The Electoral College, And How We’re Getting Closer To Changing It

Will Stewart

“The present rule of voting for President…is so great a departure from the Republican principle of numerical equality, and even from the federal rule which qualifies the numerical by a State equality, and is so pregnant also with a mischievous tendency in practice, that an amendment of the Constitution on this point is justly called for by all its considerate & best friends.”

-James Madison, in a letter to George Hay, 1823

Since the earliest days of American self-rule, the method by which the President is elected has been a problematic affair. After much wrangling during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, it was decided that the President would be picked by a number of electors chosen by each state legislature, and thus the framework for the Electoral College that we all know and love today was built. This system, however, faced roadblocks almost immediately; for instance, it did not have any mechanism to handle the newly emerged political parties and was thus subject to having a President and Vice President from different parties. As such, it is has already been subject to two Constitutional amendments (the Twelfth in 1804 and the Fourteenth in 1868), and yet it is still in many ways a non-ideal and undemocratic system (as is explained more thoroughly below).

These are the concerns National Popular Vote seeks to remedy, by, as the name suggests, empowering the national popular vote to supersede the Electoral College. Unlike previous attempts to reform or abolish the Electoral College, it’s not a Constitutional amendment, nor is it taking place at the federal level. National Popular Vote is an organization that publicizes and coordinates efforts to raise awareness of problems within the Electoral College. More importantly, it also directs the movement of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) through state legislatures.

Put simply, the NPVIC is a bill that, if passed in enough states, would guarantee that the presidential candidate who receives the largest share of the popular vote would win the presidential election. It does this by taking advantage of the fact that each state is constitutionally allowed to decide how they allocate each of their electors. When a state passes this bill, it agrees to commit all of its electors in the Electoral College to the presidential candidate who gained the most votes in the national election, regardless of which candidate wins that particular state. The compact will only go into effect after enough states have passed it such that together they have a majority of votes in the Electoral College (that is, 270) and can themselves guarantee that the popular vote winner wins the election, regardless of what the other states do; until then the states will continue apportioning their representatives as they do under the current system. Currently, ten states and Washington, D.C. have joined the interstate compact, with a combined 165 electoral votes of the 270 required for the measure to go into effect. This comes after the landmark victory on April 15th when New York became that tenth state to ratify the compact, contributing its 29 electoral votes to the cause and bringing us that much closer to attaining a more egalitarian electoral system.

So why, specifically, is the Electoral College such a problem? Why is something like the NPVIC necessary? Because, as mentioned above, the Electoral College is fundamentally undemocratic, in a number of ways.

First, because of the way electors are distributed to each state, it weighs some people’s votes more than others. Within the Electoral College, each state begins with three electors, and then the remaining electors are distributed according to population. This means that several states (such as Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, and Vermont) have three electors when, if the electors were distributed purely according to population, they would only have one or two. Since the total number of electors is set in stone at 538 (435 members of the House of Representatives plus 100 members of the Senate plus 3 electors from the District of Columbia), giving small states a minimum of three electors effectively means that electors are taken away from the larger states; thus small states have more electoral power than they should. This all creates a system in which, for example, an Alaskan’s vote actually has more electoral weight than a Californian’s vote.

The Electoral College also disproportionately weighs the input not just of voters, but of states as well. This is specifically the fault of the winner-take-all aspect of the Electoral College, in that if a candidate gets 51% of the votes in a state, they get 100% of that state’s electors. Thus candidates have little incentive to campaign in states that are dependably to one side of the political spectrum. One of the effects this has is causing presidential candidates to campaign disproportionately in select swing states. While it comes as a surprise to no one that candidates spend more time and money in swing states, the extent to which this occurs is staggering. In 2012, after the major party conventions, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney held campaign events in just 12 states between the two of them, and that includes Vice Presidential appearances. More than two-thirds of these events were held in four states alone (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa). Looking at campaign spending is even more worrying. FairVote, the same organization that tracked those campaign events, tracked campaign spending from April 11th to election day and found that President Obama spend 99.6% of his total television advertising budget in just ten states; Mitt Romney spent 99.9% of his television budget in ten states as well.

The winner-take-all system also means that most states have next to no chance of determining the winner of the election. Again, while in the abstract this isn’t very surprising, it is the level at which this occurs that one finds disconcerting. Immediately after the 2012 election, Nate Silver calculated his tipping-point index, which measures how likely it was that any given state could have, by itself, decided the outcome of the election. He concluded that just nine states had amongst themselves a 98.6% chance of providing the electoral vote that decided the election, meaning that these nine states were electorally 70 times more powerful than the other 41 states.

Perhaps most shocking, though, are the undemocratic outcomes that are possible under the Electoral College system. First and foremost comes the fact that three times in history (1876, 1888, and 2000) has the presidential candidate with the most popular votes lost the general election. The very fact that this is possible, let alone that it’s already happened three times, undeniably shows that the nature of the Electoral College is undemocratic. In fact, if you look at the data showing the number of electors given to each state and the population of each state, one can calculate that it is actually possible to become president while winning only 21.91% of the popular vote. To be sure, this would require the immensely unlikely outcome of a candidate winning just and only just 51% of the vote in the smallest 40 states in the US, but the very fact that it’s even possible is unforgivable.

Even more frightening is the method by which a tie in the Electoral College would be decided. If there is a tie, or if there are more than two candidates and no candidate wins a majority of electors, it falls to the US House of Representatives to break the tie. However, it’s not each representative that gets a vote, but each state, meaning the representatives of each state have to decide amongst themselves for whom to cast their vote. This is obviously worrying in that the president will be chosen by just 435 people who can vote any way they please, but let’s assume that the (admittedly rather likely) outcome happens in which each state in the House votes in favor of the candidate that their state elected. This can hypothetically lead to a scenario in which a candidate (say, a third party candidate who came in third but received enough electoral votes to prevent any other candidate reaching a majority) can become president if just the 26 smallest states vote for him in the House. Those 26 smallest states representing just 17% of the US population would have successfully chosen a president whom 83% of Americans didn’t support. Again, is this extremely improbable? Yes. But a system in which it’s even possible is not democratic, and is not one that we should maintain.

That’s why more than 70% of Americans support reforming the Electoral College. Right now the cause is just over halfway there, but the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is still the best chance America has seen of reforming that institution in a long time. It provides an opportunity for a less anachronistic, more democratic system in which we are at least somewhat closer to the ideal of “one person, one vote” upon which this country was ostensibly founded.