What Are the Arguments Made in Favor--And Against--the Electoral College?





Mr. Bates graduated from San Francisco State University in May 2004. He is an HNN intern.

1. Why do reformers propose abolishing the Electoral College?

Reformers argue that the Electoral College hampers democracy in a manner inconsistent with modern American practices. All votes are not counted equally under the Electoral College. Under our admittedly complex and convoluted system, a single vote for president in the State of Wyoming, for instance, counts for more than a single vote in California. Tiny Wyoming has an inflated number of electoral votes--three--because every state is awarded a minimum of three (one for its member of Congress and two for each senator). California, with a population over fifty times as large as Wyoming, has only a little more than eighteen times as many electoral votes. This means that a vote in Wyoming counts about three times more than a vote in California.

An additional argument is made by George C. Edwards in Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America (Yale University Press, 2004). He points out that nearly two dozen elections were so closely decided that they could have ended up in the House of Representatives with the switch of just a few thousand votes in key states. Two elections (1800, 1824) actually have been thrown into the House of Representatives, while the Supreme Court decided one (2000), and another was settled by a special congressional committee (1976). Each of the disputed elections removed the voting process from the people and created discontent. Such breakdowns in the electoral process undermine democracy and raise questions about the legitimacy of the government elected under these circumstances. Finally, it is always possible that the country could be so divided that an election referred to the House might never be settled there, leaving the office to be filled under the terms of the law of succession.

Another untoward effect of the Electoral College is the emphasis placed upon so-called swing states, which leads to the neglect of the voters in the majority of states where one party or the other holds sway. In the election of 2004, for example, George W. Bush spent little time in California as it was expected to vote Democratic. By contrast, he made more than forty visits to the swing state of Pennsylvania during his term. The larger the swing state, the more attention it receives from the candidates from both parties.

Although it is said that the Electoral College tends to inflate the victories of the winners, helping establish their legitimacy, such victories do not guarantee presidents a free ride in Congress, where their party may be in the minority or the politicians may simply not believe that an Electoral College landslide should be treated the same as a genuine popular majority landslide. President Ronald Reagan, for example, won an Electoral College landslide in 1980 but faced considerable opposition from the Democratic House of Representatives during his term. Only his gifted ability to communicate with the voters helped him win the passage of his key tax cuts. In other words, it was his skill as a politician not necessarily the strength of his Electoral College landslide that helped him succeed in controlling the agenda of Congress (and this was only during his first term).

2. Who supports Electoral College reform?

A surprising number of presidents have lined up behind proposals to reform or abolish the Electoral College: James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Madison was present at the Constitutional Convention, yet he was dissatisfied with the compromise between the large states and the small states that gave rise to the Electoral College system and as early as 1792 went on record as favoring the direct election of presidents. Jackson, confident of his support among the people and furious with the deal-making that cost him the presidency in 1824 despite his plurality in the popular vote, despised the Electoral College. Nixon became disenchanted with the system after the three-way election of 1968 nearly ended up in the House of Representatives, where George Wallace hoped to be able to wring concessions for the South in Civil Rights battles. More recently, after the Bush v. Gore decision of 2000, New York Senator Hillary Clinton called for the abolition of the Electoral College, along with Representatives Jim Moran and Dick Gephardt. Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader has also added his voice to those who favor a popular vote for president.

Opposition to the Electoral College has generally come from the political Left, although Edwards cites a few conservatives, such as Nixon, Ford and Bob Dole, who have also pushed for abolition. A coalition of progressives and some conservatives has emerged in recent years, uniting unions and business in support of the direct election of the president. Groups such as the American Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, and Progressive Magazine have joined them.

Support for abolition comes has sometimes surfaced in unexpected places. In 1988, George Edwards relates, a political scientist was invited to speak before a group of electors. The speaker denounced the Electoral College as a coterie of elitists whose very existence thwarts democracy. The electors did not take offense. Instead, they voted to pass a resolution calling for the abolition of the Electoral College.*

3. What arguments can be made in favor of the Electoral College?

Edwards dismisses the argument that direct election could lead to popular despotism. But the fear of despotism was strong among the Founding Fathers. It was gleaned from examples in ancient Rome, which witnessed instances of mob rule.

