In Defense of the Electoral College

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is significantly longer than our normal posts. The Electoral College has recently become a divisive issue in American Politics, and we felt that forgoing thoroughness in the name of brevity would be a disservice to our readers.  In the words of Finest Bagels Patron Saint, Jed Bartlet: “In my house, anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying hard.”


“After immersing myself in the mysteries of the Electoral College for a novel I wrote in the ’90s, I came away believing that the case for scrapping it is less obvious than I originally thought.”

-Jeff Greenfield, American Political Writer



By John O. Sullivan

In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book entitled On Death and Dying, in which she pioneered the theory of the five stages of grief.

On the evening of November 8th, 2016, in the process of experiencing a great loss, a significant portion of the nation seemed to go into the first of Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief: Denial. “This couldn’t be happening. Why were Michigan and Wisconsin going Trump? Where was Latinx turnout in the Southwest? What was going on in Pinellas County? Well Clinton could still mathematically win, couldn’t she? How could Trump be winning this election?”

The nation (or at least Maryland) awoke on the 9th of November to a cool, overcast, drizzly day. The last dregs of Denial drained away, pushed out of reality as the final straggling precincts reported around the country, and the Denial hardened to the next stage of grief, Anger. #NotMyPresident was the battlecry of the day, with many swearing they would not submit to the rule of Trump, that they would not allow his bigotry to be normalized, that they would lead four years of fierce resistance and make his presidency a short and painful one. In short, people were furious.

This Anger converted directly, but subtly, to the Bargaining stage of the grieving process. There were calls for action. Petitions were signed, marches of protest were organized. Activists began calling for a recess appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, or for the Democratic caucus of the Senate to oppose all of Trump’s cabinet nominees unilaterally as retribution. People began trying to figure out who exactly the electors were and how to contact them, hoping to flood the electors and induce an “electoral revolt.” And, above all, there was confusion about the electoral college, some going as far as to call for its disbandment. After all, Secretary Clinton had won the popular vote by a wide margin. Surely this latest contradiction between the popular vote and the electoral outcome showed that the Electoral College was outdated, outmoded, and preposterously unfair. Even now, months after the election and with inauguration impending, I still see a disconcertingly high number of Facebook posts and tweets calling for the disbandment of the electoral college. These posts are from my peers, both past and present. These are people who are well-educated, many of them students of political science, and (mostly) people for whom I had a great deal of respect.

Unfortunately for them, they could not be more wrong about the Electoral College.

Please, please, please, for the love of all that is good and right, please stop saying that the electoral college makes our votes irrelevant. For one thing, there seems to be a great deal of confusion on the nature of our government. We, as Americans, DO NOT live in a “pure” or direct democracy, as many people seem to believe. A direct or pure democracy is one in which all citizens vote on laws, without the need for representation, and last I checked, we don’t whip out our smartphones to vote on every issue. We as Americans live under a system of government which rests somewhere between a Democratic Republic and a Representative Democracy, where we choose people to govern in our stead.

Don’t forget, we live in the United States of America, not the United People of America. This distinction is incredibly important. We live in one of the few countries where the sub-national units (in this case, the states) maintain a large degree of autonomy. This is among the core principles of our Constitution. The federal executive was intentionally designed to be a weak branch of government (for many decades in our early history, the Speaker of the House had more national name recognition than the President), with a powerful Congress and semi-autonomous States to dilute and distribute power away from the national executive. Everything about our national government reflects on this mix between representing autonomous states and representing a nation of equal people. Exhibit A: the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, the last (but not least!) of the Bill of Rights. The Constitution is, after all, the owner’s manual of the country, and we should consult with it when in doubt. The 10th Amendment, reads, in its entirety, as follows:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”

All powers not already spoken for, belong to the states or the people. This is an incredibly broad mandate, perhaps the single broadest reaching sentence in the entire Constitution. It is also important to note that the amendment specifically delegates to the states OR the people. Clearly, in the founder’s mind, there was a distinction. Further, the need to represent both semi-autonomous states and a nation of united people also lives in not just the letter, but the very structure of our national government. In the Senate, each state is represented by two Senators, no matter how large or small the state may be. These Senators, it is worth noting, were originally elected by the respective legislatures of the states they would represent. They were chosen by the individual governments of the states, not by the people, until the ratification of the 17th amendment. Senators were truly representatives of their states, not representatives of the people. By Contrast, the House of Representatives is, and has always been, as it is rightly called, “The People’s House.” Members of the House of Representatives have always been directly chosen by the electorate (though our definition of the electorate has changed), and they are apportioned roughly proportionally, assigned to states based on population, and in every way the House of Representatives represents the people, not the states.

While this point is not directly applicable to the discussion of the merits of the Electoral College, it is still important to keep in mind as we consider the pros and cons of that system, because the Electoral College is one part of a larger whole, one cog in an interlocking system of government. As John F. Kennedy said on the Electoral College:

It is not the unit vote for the Presidency we are talking about, but a whole solar system of governmental power. If it is proposed to change the balance of power of one of the elements of the solar system, it is necessary to consider the others.

