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Democracy and the Idiosyncratic Insanity of the US Electoral College

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The United States is far less than the shining example of democratic governance it claims to be. Roughly fifty percent of the eligible population simply doesn’t bother to vote in a presidential election. Furthermore, most people, including most Americans, think that the candidate with the highest popular vote wins the election.

Ask Al Gore if this is true. In the 2000 election, running against George Bush, the Democrat had nearly three-quarters of a million more votes than did his opponent, yet Bush won the election. How did that happen? The short answer is the unique institution known as the Electoral College.

Most Americans are clueless as to how this anachronistic and fundamentally undemocratic institution actually works. Eight years ago they – and much of the rest of the world – waited for more than a month before a determination was made as to which candidate won Florida’s disputed twenty-seven electoral votes. As it turned out, George Bush was alleged to have defeated Gore in Florida by fewer that 1,000 votes. Yet, the Republican was awarded all twenty-seven of Florida’s votes, allowing him to eke out a narrow five vote victory in the Electoral College and, consequently, the American presidency. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Florida’s governor in those days was Jeb Bush, George’s younger brother.

That’s Florida. With two exceptions – Maine and Nebraska – all American states award their allocated electoral votes to the candidate who has the most votes. If Bush would have beaten Gore by a single vote, he still would have gotten all twenty-seven of Florida’s electoral votes. Nebraska and Maine allocate them according to congressional district, but even there it’s winner-take-all. These are the curiosities and anomalies of the American system of federalism

Those of you following the current election closely might have noticed that neither Obama nor McCain nor Biden nor Palin have done any campaigning whatsoever – not a speech, not an appearance and, most importantly, no TV advertising money – in California, Texas or New York. Why not? Good question!

These three states are the most populous in the United States. Among the three of them they have a population of more than eighty million; about one-quarter of the US total. More importantly, they have a total of 120 electoral votes. So why aren’t McCain and Obama scrambling all over each other in search of votes in these three states?

It’s simple. The answer again is the Electoral College and the fact that states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. California and New York are safe Democratic states and Texas is equally safe Republican. Obama knows he has no chance in Texas and McCain knows the same about California and New York. If McCain knows he’s going to lose California anyway, it doesn’t make any difference whether he gets three million or five million votes there. He still loses 55 those electoral votes, so why bother? Why spend time and money on a lost cause? Obama thinks the same way regarding Texas. If McCain wins Texas, as he will, it makes no difference whether Obama gets three million votes or zero votes there.

The national popular vote, as such, doesn’t really count. What counts is the number of Electoral College votes. There are 538 of these and the candidate who manages to garner 270 of them will be the next President of the United States…even were he to lose the popular vote by one million or ten million or twenty million votes.

Where did this ridiculous institution come from? Why was it written into the Constitution? How does it work?

First of all, one should be aware that the Electoral College never meets as a whole. The 538 electors who will elect the next president meet separately in their own states and cast their ballots. The EC has no president or chair. It has no headquarters. Its members are virtually unknown to each other or to anyone else beyond a narrow circle of party leaders in the several states.

For example, I vote in Connecticut. I have no idea as to the identity of the Obama/Democratic electors. I know only that there are seven of them because that’s how many electors Connecticut has been allocated. When I vote for Obama I’m actually voting for people who’ve promised to vote form him.

Despite America’s insistent self-delusion, the Founding Fathers were not at all interested in enshrining democratic participation when they drew up the US Constitution in 1787. The War of Independence against Britain had unleashed “popular passions”; that is to say, the masses of the American people (slaves excepted, of course) wanted direct and local control of their government. This popular passion frightened the post-colonial elite. Something had to be done. Something was done.

The elite got together in Philadelphia in 1787 and replaced the first American constitution with the one that exists to this day; the world’s oldest written constitution. Fearing, most of all, popular indignation they wrote a document designed to restrain the popular impulse. The Electoral College was part of this effort. The concept was to place a layer of “wise citizens” between the people and the elected office. The masses would vote for electors (wise citizens) who would then make the final choice.

There’s no question that, over the two plus centuries since these events, the American system has democratized to a significant degree. I would point out, however, that this relative democratization is the consequence of the unremitting struggles of the popular classes and not a consequence of elite gratuity.

