The Electoral College is one of America’s Most Democratic Institutions
Jason Criss Howk
8 November 2020
When I was teaching American Government at college and also leading a presidential election seminar series for our college’s older adult learners over the last two years, our discussions often touched on the electoral college system. Many people had been led to believe that the system was designed to privilege farmers or make it easier for one party to win the presidency—most thought it favored the current Republican party. The number one question was why don’t we just use a simple “popular vote” to elect the president.
As so many in America have been disparaging the system over the last few years, thinking that it is flawed because it allowed candidates Bush and Trump to become president, I spent time looking at the system and explaining it frequently to skeptical audiences. This is what we learned.
It often surprised me and my audience.
I stand with the title of this essay; I think it protects the most important part of our democratic experience—the ability of people with various views on how America should run to come to power. As we are a nation formed by throwing off a monarchy, I think it is important we don’t gain a defacto dynasty where one political party rules forever, handing down the presidency to their chosen successor.
How did we get an electoral college? Compromise!
The number one thing my students and friends tell me they want to see more of in DC is bipartisan cooperation to solve problems. Our entire constitution is based on the idea of compromises. We had 13 very strong-willed colonies left over when the British finally gave up and sailed home from America. The only way to turn those colonies into a nation was to create compromises that would ensure all the colonies would get fair treatment from the others, and eventually from a federal government. Remember before we arrived at our current government as laid out in the constitution, we tried another method of collaboration under the Articles of the Confederation (1777-1787). It didn’t work out well. The states were perfectly equal sovereign powers (self-governing powers) and the weak congress was the only federal body representing the sovereignty of the nation (or confederation).
The current constitution (4 March 1789 to the present with amendments) resolved that weak national-level sovereignty issue by creating the current President and Supreme Court. With 3 co-equal parts of the federal government, the sovereign states were better balanced by the federal government as a strong sovereign force. Those states were not so happy to give a federal government so much power over them, having not long ago removed a king. Compromise would have to be made to ensure the states retained a lot of power in the new governance system.
What kind of compromises?
It is often said by historians and political scientists that The United States of America is built around the ideas of freedoms, equality and democracy. A fine example of those values exists in our electoral college. (Remember we are a Republic, not a democracy; but our republic uses various ideas from the theories of democracy)
The electoral college is matched very closely to our congress. The legislative (co-equal) branch of government is not a single body of lawmakers, it is two bodies. To get into the House (lower chamber) or the Senate (house of elders you might say), you must meet different requirements; and the number of people representing each state varies in each chamber.
The number of senators and representatives is part of the compromise to ensure our laws were as fair as possible to all of the states. Each state gets to send 2 senators to legislature. That makes each state perfectly equal in the upper chamber. As each state wanted to ensure that no matter how large it physically was, how many people it had, or how much wealth it generated—that it was treated exactly like every other state in every way. Making laws for the entire nation was a critical part of that equality among states.
To balance the desire of larger-populated states the House of Representatives awarded seats for each state based generally on the number of people who live there. This made sure those who wanted their large population’s wishes were heard could get help in the House. The number of the seats in the House can change as the population changes. The Senate being the perfectly equal body gets 6 years per term, and the House being the less equal body only gets a 2-year term so the people can quickly send in new representatives as the desires of a state shift.
So why do we care if all 50 states today are treated fairly by the Federal government?
If you break the original compromise on the congress, you will get some very angry sovereign states that don’t want to be bullied by just a House by letting the larger population states write all the laws. If you instead only had a Senate, the larger population states would be frustrated that so many smaller states could create all the laws. For example, today with 50 states, less than half can claim to have a large population. So, a coalition could be sealed rather easily by small-population states in the Senate to ignore the 10-15 large population states on every law. With the original legislative compromise, the Senate is balanced by the House. The Senate cannot pass any law without the approval of the House—which is based on population.
Where does the Electoral college magic number come from?
When it comes time to select the president the compromise of the congress is applied as well. To win the presidency the candidate has to get enough states to vote for them that creates a majority mandate based on the electoral votes each state has. The number today for a mandate is 270 electoral votes. That is the majority of the 538 electoral votes available today. Each state gets an electoral vote that is equal to the number of representatives in the congress. So, Texas can place 38 votes for the President that their state’s popular vote chooses. Here you can see the compromise between popular votes in each state, and the use of the House of Representatives (36) numbers and the Senate (2) numbers to award the number of electoral college votes that Texas can cast.
Every state is guaranteed 3 electoral votes for president because they have 2 senators and at least one representative.
