any, that will actually create, and without any examination of how to actually make their hometowns prosper again.
- Our votes do not count equally: Divide a state’s electoral votes by its population. That’s a quick, if imperfect, way to calculate an individual’s influence on their state’s electoral vote allocation. California has 55 electoral votes. Wyoming has 3. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that California’s population is 39,144,818 as of 2015. It estimates the population of Wyoming is 586,107. Simple division shows us that in California there is one electoral vote per 711,723 residents. In Wyoming there is one electoral vote per 195,369 residents. Effectively, a Wyoming resident has over three times stronger representation in the Electoral College. This one calculation alone demonstrates that the principle of “one man, one vote” is not upheld by the Electoral College.
- …But most small states still lose out: So does this mean small states have an outsized influence on the election? Not really. Unless that small state is New Hampshire, the candidates probably wrote it off as a sure thing one way or the other. And as too small to be worth fighting for. So while a large state’s voter loses influence, a small state’s voter gains none. Where does that influence go? Does it just disappear? No, just one more check against the ultimate influence of the swing states is eliminated.
- All power to the swing states: Both major parties get a substantial share of the votes in most states, but most states also have a clear majority and minority party. The exceptions are swing states, with turnouts so narrowly divided that presidential candidates have a serious chance of being able to “flip” it to their side during the campaign. What does this mean? The vast majority of campaign dollars from both major parties go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, and Virginia. These states get so much attention, good and bad, that conventional wisdom is that the campaign season is primarily about courting their residents, only turning to one’s “safe” states enough to keep up appearances. Swing states may change over time, for example Wisconsin and Michigan will likely be “in play” in 2020, but during a given election most voters can expect to be taken for granted.
- Rewards states for higher population, not voter turnout (and it’s a result of the 3/5 compromise): Like it or not, when you read the Constitution you will see there is still no escaping the phantom of slavery in our history. And elections are no exception. It is better explained in this Time article, but the short explanation is that the 3/5 compromise allowed slaveholding states to increase their representation in Congress (And thus also the Electoral College) by getting credit for nonvoting members of the population, including slaves (albeit counted as 3/5 of a person each). Now, there are no more people counted as only 3/5 of a person, but since the Electoral College is based on a state’s population and not voter turnout, states do derive political power from nonvoting residents. At the very least, this rewards states that can attract or produce the most people rather than those with the most active voters. At worst, it arguably creates an incentive to disenfranchise voters who disagree with the party in power so that the state can still take advantage of their presence without risking the effects of their vote.
- Does not prevent “mob rule”: In Federalist 68, Alexander Hamilton explained his argument for the Electoral College over the popular vote: “Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States”. Hamilton believed that popularity alone would not be enough to win in the Electoral College. That an unqualified but smooth-talking individual could win the popular vote, but not the electoral vote. Optimistic. Regardless of your party affiliation, you’ve probably already thought of an example in our history disproving that one.
Large and small states would benefit from basing presidential elections on the popular vote. And swing states also benefit unless you measure benefit by the degree of “power” wielded by the state’s leaders. In terms of being sure your vote counts, swing state voters win with a national popular vote as well.
A common retort is the sometimes-repeated claim that the popular vote does not matter in a representative democracy such as ours. That the sovereignty of the states outweighs the intent of the citizens. On the contrary, the role of representatives and the states is to advance the will of the people and protect the rights of individuals. If the effect of the Electoral College is directly contrary to the clear will of the voters, it should not continue to stand as a means of putting states before their own citizens. This was more eloquently stated by Senator Daniel Webster in 1830. He explained:
“…State legislatures, as political bodies, however sovereign, are yet not sovereign over the people…We are all agents of the same supreme power, the people. The general [federal] government and the State governments derive their authority from the same source…”
Finally, even in a representative democracy individual votes should have equal value when selecting those who create and enforce the laws on our behalf. If this principle is ignored, we do not have even a representative democracy, but no democracy at all.