Back to the Electoral College. Each of the fifty states is allocated a number of electors equal to its representation in the US Congress. These electors are NOT the actual members of Congress. In fact, the Constitution explicitly forbids them from serving as electors.

There are 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 members of the Senate. House seats are allocated according to relative population and each state gets two senators. That comes out to 535. A constitutional amendment in 1961 gave the District of Columbia (Washington) three electors bringing the total to 538. I would also be remiss in not pointing out that the mostly African-American Washington DC has no voting representation in Congress.

The magic number here is 270. A majority. Could there be a tie at 269 Electoral College votes? Yes, there could. I’ll get to that in a moment.

When Americans go to vote on November 4 they will actually be voting for electors “pledged” to vote for a particular candidate; in this case either McCain or Obama. The electors in the various states are appointed either by the state party leaders or by the candidates or a combination of both.

When I vote in Connecticut I’m voting for electors pledged to Obama. Electors occasionally violate their pledge. That’s not a violation of the Constitution. A month after the election the various electors who were chosen on November 4 will meet in their fifty state capitals and cast their ballots for president. Those ballots will be collected and sent on to Washington where they will be opened and counted by the new Congress when it begins its 2009 session in January.

In most cases, of course, the Electoral College vote reflects the popular vote; but not always, as Al Gore can attest. Thus, the current election does not involve those states that are either “safe Republican” or “safe Democratic”. They’re simply not contested. The “losers” votes in the “safe states” don’t count for anything. The contest actually involves a handful of states which might vote either way: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Minnesota, etc. And, of course, that’s where the candidates are campaigning and the money is being spent.

Whoever reaches 270 electoral votes will be the next president. But what happens if there’s a tie at 269. Prof Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia has suggested this would amount to an international embarrassment. Indeed it would.

A tie is unlikely, but entirely possible. In the event of such a tie the House of Representatives (435 members) would elect the president and the Senate (100 members) would elect the vice-president. However, there’s a kicker here. The Senate would elect the VP by a simple majority. No ties are possible in the Senate because the President of the Senate (the sitting VP) can vote to break it.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in the House. The Constitution stipulates that, in the event of an Electoral College deadlock, the House will choose the president with each state casting one vote. This is referred to as the “unit rule”. This means that huge states – California – and small states – North Dakota – get an equal vote. Since there are multiple representatives from both parties in the big states, it’s possible that a state could be deadlocked as to how to cast its one vote and, therefore, deprived of that vote because it couldn’t decide how to cast it. In such an eventuality, the person chosen as VP by the Senate would be the “Acting President” until a resolution of the conundrum. That will likely be Joe Biden, the Democrat, since the Democrats look to take control of the Senate in this election.

If all this sounds incredibly complicated it’s because it is. This is, however, the way the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy” conducts its business. A far more democratic system would be for the American people to vote for the candidate of their choice. The candidate with the most votes would be declared the winner. This would also mean that the candidates would have to campaign in each of the fifty states because every vote would count. From my point of view, this would certainly not be ideal, but it would be an extraordinary improvement over the absurdity that presently exists.

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About Bill Hansen

  • IMO we need the electoral college now more than ever. When faced with an electorate which is ill-informed, attracted to demagogues and inclined to rage and irrationality, having one step of separation between them and a job as important as electing the president is essential.

    Of course what we really ought to do is go back to removing popular involvement in presidential elections altogether. The electors really ought to be picked by the members of the state legislatures, not anything like a popular vote.

    Our Congressmen are the ones who represent us directly. The President shouldn’t be picked by any kind of popular process.


  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Oh, Dave. C’mon. We vote for our legislators, popularly. Why can’t we vote for our president, popularly. Things might well have gone very differently in both 2000 and 2004 had we been able to.

  • To start off with, holding a popular vote for the presidency elevates the status of the job higher than it ought to be. Short of a parliamentary system for selecting the president, a system like the one written into the Constitution which takes it out of the popular arena seems the most sensible to avoid the horrible campaigning and demagoguery we see in this election and too many others.

    The president should not be some sort of supreme leader with a mandate from the people. He’s a chief administrator and the process of selecting him should be more like having a committee hiring him than a popularity contest which is basically what we have now.

    The system we have now is ridiculous. The original system would restore dignity to the process.

    As for what might have happened in 2000 and 2004, we dodged two bullets there. We can’t count on a public so easily swayed by lies and propaganda to reliably produce reasonable results in nationwide elections.