Members of small states argue that if the system were abolished presidents would never bother visiting--or even advertising. Why visit a small state with a media market that reaches, say, 100,000 people, when a visit to a large state can put the candidate in touch with millions?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a traditional Democrat, supports the Electoral College out of a strong fear that Third Parties would "disunite" America, a theme that Schlesinger has long considered worthy of discussion. American elections, he fears, could degenerate into purely parliamentary affairs, in which the government would become susceptible to long and frequent bouts of instability. Instead of abolishing the Electoral College, Schlesinger calls for it to be mended. To retain the advantage it gives to the two-party system while enhancing the power of the people, he recommends that the popular winner of each state be given an extra two electoral votes, resulting in an extra 102 electoral votes (including an extra two votes for the District of Columbia). This "National Bonus Plan" would presumably preserve the power of the states to function as organic units, while dispensing with the most undemocratic feature of the Electoral College, the tremendous weight given to small states. Under the weighted Electoral College proposed by Schlesinger, the electoral system would presumably preserve traditional federalism, while at the same time maintaining a better correlation between the Electoral College and the popular vote.**

4. Is there a chance that the system will be reformed?

Judith Best, a defender of the Electoral College, believes that people identify with their states and would be upset to lose the advantage many states derive under the current system. The "Red-Blue" pattern seen in the 2000 election would seem to suggest that states do fall into cultural and political patterns that are distinct. Few "Red States" seem likely to support the abolition of the Electoral College in the near future.

Harvard political scientist Alexander Keyssar argues that Electoral College reform is likely in the event of another disputed election. In an article in the Boston Globe he noted that reform nearly came about under President Richard Nixon. Only the opposition of the Old South bosses in Congress prevented change.

The Constitution of course is difficult to amend. As Charles Beard pointed out, it was expressly intended to limit democracy. To this day the system the Founders put in place fulfills their expectations.

*"Why the Electoral College Should Be Abolished," by Lawrence D. Longley. Speech to the 1976 Electoral College in Madison, Wisconsin, as Edwards reports in his book. The Electors were magnanimous in the fact of insult adopted the following resolution: "Resolved: That the 1988 Wisconsin Presidential Electoral College goes on record as calling upon Congress to act to abolish the Electoral College-including the office of Elector; The U.S. President instead should and must be elected directly and equitably by a vote of the American people."

** Arthur Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), pages 483-484.



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More Comments:


Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


The Electoral College is an anachronism, but it provides the minor side benefit that otherwise lazy Americans, especially in the news media, are forced to learn a little history if they want to understand it. Most of the unfairness comes from winner-take-all rules which are nowhere in the constitution. The main election problem in 2000 and going forward is the lack of uniform nationwide voting procedures especially requiring a verifable paper copy of every vote.


Robert F. Koehler - 12/26/2004

What's wrong with the electoral college gets to the heart with what is wrong with the constitutional system when it failed it's first test back in 1792. That test being the composition of the electoral college as tied to the proportional method of representative & senatorial election as specified in Article 1 Section 2 of the US Constitution. The history of that failure, if it means anything at all, is that original intent as symbolized in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 is a poor & lonely step-child in opposition to partisan interest, advantage and power.

Warped Democracy or http://mintaka.sdsu.edu/~dokter/ec.html

Greatest Fraud in American History, April 14th 1792 or http://lostlaws.tripod.com/Washve.htm

The above sites may or may not meet with the highest standards or criteria expected from the participants on HNN but do provide some insightful information that in my view reaches into the very heart of the matter. It's interesting to me that American constitutionalism had diverged into extra-constitutional norms at the very dawn of its birthing. And that sorry fact from then onward to today reinforces my view that any further meddling with the electoral college will only result in a system infinitely worse than the racket we have got.


David Barnes - 11/11/2004

(Of course, this issue now appears to be hopelessly outdated, but I continue to believe it's worth discussing and debating.) Let me clarify that point. Under the current system, it is a waste of time for candidates to campaign in "safe" Democratic or Republican states. Democratic voters in, say, Utah are completely disenfranchised, as are Republican voters in, say, New York. Meanwhile, campaigns spend all of their time and resources on "swing" states. With direct election, every single vote would count equally. If there were undecided voters in what are currently "safe" states, campaigns would get just as much benefit from targeting them as they would from targeting undecided voters in what are currently "swing" states. Hence, an undecided voter in NYC or SLC would be worth just as much as an undecided voter in Columbus or Orlando.


Brian Fitz - 11/4/2004

Alternatives to the winner-take-all approach to allocating individual states' electoral votes is one thing, direct popular vote for president, which I think you're talking about, is something else entirely. When you say, "At every level of government but one, constitutions determine the number of representatives per jurisdiction, and representatives are elected by direct popular vote," I think you are minimizing the fundamental difference between state and federal government, which is what I meant by anti-federalist philosophy. There has always been a great deal of agitation to minimize this distinction, particularly from the left, and I think that says something about left politics. We are a nation of STATES. That is why there is an electoral college, and I don't know where you get the impression that in a direct popular vote for pres, "it will be just as worthwhile for a Republican candidate to campaign in New York City and a Democrat to stump in Salt Lake City as it will be to go to Columbus or Orlando." That doesn't make any sense.


