The Enduring Stupidity of the Electoral College

To any sensible person, the Electoral College is a severely flawed method of electing our president. Most importantly, it is a system in which the less popular candidate — the person with fewer votes — can win the White House. That absurdity would be enough to throw the Electoral College out and simply use a popular vote to determine the winner. Yet there is more.

It is a system where your vote becomes meaningless, giving no aid to your chosen candidate, if you’re in your state’s political minority; where small states have disproportionate power to determine the winner; where white voters have disproportionate decision-making power compared to voters of color; and where electors, who are supposed to represent the majority of voters in each state, can change their minds and vote for whomever they please. Not even its origins are pure, as slavery and the desire to keep voting power away from ordinary people were factors in its design.

Let’s consider these problems in detail. We’ll also look at the threadbare attempts to justify them.

The votes of the political minority become worthless, leading to a victor with fewer votes than the loser

When we vote in presidential elections, we’re not actually voting for the candidates. We’re voting on whether to award decision-making power to Democratic or Republican electors. 538 people will cast their votes and the candidate who receives a majority of 270 votes will win. The electors are chosen by the political parties at state conventions, through committees, or by the presidential candidates. It depends on the state. The electors could be anyone, but are usually involved with the parties or are close allies. In 2016, for instance, electors included Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, Jr. Since they are chosen for their loyalty, they typically (though not always, as we will see) vote for the party that chose them.

The central problem with this system is that most all states are all-or-nothing when electors are awarded. (Only a couple states, Maine and Nebraska, have acted on this unfairness and divided up electors based on their popular votes.) As a candidate, winning by a single citizen vote grants you all the electors from the state. 

Imagine you live in Missouri. Let’s say in 2020 you vote Republican, but the Democratic candidate wins the state; the majority of Missourians voted Blue. All of Missouri’s 10 electors are then awarded to the Democratic candidate. When that happens, your vote does absolutely nothing to help your chosen candidate win the White House. It has no value. Only the votes of the political majority in the state influence who wins, by securing electors. It’s as if you never voted at all — it might as well have been 100% of Missourians voting Blue. As a Republican, wouldn’t you rather have your vote matter as much as all the Democratic votes in Missouri? For instance, 1 million Republican votes pushing the Republican candidate toward victory alongside the, say, 1.5 million Democratic votes pushing the Democratic candidate forward? Versus zero electors for the Republican candidate and 10 electors for the Democrat?

In terms of real contribution to a candidate’s victory, the outcomes can be broken down, and compared to a popular vote, in this way:

State Electoral College victor: contribution (electors)
State Electoral College loser: no contribution (no electors)

State popular vote victor: contribution (votes)
State popular vote loser: contribution (votes)

Under a popular vote, however, your vote won’t become meaningless if you’re in the political minority in your state. It will offer an actual contribution to your favored candidate. It will be worth the same as the vote of someone in the political majority. The Electoral College simply does not award equal value to each vote (see more examples below), whereas the popular vote does, by allowing the votes of the political minority to influence the final outcome. That’s better for voters, as it gives votes equal power. It’s also better for candidates, as the loser in each state would actually get something for his or her efforts. He or she would keep the earned votes, moving forward in his or her popular vote count. Instead of getting zero electors — no progress at all.

But why, one may ask, does this really matter? When it comes to determining who wins a state and gets its electors, all votes are of equal value. The majority wins, earning the right to give all the electors to its chosen candidate. How exactly is this unfair?

It’s unfair because, when all the states operate under such a system, it can lead to the candidate with fewer votes winning the White House. It’s a winner-take-all distribution of electors, each state’s political minority votes are ignored — but those votes can add up. 66 million Americans may choose the politician you support, but the other candidate may win with just 63 million votes. That’s what happened in 2016. It also happened in the race of 2000, as well as in 1876 and 1888. It simply isn’t fair or just for a candidate with fewer votes to win. It is mathematically possible, in fact, to win just 21.8% of the popular vote and win the presidency. While very unlikely, it is possible. That would mean, for example, a winner with 28 million votes and a loser with 101 million! This is absurd and unfair on its face. The candidate with the most votes should be the victor, as is the case with every other political race in the United States, and as is standard practice among the majority of the world’s democracies.