  • No Dave, we got hit by two bullets squarely between the eyes. If you believe that Bush is preferable to, well anybody, you just haven’t been paying attention or you’re delusional. Had Gore been elected, we would not be in Iraq. Had Kerry been elected, we would not still be in Iraq – at least not with anywhere near the number of troops that remain there. In either case, I wouldn’t expect the economy to be good, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bad as it is now.

    “When faced with an electorate which is ill-informed, attracted to demagogues and inclined to rage and irrationality…”

    You are right about that. McCain’s people are just a tiny baby step from being totally bonkers, drooling over their booty mama, Tundra Barbie.


  • Admit it, Bari. You’re just jealous that there are no hot Democrats – at least not since Bela Abzug and her hats.

    Truthfully I don’t think Gore would have been any worse than Bush, especially since being president would have distracted him from this global warming silliness, and his myriad small military interventions would probably have been better than Iraq.

    Kerry, on the other hand, is a complete buffoon and makes Bush look like a genius. I can’t imagine how disastrous he would have been as president.


  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Kerry would have not served, as Gore would have served two terms. OTOH if he had we would not be considering an Obama right now I don’t think. So…hmmmm.

    And, Dave, who the hell votes for a candidate because she is hot? Did I wander in to America’s Next Top Model by mistake?

  • The ultimate primary source regarding the intent of the Founding Fathers is James Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. The delegates to the convention swore themselves to secrecy. They closed the windows of the hall, despite the summer heat, lest a passerby hear their discussions. They sent a younger delegate or two out with Benjamin Franklin at night, lest he pull a Biden after having a few drinks with his dinner. Madison’s notes were not published until after his death and he was the last of the 55 men who attended the convention to die.

    With the protection afforded by this shroud of secrecy, the delegates were able to speak their minds. There were few fans of democracy among them. There are some deliciously vicious comments on the short-comings of the common man sprinkled liberally among their comments. However, they grudgingly recognized that the genie of democracy was out of the bottle and cleverly devised a system that would appear to be democratic, and that did indeed contain some elements of democracy, but would ultimately leave the aristocracy in control. The Electoral College was one of several “checks” on the will of the people.

    I happen to share the Founding Fathers’ (and Dave’s) low opinion of the ability of the common citizen to choose wisely in selecting their leaders, but coming up with a fair and workable method for allowing only intelligent, well-informed citizens to vote is a difficult proposition. (Perhaps allowing only Blogcritics writers to cast votes would be a suitable method.)

    The Electoral College doesn’t really get around the problems associated with a popular vote, it simply takes the separate popular votes that take place in each of 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Congressional districts within Nebraska and Maine, and then puts the final results through the distortion of a fun house mirror, giving small states more power than larger ones and violating the “one man, one vote” principle in the process. It is for that reason that I believe we should amend the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College and provide for direct election of the president. The reality, however, is that amending the Constitution is an arduous process and we are not likely to change the way we elect the president any time soon.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Ah, Mr Apple, what a lovely, literate post.
    We would do well to remember we are a republic. Our Founding Fathers (no Mothers there) wished landowners the votes (no women, no blacks, no Indians)… and I love being reminded of the Benjamin Franklin anecdote: loose lips and all that.

    I,too, share the opinion of the great unwashed (and have written about it) but what can you do? Personally, I might disenfranchise anyone who hasn’t read a newspaper in 5 years or doesn’t like the novels of Philip Roth. Or Joe the Plumber. But alas, it is not my call.

    And amending the Constitution is a hard call. Look at what happened to the ERA. It got stuck on co-ed bathrooms for goodness sake. Go into any number of restaurants and we have them already, but no ERA. Sigh. Big sigh. Large sigh.

  • amending the Constitution is an arduous process and we are not likely to change the way we elect the president any time soon.

    true…until a republican wins the popular vote but loses the electoral vote. then the uproar will begin.

  • Someone winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote? Why, that would be a tragedy. That would be unfair. It couldn’t happen. Voters wouldn’t stand for it. It would never… uh, what? Uh huh. Uh huh…..


    Never mind.


  • Cindy D


    RE# 1

    Is this the new Libertarian (Liberty Republican) viewpoint?

  • Lee Richards

    And Dave thinks Obama is elitist.