With that in mind, let us consider the arguments against the Electoral College. One complaint I have heard every year, not just this one, is that really only the battleground states matter, that the votes cast in the “solid” red and blue states don’t ever impact the election. While it is easy to see how one might believe that, it is simply not true. For one thing, this very election showed us that voting always matters, even as a minority party in a “safe” state. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, which had ALL gone to the Democrat in EACH of the last 6 presidential elections, ALL flipped unanimously and simultaneously to the Republicans in 2016, so keep plugging away, ye downtrodden minority party voters. And even if you are in the majority party in one of these so-called safe states, your votes still matter too. While Minnesota has gone blue every single time since 1972, Minnesota’s 10 electoral votes were just as much a part of Obama’s 2008 victory as North Carolina or Florida. In short, your team is counting on you. Trump was relying on Texas as much as Clinton was relying on New York. Every state matters. Anyhow, even if you aren’t convinced that every state matters, what do you care that Battleground states are the only ones that matter? Though the battleground states have changed gradually over time, they are always decent representations of the country. Consider the current battlegrounds of Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado. They are geographically diverse, have a mix of rural, urban, and suburban development, and like all battleground states, are evenly split in party affiliation with a healthy population of independents. These states are collectively 79.4% White compared to the national average of 72.4%, making them a fair, if not perfect, representation of the country racially (please note the difference between race and ethnicity in US Census data). Doesn’t it stand to reason that if a candidate can put together a winning coalition in those states, that they represent a majority of the country?

This same line of argument is where much of the Bargaining begins. one of the other most frequent complaints against the electoral college is that a person in Alaska has more say in who becomes president than someone in New York. Mathematically speaking, this is technically true. In Wyoming, according to the 2010 Census (by which the current apportionment of governmental seats is based), there are only 563,767 people. These people are represented in Congress by a single Representative and two Senators, and have three electoral college votes to match. Therefore, each Wyomingite, mathematically speaking, is allotted 0.000532134% (Five Ten-Thousandths of a percent) of an electoral vote. This doesn’t seem like much, but it is a bounty compared to the 0.000147633% (One Ten-Thousandth of a percent) of an electoral vote that each of the 37 million Californians theoretically receive. The complaint here is that, essentially, each citizen of Wyoming gets 5x more say in the election of a president than each citizen of California, violating the principle of “one person, one vote.” It hardly seems a fair Bargain. However, this claim is also baseless. Firstly, when we go the polls for a presidential election, are not voting for president, we are voting to make a recommendation to our state’s electors [Though in 29 states, the electors are legally bound to follow the popular vote. In my estimation the only legitimate complaint against the Electoral College is in the 21 states which don’t bind their electors]. Secondly, the ruling in the case of Reynolds v. Sims which established that principle of “one person, one vote” into American jurisprudence applied to state legislatures, not federal elections. Thirdly, even if that ruling did apply to federal elections, it still would not apply to the election of a president. The Electoral College is clearly spelled out in Article II Section 1 of the Constitution. Something cannot be unconstitutional if it is in the Constitution. Finally, one does not become president simply by winning the Wyomings and Alaskas of the country. Thanks to the Electoral College, it takes a broad geographic coalition to win the presidency. Hamilton himself wrote in Federalist #68 that:

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 … it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union

In fact, in the 15 presidential elections since Hawaii and Alaska were established as states, the winners of presidential elections have won, on average, 34 of the 50 states, a clear majority. Additionally, winning the 34 smallest states would net a candidate only 209 electors, and 11 of those 34 smallest states would be considered traditionally “blue” states. A presidential candidate must win states of all shapes and sizes.

Those who are bargaining for the removal of the Electoral College should also consider that almost everything in the Constitution is geared to favor less-populous states, as they are already at a disadvantage with less representation in the House of Representatives. If no presidential candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives chooses the president, casting a single vote per state, a system which favors the small states. The Senate also gives small states a relative boost by representing all states equally. In the Senate, Idaho has as much say as Florida. To borrow the words of another Federalist paper, Federalist #62, written by James Madison:

It does not appear to be without some reason that in a compound republic, partaking both of the national and federal character, the government ought to be founded on a mixture of the principles of proportional and equal representation.

It is patently obvious that the Electoral College is philosophically consistent with the rest of the Constitution, which should be more than enough reason to keep electing presidents this way. However, just because it is in the Constitution does not mean it is right. We are, after all, talking about a document over 200 years old which was written without the input of any women or people of color, a document which once valued a great number of people as 3/5ths of a citizen. If you know me, or have read any of my other posts, you will know that I am the furthest thing from a strict-Constitutionalist. I ardently believe that the Constitution is a living document which must be interpreted based on present understanding and reality, and may, from time to time, need amendment. Though it is not justified merely by its own existence, the Electoral College is still a system with a number of inherent benefits which do, in fact, justify its continued existence.