What happens if we drop the electoral college system and just use a popular vote for president?
If we get rid of the congressional body compromises that underpin the election of the presidency today the result could be that less than half the states can choose the president with no requirement to care who the other states wanted. Straight population votes would mean the handful of states with the largest cities could control the presidency on their own, forever…well not quite forever. While today that would mean the democratic party would control the white house, in a couple of decades those same cities could mostly vote for a new political party and then that party would control the presidency.
You should be able to see how the other 30-40 states would quickly get tired of not having a say in the election. Around 147 million people voted in the 2020 election. If 10-20 cities that held about 75 million voters all wanted the same person they would win, regardless of the wishes of the other 70 million people who voted across the nation. The union would quickly fall apart if the majority of the “equal and sovereign” states were not a meaningful part of the presidential election.
The presidential candidates would never need to campaign in any state that has a small population again. They would only focus on the larger cities they mathematically need to win.
Has the electoral college worked so far in ensuring each political party/view can win the presidency?
In short, yes.
Here are some graphics that show how the electoral college and the population-only votes have affected the election of the president. In the end you would not want to be the President if less than 1/2 or less than 1/3 of your equal states want you to run the federal government. You would be asking for a rebellion with every decision that goes against the best interests of the majority of the 50 states.
The first one comes from Wikipedia
It shows how many different political parties have been able to elect a president in the electoral college’s various forms (the most current technique is from 1804, 12th Amendment)
The next one shifts to the more modern era of presidents and show clearly how the current election method allows for swings back and forth between the parties, ensuring no party becomes the only view of how to run America. Given too long in power any party would tend to its most extreme views.
Some interesting data to look for on the next two slides are a) how many electoral votes did they win, b) how many states voted for them, and c) how much of the population voted for them.
You will note that usually the longer you stay in office the less popular you become and the nation eventually votes against your party’s views. Note who has had the most states in support of them and the largest popular vote. Also look at who has had the smallest electoral college win in a 2-way race. (Green=good / Red=not so good)
In the next slide you can see the popular vote and the electoral college begin to disagree more. You can even see that you can become president with the majority of the states voting against you.
While the 2020 race is still underway and counting continues, we can speculate about a possible Biden outcome to compare to the slide above (which was created before Biden became the final democratic party nominee and it looked like a Trump victory)
Biden has less than 51% of the population vote. He holds about 25 states. He will likely have 306 electoral college votes.
So, when Bernie and others say we should get rid of the current presidential election system what does that mean for Biden.
-Bernie Sanders 8 November 2020
If Biden only had the popular vote to give him a mandate as the president 50.7% to 47.7%, he would be about average compared to modern presidents since JFK. But look at where his mandate gets really low and the electoral college gives him a boost. With only 25 states in support of Biden he is near the bottom of modern presidents (only JFK did worse and Obama won with only 26 once), worse than any republican has done with 50 states (Trump won 30 states). The electoral college actually strengthens Biden’s mandate. He has a slim, but now average population vote and an electoral count equal to Trump, JFK, Nixon, Truman, and Carter—but below almost every other president since 1904. His electoral college puts him above the mandate of Bush 43. It does not hurt him at all—it actually strengthens him.
So, while it sounds like a good idea to have a simple popular vote for the entire nation, the electoral college does help the parties to take turns running the country. And it does give a bigger mandate to presidents that have a popular vote that is just above 50% or have earned the support than fewer than 26 of our 50 equal states.
The real issue with removing the electoral college is the loss of the faith of the small population states in the presidential election system. Unless you are trying to give them a really strong reason to leave the Union, I would leave the system in place and let it continue to give legitimacy and the spirit of compromise to our presidential election system.
When you glance at these two maps it is hard to see who should lead the nation with such a split of opinion. The electoral college helps ensure the mandate to rule is not weak and that every state is important to the presidential candidates.
Never forget we are first a union of 50 equal states, not just millions of equal people. We are the “United States” not the “United Individuals”
Very seldom will you see an election winning map like this that makes the mandate of a President crystal clear…and Reagan only held 59% of the vote to win that many states, our population is much more evenly spilt today.
States by frequent party vote today:
Democratic Party (19)
WA OR CA CO NM
HI MN IL VA NY
VT NH ME MA RI
CT NJ DE MD
Republican Party (23)
AK ID MT WY UT
ND SD NE KS OK
TX IA MO AR LA
MS AL TN KY IN
WV NC SC
Swing states (8)
NV MI WI PA (often DEM)
OH FL GA AZ (often REP)