The lack of fairness and unequal value of citizen votes go deeper, however.

Small states and white power

Under the Electoral College, your vote is worth less in big states. For instance, Texas, with 28.7 million people and 38 electors, has one elector for every 755,000 people. But Wyoming, with 578,000 people and 3 electors, has one elector for every 193,000 people. In other words, each Wyoming voter has a bigger influence over who wins the presidency than each Texas voter. 4% of the U.S. population, for instance, in small states, has 8% of the electors. Why not 4%, to keep votes equal? (For those who think all this was the intent of the Founders, to give more power to smaller states, we’ll address that later on.)

To make things even, Texas would need many more electors. As would other big states. You have to look at changing population data and frequently adjust electors, as the government is supposed to do based on the census and House representation — it just doesn’t do it very well. It would be better to do away with the Electoral College entirely, because under a popular vote the vote of someone from Wyoming would be precisely equal to the vote of a Texan. Each would be one vote out of the 130 million or so cast. No adjustments needed.

It also just so happens that less populous states tend to be very white, and more populous states more diverse, meaning disproportionate white decision-making power overall.

Relatedly, it’s important to note that the political minority in each state, which will become inconsequential to the presidential race, is sometimes dominated by racial minorities, or at least most voters of color will belong to it. As Bob Wing writes, because “in almost every election white Republicans out-vote [blacks, most all Democrats] in every Southern state and every border state except Maryland,” the “Electoral College result was the same as if African Americans in the South had not voted at all.”

Faithless electors

After state residents vote for electors, the electors can essentially vote for whomever they want, in many states at least. “There are 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) that require electors to vote for a pledged candidate. Most of those states (19 plus DC) nonetheless do not provide for any penalty or any mechanism to prevent the deviant vote from counting as cast. Four states provide a penalty of some sort for a deviant vote, and 11 states provide for the vote to be canceled and the elector replaced…”

Now, electors are chosen specifically because of their loyalty, and “faithless electors” are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean they will always vote for the candidate you elected them to vote for. There have been 85 electors in U.S. history that abstained or changed their vote on a whim. Sometimes for racist reasons, on accident, etc. Even more changed their votes after a candidate died — perhaps the voters would have liked to select another option themselves. Even if rare, all this should not be possible or legal. It is yet another way the Electoral College has built-in unfairness — imagine the will of a state’s political majority being ignored.

* * *

Won’t a popular vote give too much power to big states and cities?

Let’s turn now to the arguments against a popular vote, usually heard from conservatives. A common one is that big states, or big cities, will “have too much power.” Rural areas and less populous states and towns will supposedly have less.

This misunderstands power. States don’t vote. Cities don’t vote. People do. If we’re speaking solely about power, about influence, where you live does not matter. The vote of someone in Eudora, Kansas, is worth the same as someone in New York, New York.

This argument is typically posited by those who think that because some big, populous states like California and New York are liberal, this will mean liberal rule. (Conservative Texas, the second-most populous state, and sometimes-conservative swing states like Florida [third-most populous] and Pennsylvania [fifth-most populous] are ignored.) Likewise, because a majority of Americans today live in cities, and cities tend to be more liberal than small towns, this will result in the same. The concern for rural America and small states is really a concern for Republican power.

But obviously, in a direct election each person’s vote is of equal weight and importanceregardless and independent of where you live. 63% of Americans live in cities, so it is true that most voters will be living and voting in cities, but it cannot be said the small town voter has a weaker voice than the city dweller. Their votes have identical sway over who will be president. In the same way, a voter in a populous coastal state has no more influence than one in Arkansas.