    I do not want to put more power in the hands of any politicians–state legislators picking electors, for example–ever!
    They are clever and devious at making any such powers pay off for themselves and their cronies, but not for the people.

    The electoral system should be abolished in favor of a popular vote, which is entirely logical, or at least amended so that each candidate gets a proportion of the state’s electoral vote, and his supporters aren’t disenfranchised as they are by the present winner-take-all system.

  • moon

    Nalle shows his undeserved elitism with this statement:

    “IMO we need the electoral college now more than ever. When faced with an electorate which is ill-informed, attracted to demagogues and inclined to rage and irrationality, having one step of separation between them and a job as important as electing the president is essential.”

    Nonsense, Nalle. You sound like Henry Kissinger, who called for Salvador Allende’s overthrow based on his fascist belief that people should not be allowed to choose inconvenient leaders.

    Given that the two candidates are, once again, Tweedledee and Tweedledum–both fielded by Big Oil and Big Guns to do their bidding–no matter who you vote for, you will get Big Oil and Big Guns–and BO and BG will get BB (Big Bucks).

    The middle class (which is shrinking daily) will, again in the words of my grandmother Aimee,”suck the hind teat”.

    The working class and the poor will get–another of Gram’s expressions–Wwhat the little boy shot at”.

    All the Electoral College does is add a different strategy to campaigns in Gringolandia from those in the rest of the world.

    Get rid of it. Let the Simulation of Representative Democracy be seen–with all its warts.

    As long as the simulation is touted by rightwing pundits, cynics, shell game artists and snake oil saleman, there will be no change.

    Grow up, folks. Learn to hunt truth and look it in the eye.

  • John

    Yes, this is most ridiculous relic from 19th century politics, it is simply undemocratic, period. The reason GOP got elected in past is because fewer voters showed up, the fewer the better, it fundamentally broke the meaning of democracy. Hope new Congress will do such long long overdue overhaul for such shameless system.

  • Dave is an admitted and unabashed elitist, but I’m surprised to see Lisa sharing similar sentiments.

    Everyone over the age of 18 is and should continue to be allowed to vote. For one thing, who would get to decide who is enfranchized?

    Someone wise once said that you get the government you deserve. So what if some people make ill- or uninformed choices with regard to who they vote for, or waste their vote by not using it? If they can’t be bothered to take an interest, then that’s their lookout, I say.

    Now the Electoral College is another issue entirely. It’s almost as weird as the notion of William Shatner as a popular recording artist, yes, but I’d be wary of tinkering with it.

  • Baronius

    Winston’s post was lovely and literate, except for the opening phrase. A primary source cannot be ultimate.

    The Electoral College isn’t just an artifact from a long-ago time, because if we got rid of it, we’d have the exact problem that the Founders foresaw. Small states would have little say. A candidate could win the election with support from only a few regions. My fear is that, with our modern demographics and marketing skills, we’re headed that way anyway. Voters in Florida and Ohio have more of a voice than Californians. The science has made an odd mix of important states: not by region or size, but by near-balance.

    FWIW, we didn’t dodge bullets in 2000 and 2004. This isn’t Deal or No Deal, picking a set of campaign laws out of 26 briefcases. We knew what the rules were as we headed into the campaigns. Every platform, every alliance, every ad and speech would have been different if the goal was 50%+1 popular votes instead of 50%+1 electoral votes. You can’t say who would have been elected all other things being equal, because they wouldn’t have been.

  • moon

    Small states have a say?

    Get real.

    New Mexico, though the 6th largest state in the US of A, has a small population and its electoral college votes are almost not visible to the naked eye.

    Bill Richardson had no chance at the presidency–despite a long history in state and federal government, a good standing in the Democratic Party and a strong appeal to Hispanic voters outside his own state.

    But he was redlined from the beginning because he couldn’t bring a block of EC votes to the table.

  • Baronius

    Dread, soldiers want soldier-kings and philosophers want philosopher-kings. We want voters to be as smart as, oh, let’s say, we are. But we don’t want them to be any more elite than, for example, we are. The states that should carry the most weight are the ones that we live in. What about this surprises you?

  • Wanting’s one thing, Baronius. Advocating disenfranchisement because they’re not is quite another.

