What’s Wrong With the Electoral College?

Electoral College Map 2012 with each state's number of electoral votes noted

Electoral College Map 2012 with each state’s number of electoral votes noted

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series about the Electoral College, which is the system we use to elect the President of the United States. We will add links to the bottom of this article as additional parts of the series are published. During my lifetime, I’ve heard more criticisms of the Electoral College than praise. The foaming-at-the-mouth version following Election 2000, while unforgettable to those of us old enough to recall it, was not the first time disgruntled voters called for the Electoral College system to be dismantled and replaced with a straight popular vote, nor, I suspect, will it be the last.  In fact, one such effort has been ongoing, rather quietly, for more than a decade with some incremental success. The majority of complaints about the Electoral College system can be summed up as follows: it is not democratic or, at least, not democratic enough to assuage progressive sensibilities.  The Electoral College system doesn’t count every vote; it disenfranchises voters; and it doesn’t truly represent “the will of The People.”  Additionally, the system gives what detractors perceive to be disproportionate power to either a handful of particular states or to even a single state.  Swing states, especially those with small populations, they argue, get far more attention than those states “deserve.”  These critics reason that no single state should be able to “hold up” an entire election. Ironically, most of the flaws critics of the Electoral College System point out are due to deviations from the Founders’ original design enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, deviations that were purportedly adopted to pacify the complaints of detractors like those agitating for the demise of the Electoral College to this day. Unfortunately, only two states in the entire country (Nebraska and Maine) have electoral vote allocation schemes which still resemble the Founders’ original plan,  one that serves to better represent the will of all voters in the country than what exists presently in the remaining 48 states and the District of Columbia. I think the evidence is clear that existing dissatisfaction is simply due to a lack of understanding about why the system was adopted, how it was intended to work, and how it works now. I also believe it’s likely a majority of people who are content with the system as it is don’t necessarily understand how it works in detail.  (Never mind any expectations regarding widespread understanding of how it was originally designed.)  I didn’t understand it myself until I was well into adulthood, and it’s not because I was a poor student.  Further, glossing over and disinformation from the media abounds. I think a recent bit from a Watter’s World segment is fairly representative, excepting the disinformation aspect (the portion regarding the Electoral College ends at 2:30): The “show-off” student was the most accurate. But it all takes to receive a thumbs-up, apparently, is to know…vaguely…more than all but one other person interviewed. Before we, as a people, become persuaded to throw out the proverbial baby with the water, shouldn’t we first thoroughly understand the who, what, when, where, why and how regarding the Electoral College system?

Electoral College Basics:

WHO The Electoral College System was proposed by a committee of eleven Founders (i.e., Gilman, King, Sherman, Brearly, G. Morris, Dickinson, Carroll, Madison, Williamson, Butler, and Baldwin). WHAT The Electoral College is the method adopted by the Founders for the election of the President of the United States. It is an indirect method of election which emphasizes and balances both popular vote and regional support. WHEN The Electoral College was proposed, debated, and approved during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. WHERE The provisions of the Constitution pertaining to the Electoral College and its operation can be found in Article 2, Section 1, and the 12th and 23rd Amendments. WHY HOW
  • Each state is allotted a number of electors arrived at by adding the number of U.S. Senators that state has to the total number of Congressional Representatives it has. (For example, Nebraska has 2 U.S. Senators and 3 Congressional Representatives, giving Nebraska 5 electors.)
  • There are currently 538 electors, corresponding to the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, plus three additional electors from the District of Columbia. It takes an absolute majority of 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.
  • When voters in the fifty states cast their votes for President, they are actually choosing electors, pledged to support a particular candidate. Those electors then cast their votes for President.
  • The Electors meet on the first Monday after the first Wednesday in December to cast their votes. (For 2016, that is December 19.)
  • Congress counts and officially accepts the vote of the Electors on a date they set.  For the 2016 election, this date is January 6, 2017, but Congress may pass a statute changing that date.
These are the basic facts about the current system and its history. In the remainder of this series I will explain:
  • Why the indirect system that currently exists in two of the 50 states is the appropriate balance between popular representation and regional interests — a critical element of our REPUBLIC. We are not a democracy, and for good very good reasons.
  • How the current system in 48 states actually disenfranchises many voters in Presidential Elections with the winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes.
  • How the winner-take-all systems in 48 states cause power imbalances within states and the country, in general, and give some examples of those negative effects.
  • Why it is in our country’s best interests to restore the Electoral College system to its original construction.

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