No conservative looks with dismay at the direct election of his Democratic governor or congresswoman and says, “She only won because the small towns don’t have a voice. We have to find a way to diminish the power of the big cities!” No one complains that X area has too many people and too many liberals and argues some system should fix this. No one cries, “Tyranny of the majority! Mob rule!” They say, “She got the most votes, seems fair.” Why? Because one understands that the vote of the rural citizen is worth the same as the vote of an urban citizen, but if there happens to be more people living in cities in your state, or if there are more liberals in your state, so be it. That’s the freedom to live where you wish, believe what you wish, and have a vote worth the same as everyone else’s.

Think about the popular vote in past elections. About half of Americans vote Republican, about half vote Democrat. One candidate gets a few hundred thousand or few million more. It will be exactly the same if the popular vote determined the winner rather than the Electoral College — where you live is irrelevant. What matters is the final vote tally.

It’s not enough to simply complain that the United States is too liberal. And therefore we must preserve the Electoral College. That’s really what this argument boils down to. It’s not an argument at all. Unfair structures can’t be justified because they serve one political party. Whoever can win the most American votes should be president, no matter what party they come from.

But won’t candidates only pander to big states and cities?

This is a different question, and it has merit. It is true that where candidates campaign will change with the implementation of a popular vote. Conservatives warn that candidates will spend most of their time in the big cities and big states, and ignore rural places. This is likely true, as candidates (of both parties) will want to reach as many voters as possible in the time they have to garner support.

Yet this carries no weight as an argument against a popular vote, because the Electoral College has a very similar problem. Candidates focus their attention on swing states.

There’s a reason Democrats don’t typically campaign very hard in conservative Texas and Republicans don’t campaign hard in liberal California. Instead, they campaign in states that are more evenly divided ideologically, states that sometimes go Blue and sometimes go Red. They focus also on swing states with a decent number of electors. The majority of campaign events are in just six states. Unless you live in one of these places, like Ohio, Florida, or Pennsylvania, your vote isn’t as vital to victory and your state won’t get as much pandering. The voters in swing states are vastly more important, their votes much more valuable than elsewhere.

How candidates focusing on a handful of swing states might be so much better than candidates focusing on more populous areas is never explained by Electoral College supporters. It seems like a fair trade, but with a popular vote we also get the candidate with the most support always winning, votes of equal worth, and no higher-ups to ignore the will of the people.

However, with a significant number of Americans still living outside big cities, attention will likely still be paid to rural voters — especially, one might assume, by the Republican candidate. Nearly 40% of the nation living in small towns and small states isn’t something wisely ignored. Wherever the parties shift most of their attention, there is every reason to think Blue candidates will want to solidify their win by courting Blue voters in small towns and states, and Red candidates will want to ensure theirs by courting Red voters in big cities and states. Even if the rural voting bloc didn’t matter and couldn’t sway the election (it would and could), one might ask how a handful of big states and cities alone determining the outcome of the election is so much worse than a few swing states doing the same in the Electoral College system.

Likewise, the fear that a president, plotting reelection, will better serve the interests of big states and cities seems about as reasonable as fear that he or she would better serve the interests of the swing states today. One is hardly riskier than the other.

But didn’t the Founders see good reason for the Electoral College?

First, it’s important to note that invoking the Founding Fathers doesn’t automatically justified flawed governmental systems. The Founders were not perfect, and many of the policies and institutions they decreed in the Constitution are now gone.

Even before the Constitution, the Founders’ Articles of Confederation were scrapped after just seven years. Later, the Twelfth Amendment got rid of a system where the losing presidential candidate automatically became vice president — a reform of the Electoral College. Our senators were elected by the state legislatures, not we the people, until 1913 (Amendment 17 overturned clauses from Article 1, Section 3 of the Constitution). Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote for members of the House of Representatives, allowing the poor to participate. The Three-Fifths Compromise (the Enumeration Clause of the Constitution), which valued slaves less than full people for political representation purposes, is gone, and today people of color, women, and people without property can vote thanks to various amendments. There were no term limits for the president until 1951 (Amendment 22) — apparently an executive without term limits didn’t give the Founders nightmares of tyranny.

The Founders were very concerned about keeping political power away from ordinary people, who might take away their riches and privileges. They wanted the wealthy few, like themselves, to make the decisions. See How the Founding Fathers Protected Their Own Wealth and Power.