  • Baronius

    Dave and Lisa have both been involved in campaigns. It makes you develop a love/hate relationship with the voters. I wouldn’t hold Lisa to anything she says about voters this month, or for the next ten years if the vote doesn’t go her way.

    This is also the point in a campaign when a lot of staffers become alcoholics. I guarantee you there will be drunk driving arrests on Halloween night.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Hey I was kidding about the newspaper, Philip Roth thing… you guys obviously don’t get that kind of humor, I guess. I DO want to get rid of the electoral college and give everyone the vote. Do I WISH voters were more informed, sure. Are most voters as informed as I? Of course not. I am a political junkie. I realize that. I read incredibly fast and can multi-task. I am also a writer who works at home. And I LIKE to read and I LIKE politics and I LIKE being informed. I might not wish that on everyone.

    But, Baronius if the vote doesn’t go my way I AM leaving the country as soon as I can. Honest.

    And I don’t drink because it gives me migraines and if I did I would never drink and drive.
    And, BTW, I will never change how I feel about the average American voter because the average AMerican voter will never change. Pollyanna may be my nickname but I am, gasp, a realist, too:)

  • susan

    National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections.

    The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes-that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538). When the bill comes into effect, all the electoral votes from those states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    So there would never be a tie in the electoral vote, because the compact always represents a bloc consisting of a majority of the electoral votes. Thus, an election for President would never be thrown into the House of Representatives (with each state casting one vote) and an election for Vice President would never be thrown into the Senate (with each Senator casting one vote).

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 21 state legislative chambers, including one house in Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Washington, and both houses in California, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The bill has been enacted by Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland. These four states possess 50 electoral votes – 19% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

  • susan

    What the U.S. Constitution says is “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, that the voters may vote and the winner-take-all rule) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, the people had no vote for President in most states, it was necessary to own a substantial amount of property in order to vote, and only 3 states used the winner-take-all rule (awarding all of a state’s electoral vote to the candidate who gets the most votes in the state). Since then, as a result of changes in state laws, the people have the right to vote for presidential electors in 100% of the states, there are no property requirements for voting in any state, and the winner-take-all rule is used by 48 of the 50 states.

    The “normal process” of effecting change in the method of electing the President is specified the U.S. Constitution, namely action by the state legislatures. This is how the current system was created, and this is the built-in method that the Constitution provides for making changes.

  • susan

    National Popular Vote has nothing to do with whether the country has a “republican” form of government or is a “democracy.”

    A “republican” form of government means that the voters do not make laws themselves but, instead, delegate the job to periodically elected officials (Congressmen, Senators, and the President). The United States has a “republican” form of government regardless of whether popular votes for presidential electors are tallied at the state-level (as is currently the case in 48 states) or at district-level (as is currently the case in Maine and Nebraska) or at 50-state-level (as under the National Popular Vote bill).

    If a “republican” form of government means that the presidential electors exercise independent judgment (like the College of Cardinals that elects the Pope), we have had a “democratic” method of electing presidential electors since 1796 (the first contested presidential election). Ever since 1796, presidential candidates have been nominated by a central authority (originally congressional caucuses, and now party conventions) and electors are reliable rubberstamps for the voters of the district or state that elected them.

  • susan

    The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

    Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has “only” 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

    The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York’s use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming–both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

    The concept of a national popular vote for President is far from being politically “radioactive” in small states, because the small states recognize they are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system.

    As of 2008, the National Popular Vote bill has been approved by a total of seven state legislative chambers in small states, including one house in Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont. It has been enacted by Hawaii.

  • susan

    Evidence as to how a nationwide presidential campaign would be run can be found by examining the way presidential candidates currently campaign inside battleground states. Inside Ohio or Florida, the big cities do not receive all the attention. And, the cities of Ohio and Florida certainly do not control the outcome in those states. Because every vote is equal inside Ohio or Florida, presidential candidates avidly seek out voters in small, medium, and large towns. The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate in Ohio and Florida already knows–namely that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the state.

    Further evidence of the way a nationwide presidential campaign would be run comes from national advertisers who seek out customers in small, medium, and large towns of every small, medium, and large state. A national advertiser does not write off Indiana or Illinois merely because a competitor makes more sales in those particular states. Moreover, a national advertiser enjoying an edge over its competitors in Indiana or Illinois does not stop trying to make additional sales in those states. National advertisers go after every single possible customer, regardless of where the customer is located.