David Barnes - 11/1/2004

There is a basic difference between a system of *representation* in government and a system of *election* of representatives. I would argue that the former is fundamental to our system of government, while the other is legitimately subject to modification based on changing circumstances. There is and will be one president of the United States, regardless of how he or she is elected. Each state has and will have two senators, regardless of how they are elected. In fact, US senators used to be elected by state legislatures, not by popular vote; defenders of the Electoral College ought to tell us why we shouldn't revive this practice, since it's clearly what the founders intended.

At every level of government but one, constitutions determine the number of representatives per jurisdiction, and representatives are elected by direct popular vote. Even the argument about the Electoral College preserving the influence of small states looks utterly laughable when presidential campaigns completely ignore the Wyomings and Alaskas and focus all of their energy and "message" on the swing states with many electoral votes. As other posts here have pointed out, there is also no logical connection between protecting the influence of small states and the winner-take-all system of electoral vote apportionment. With direct election, it will be just as worthwhile for a Republican candidate to campaign in New York City and a Democrat to stump in Salt Lake City as it will be to go to Columbus or Orlando.

Discussions of the Electoral College often focus on 1876 and 2000 but ignore the elections of 1824 and 1888, when the candidate with fewer votes was also elected. Defenders of this fundamentally anti-democratic institution insist that it's "served us well" (apparently because our society hasn't collapsed and we haven't had a civil war--oops, well at least not one that was caused by the Electoral College) and argue that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." They justify their position by citing the number of elections in which the electoral vote matched or even magnified the popular vote. (This of course begs the question: if your criterion for justifying the Electoral College is that it matches the popular vote, then ....) They don't tell us why popular voting was not an appropriate method for choosing a president in 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000. They do not tell us why the choices of a smaller number of Americans deserve to trump the choices of a larger number of their fellow citizens.

I am still waiting for the one argument that will convince me that the Electoral College is not the anti-democratic relic it appears to be. What I need to hear from its defenders is this: in a democracy, under exactly what circumstances is it appropriate to elect the person who got fewer votes? Wartime? Depression? Years ending in even numbers? Before the fact, tell us when it's a good outcome for the loser to win--just so we can be prepared, and greet the loser/winner as our deserving leader.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 10/29/2004

I probably should not comment too much more, since this is the reader's forum and not mine. I will comment no further after this. The EC tends to weigh most heavily the so-called "Swing States", the more populated the better, since more Electoral votes can be swung by fewer voters. Therefore, while individual votes in small States count more than individual votes in large States, it is also the case that large "Swing State' count most, to the detriment of small States that are uniform in voting. That is the "irrationality" of the EC. It is an "irrationality" that has arguments in its favor. One of those is the fact that it tends to enfranchise "constituents", avoiding a government of pure numerical majorities. However, again, the issue of disparity in the weight given each vote cannot be avoided. Even though I support the EC, I cannot ignore the fact that votes are counted unequally. That is where I will leave it, and let the discussion continue without me.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 10/29/2004

I probably should not comment too much more, since this is the reader's forum and not mine. I will comment no further after this. The EC tends to weigh most heavily the so-called "Swing States", the more populated the better, since more Electoral votes can be swung by fewer voters. Therefore, while individual votes in small States count more than individual votes in large States, it is also the case that large "Swing State' count most, to the detriment of small States that are uniform in voting. That is the "irrationality" of the EC. It is an "irrationality" that has arguments in its favor. One of those is the fact that it tends to enfranchise "constituents", avoiding a government of pure numerical majorities. However, again, the issue of disparity in the weight given each vote cannot be avoided. Even though I support the EC, I cannot ignore the fact that votes are counted unequally. That is where I will leave it, and let the discussion continue without me.


Brian Fitz - 10/29/2004

Why is it assumed that the Electoral College gives tremendous weight to small states? On the one hand, a single person's vote for president in Wyoming has more weight than a person's vote for pres. in California, but CA carries more electoral votes than Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Washington combined.

I don't see how the argument to abolish the EC can logically be separated from a call for a population representative Senate. Both are, in my view, based in anti-federalist philosophy, neither any less severe or fundamentally different from the other.


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 10/27/2004

Thankyou for your interest. Actually, I am in favor of the EC. I took a neutral to hostile view for the sake of objectivity. My sense is that those Founders who signed the Constitution incorporating an Electoral College, but who then later opposed it, did not realize what a good job they had done. They were so much followers of the Enlightenment that they down-played "irrational" notions of government, event their own. Such organic and "irrational" distinctions as State boundaries were seen as nonsense by many Nationalists, in spite of their persistence to the present day. Even so, one cannot deny the problematic aspect of the EC, namely the fact that the votes of some Americans count so much more than others. Even a supporter of the EC, such as I still count myself, must take notice of this fact.
All the Best,
Bates

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