The Electoral College, at its heart, was a compromise between Congress selecting the president and the citizenry doing so. The people would choose the people to choose the president. Alexander Hamilton wrote that the “sense of the people should operate in the choice of the person to whom so important a trust was to be confided.” He thought “a small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”

Yet the Founders did not anticipate that states would pass winner-take-all elector policies, and some wanted it abolished. The Constitution and its writers did not establish such a mechanism. States did, and only after the Constitution, which established the Electoral College, was written. In 1789, only three states had such laws, according to the Institute for Research on Presidential Elections. It wasn’t until 1836 that every state (save one, which held out until after the Civil War) adopted a winner-take-all law; they sought more attention from candidates by offering all electors to the victor, they wanted their chosen sons to win more electors, and so forth. Before (and alongside) the winner-take-all laws, states were divided into districts and the people in each district would elect an elector (meaning a state’s electors could be divided up among candidates). Alternatively, state legislatures would choose the electors, meaning citizens did not vote for the president in any way, even indirectly! James Madison wrote that “the district mode was mostly, if not exclusively in view when the Constitution was framed and adopted; & was exchanged for the general ticket [winner-take-all] & the legislative election” later on. He suggested a Constitutional amendment (“The election of Presidential Electors by districts, is an amendment very proper to be brought forward…”) and Hamilton drafted it.

Still, among Founders and states, it was an anti-democratic era. Some Americans prefer more democratic systems, and don’t cling to tradition — especially tradition as awful and unfair as the Electoral College — for its own sake. Some want positive changes to the way government functions and broadened democratic participation, to improve upon and make better what the Founders started, as we have so many times before.

Now, it’s often posited that the Founding Fathers established the Electoral College to make sure small states had more power to determine who won the White House. As we saw above, votes in smaller states are worth more than in big ones.

Even if the argument that “we need the Electoral College so small states can actually help choose the president” made sense in a bygone era where people viewed themselves as Virginians or New Yorkers, not Americans (but rather as part of an alliance called the United States), it makes no sense today. People now see themselves as simply Americans — as American citizens together choosing an American president. Why should where you live determine the power of your vote? Why not simply have everyone’s vote be equal?

More significantly, it cannot be said that strengthening smaller states was a serious concern to the Founders at the Constitutional Convention. They seemed to accept that smaller states would simply have fewer voters and thus less influence. Legal historian Paul Finkleman writes that

in all the debates over the executive at the Constitutional Convention, this issue [of giving more power to small states] never came up. Indeed, the opposite argument received more attention. At one point the Convention considered allowing the state governors to choose the president but backed away from this in part because it would allow the small states to choose one of their own.

In other words, they weren’t looking out for the little guy. Political scientist George C. Edwards III calls this whole idea a “myth,” stressing: “Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that relied on slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states.”

Slavery’s influence

The Electoral College is also an echo of white supremacy and slavery.

As the Constitution was formed in the late 1780s, Southern politicians and slave-owners at the Convention had a problem: Northerners were going to get more seats in the House of Representatives (which were to be determined by population) if blacks weren’t counted as people. Southern states had sizable populations, but large portions were disenfranchised slaves and freemen (South Carolina, for instance, was nearly 50% black).

This prompted slave-owners, most of whom considered blacks by nature somewhere between animals and whites, to push for slaves to be counted as fully human for political purposes. They needed blacks for greater representative power for Southern states. Northern states, also seeking an advantaged position, opposed counting slaves as people. This odd reversal brought about the Three-Fifths Compromise most of us know, which determined an African American would be worth three-fifths of a person.

The Electoral College was largely a solution to the same problem. True, as we saw, it served to keep power out of the hands of ordinary people and in the hands of the elites, but race and slavery unquestionably influenced its inception. As the Electoral College Primer put it, Southerners feared “the loss in relative influence of the South because of its large nonvoting slave population.” They were afraid the direct election of the president would put them at a numerical disadvantage. To put it bluntly, Southerners were upset their states didn’t have more white people. A popular vote had to be avoided.