First and foremost, the Electoral College ensures an accounting of issues that matter to all states on the national stage. The things that are important to Iowa are not necessarily important to Arizona. The challenges faced in Texas may not be the same as those in Oregon. In the president, we should seek someone with plans to better the whole country, which the Electoral College ensures. About a third of the citizens of our country, 107 million people, live in the four most populous states (California, Texas, Florida, New York). 165 million people, half the country, lives in the 9 most populous states. It takes the remaining 41 states and the District of Columbia to match the population of those 9. If the electoral college were abolished and the direct election of a president instituted, not only would most of the campaigning happen in the most populous states, but it would virtually guarantee that the concerns of the rural parts of the country would go largely unheard. Presidential campaigns would center only around issues that impact the nation’s major urban centers and densely populated East and West coast (10 of the 15 most populous states are on either the Eastern or Western Seaboard. The other 5 are in the Rust Belt and the Southwest), which would be tragically unfair half the country. The Electoral College ensures that what the less populated states in the Midwest and West lack in size, they make up for by their disproportionately large share of electors, which is the only way in which they are able to matter at all. And while I’m sure many of the anti-Electoral College advocates out there would happily jettison these states from the Union, that just isn’t very neighborly.

Perhaps even more importantly, the people who, in the Bargaining stage of their grief, were calling for recounts across the Rust Belt, should consider what a recount of a national direct election would look like. It is not too difficult to foresee a situation like Florida in 2000, Bush v Gore but ten, or twenty, times worse. Imagine the chaos of 2000 multiplied to that scale. Under the Electoral College system, recounts are a rarity, as only infrequently can a recount one or two closely contested states flip the result of an election.

Between 50 states and the District of Columbia, the average unit carries 10.5 electoral votes. In the last 100 years, only one electoral victor has won by less than that amount, and only three have won by less than 40 (the equivalent of several average sized states or one very large state). These victors were W. Bush by 35 votes in 2004, W. Bush by 5 votes in 2000, Woodrow Wilson by 23 votes in 1916. The usually wide margins of electoral victory supersede the need for recounts. However, in a direct election, there could be recounts in dozens of states, with candidates hoping that a few thousand additional votes from each state might flip the overall result of a close-fought election. 

However, even with the potential chaos of national recounts in mind, remember that, despite the recent stings of the Electoral College, it is rare that the electoral vote and popular vote disagree. Since 1916, as mentioned, only three elections have had a close electoral margin. The average margin of popular vote victory for the victors in that same time frame was 10.4% (!!!), even when you account for the negative margin of victory in 2016 and 2000. Only 5 times since we began publicly reporting the popular vote in 1824 has the candidate with the largest share of the popular vote not become president (2016, 2000, 1888, 1876, 1824). That’s a 91.4% rate of consistency, which would be an A- in any other college in the country. I call that a pretty good track record of success for the Electoral College.

Finally, as mentioned above, the Electoral College is ideologically and philosophically consistent with the structure of the rest of our national government. To change it would be to create inconsistency and discord. It blends representation of states and representation of people. It has a slight structural bias towards small states to balance the inherent power of large states. And, most importantly, it adheres to the basic principles of a Democratic Republic. The Electoral College is a system which still has a great deal of value. In the words of Political Science Professor Todd Eberly, “The electoral college is no more a relic than is the Senate.”

As we collectively come out of the Bargaining stage, we reach the second to last stage of grief, Depression. As a nation, we were left with some hard realizations after the Election, and in the words of comedians Key and Peele, we are still a country united, united in the fact that we can’t f***ing stand each other. Most Americans voted, and almost all of them voted for someone that half of us could not possibly imagine as president, and many of us are left with the sense that we aren’t living in the America we thought we were. And we must look to the Democrat’s would-be champion, Secretary Clinton, her image now tarnished by defeat, and assign to her a fair portion of the blame. The Electoral College was not some surprise last-minute twist at the end of a game show. It was established from before the beginning. There is significant evidence that the Clinton campaign ignored feedback from on-the-ground operatives, pushing ahead with a strategy that the footsoldiers of the campaign could tell wasn’t working. Further, there is a general impression that, rather than try and get to 270 and win, the Clinton campaign began to shoot for 370 electoral votes, that they wanted a blowout win against this preposterous figure, and they began pouring incredible resources into places like North Carolina, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arizona, instead of trying to overwhelm the requisite number of states with ad buys and scratch out a win.

As time has gone on, the national depression has only deepened, with the occasional flare-up of anger. Trump’s cabinet picks are almost all preposterously rich, not to mention laughably under-qualified or ethically dubious (not unlike the man himself). On the first day of the new session of Congress, Republicans set to work dismantling the ethics office. It looks to be a long, hard, four years for those on the left of the political spectrum.

And finally, tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as President. What happened, happened. We cannot blame it on the Electoral College, as much as we may like to. How we act and react to the events of the next four years is for each of us to decide ourselves, in accordance with our own conscience and beliefs. But there is no avoiding it, Trump will be President.


Feature Image: Map showing 2016 Official Electoral Result. Courtesy of Wikipedia

4 thoughts on “In Defense of the Electoral College

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