For example, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina remarked at the Convention, during debate on a popular election of the president: “The people will be sure to vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State will be sure to succede [sic]. This will not be Virga. however. Her slaves will have no suffrage.” Williamson saw that states with high populations had an advantage in choosing the president. But a great number of people in Virginia were slaves. Would this mean that Virginia and other slave states didn’t have the numbers of whites to affect the presidential election as much as the large Northern states?

The writer of the Constitution, slave-owner and future American president James Madison, thought so. He said that

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of the Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty…

The question for Southerners was: How could one make the total population count for something, even though much of the population couldn’t vote? How could black bodies be used to increase Southern political power? Counting slaves helped put more Southerners in the House of Representatives, and now counting them in the apportionment of electors would help put more Southerners in the White House.

Thus, Southerners pushed for the Electoral College. The number of electors would be based on how many members of Congress each state possessed — which recall was affected by counting a black American as three-fifths of a person. Each state would have one elector per representative in the House, plus two for the state’s two senators (today we have 435 + 100 + 3 for D.C. = 538). In this way, the number of electors was still based on population (not the whole population, though, as blacks were not counted as full persons), even though a massive part of the America population in 1787 could not vote. The greater a state’s population, the more House reps it had, and thus the more electors it had. Southern electoral power was secure.

This worked out pretty well for the racists. “For 32 of the Constitution’s first 36 years, a white slaveholding Virginian occupied the presidency,” notes Akhil Reed Amar. The advantage didn’t go unnoticed. Massachusetts congressman Samuel Thatcher complained in 1803, “The representation of slaves adds thirteen members to this House in the present Congress, and eighteen Electors of President and Vice President at the next election.”

Tyrants and imbeciles

At times, it’s suggested that the electors serve an important function: if the people select a dangerous or unqualified candidate — like an authoritarian or a fool — to be the party nominee, the electors can pick someone else and save the nation. Hamilton said, “The process of election affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Obviously, looking at Donald Trump, the Electoral College is just as likely to put an immoral doofus in the White House than keep one out. Trump may not fit that description to you, but some day a candidate may come along who does. And since the electors are chosen for their loyalty, they are unlikely to stop such a candidate, even if they have the power to be faithless. We might as well simply let the people decide.

It is a strange thing indeed that some people insist a popular vote will lead to dictatorship, ignoring the majority of the world’s democracies that directly elect their executive officer. They have not plunged into totalitarianism. Popular vote simply doesn’t get rid of checks and balances, co-equal branches, a constitution, the rule of law, and other aspects of free societies. These things are not incompatible.

France has had direct elections since 1965 (de Gaulle). Finland since 1994 (Ahtisaari). Portugal since 1918 (Pais). Poland since 1990 (Wałęsa). Why aren’t these nations run by despots by now? Why do even conservative institutes rank nations like Ireland, Finland, and Austria higher up on a “Human Freedom Index” than the United States? How is this possible, if direct elections of the executive lead to tyranny?

There are many factors that cause dictatorship and ruin, but simply giving the White House to whomever gets the most votes is not necessarily one of them.

Modern motives

We close by stating the obvious. There remains strong support for the Electoral College among conservatives because it has recently aided Republican candidates like Bush (2000) and Trump (2016). If the GOP lost presidential elections due to the Electoral College after winning the popular vote, like the other party does, they’d perhaps see its unfair nature.

The popular vote, in an increasingly diverse, liberal country, doesn’t serve conservative interests. Republicans have won the popular vote just once since and including the 1992 election. Conservatives are worried that if the Electoral College vanishes and each citizen has a vote of equal power, their days are numbered. Better to preserve an outdated, anti-democratic system than benefits you than reform your platform and policies to change people’s minds about you and strengthen your support. True, the popular vote may serve Democratic interests. Fairness serves Democratic interests. But, unlike unfairness, which Republicans seek to preserve, fairness is what’s right. Giving the candidate with the most votes the presidency is what’s right.