Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Electoral College

Today’s question comes from a high-school friend of mine, Erin Solej. She asks:
“Jeff, I remember you commenting on the necessity of the electoral college, but I want to understand it better because I don't see how my vote counts with this system. Of course, I will vote, but can you please post your thoughts on this.”

This is seriously a great question, Erin. I hear about this all the time—people don’t understand the Electoral College, and since people tend to fear what they don’t understand, a lot of them want to do away with it. On this point, though, I must respectfully disagree. Knowledge brings familiarity, and frankly, the Electoral College isn’t nearly as bad as some of the more outspoken among us make it out to be. So Erin, thank you so much for your question. Per your request, here are my thoughts:

Back when our nation was still in diapers and the Constitution was still being written, there arose a big controversy between the states regarding representation. Some states—generally the more populous ones, of course—argued that representation should be based on population; others—generally the less populous ones—argued that a group of united states should each get an equal vote. From this argument came “the Great Compromise,” which resulted in our two houses of Congress: the Senate, with its two congresspersons per state; and the House of Representatives, with its one congresspersons per Congressional district.

The point of the Electoral College is to apply that Great Compromise, in the Legislative Branch of the federal government, to the Executive Branch. Thus, Article II, §1 of the United States Constitution reads:
“Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.”

Electoral College, 1789
So, instead of having a strictly popular vote, the Electoral College consists of two electors per state and one elector per district—identical to the U.S. Congress. As with the original Great Compromise, the states with smaller populations maintain their voice through their allotted two electors, while states with larger populations maintain their larger voice through the other 10, 20, 50, what have you. Since 1961, this method has also included the District of Columbia, which per the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, receives “A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State.” (As of this writing, this number is the same as the number of licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie pop: uh-three.)

Now, are there other reasons for the Electoral College? Sure. Some argue that the Electoral College was also created because the people were generally uneducated—hence, “College”—and especially because communication was so much slower in 1788 than it is today. The argument continues that because we are now more educated and able to communicate instantaneously, the Electoral College should be disbanded. Unfortunately, while these points are certainly valid, they fail to address the Great Compromise, which remains the primary reason for the College’s existence.

Electoral College, 2000
There is also an argument that since the electors are appointed “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, ” the Electoral College should be reformed per the method originally used in Massachusetts and currently used in Nebraska: the popular vote for the entire state only dictates the first two electors, while the popular vote in each Congressional district dictates the elector sent from that district. This is, of course, perfectly Constitutional, in part because it does not negate the Great Compromise. I would wholeheartedly support such a reform of the entire system, but it’s hard to see how such a change would come about. Most states are controlled by the same party as their winner-take-all status tends to support, so it’s unlikely that they’d give up those extra votes—especially with as many close elections as we’ve had, in recent years.

So, Erin, now we come down to the crux of your quandary: whether or not your vote actually counts. Sadly, in a nation this size, that’s always going to be a tough call. It’s certainly easy to be discouraged when one candidate has a huge lead in your state, knowing that whichever way you personally vote, that candidate will carry all of the state’s electoral votes. I feel the same way, although obviously the candidate with a seemingly insurmountable lead, here in Indiana, is not the candidate who holds one, in New Jersey. But I guess my question is: would it really be that much better, in a true democracy? It’s hard to say. We’d still have hundreds of millions of eligible voters, so it would still be quite easy to get lost in the shuffle—perhaps even more so. For this reason, I suspect we’d be just as discouraged.

Ultimately, the best advice I can give you is to work for a Nebraska-style reform of the Electoral College in New Jersey. It’s fair, it’s Constitutional, and it could theoretically make your vote count just a little bit more than it does now. As for this election, the best you can do is grab a sample ballot for your local voting district—they’re often available online—and study all of the candidates. Don’t content yourself with the two main parties, nor even just those who are running for President. Research the candidates at every level of government, figure out their positions on the issues—especially the ones which are most important to you—and as always, get out and vote for whichever candidates will best represent your interests.

As for the Presidential election: while your vote may not seem to count, quite as much as you’d like, at least you can content yourself with knowing that whichever candidate wins, you’ll be among those many millions immortalized as a number in the popular-vote results on Wikipedia. ;-)

Hope that helps!


  1. An interesting discussion here, Jeff, I have two comments:

    1. A vote still counts even if it doesn't directly affect the election. The republican party will be closely watching votes on third parties, like libertarian and constitution party candidates, to see how they could change to attract more of those voters next time. (Same thing for the Democratic Party and the Green Party or possibly even the Justice Party).

    2. While it is true that the primary reason for the continued existence of the Electoral College is due to the Great Compromise, why is such a compromise still necessary? I personally feel there is no reason my vote should be proportionally weighted higher because I live in a less-densely populated state than others. Nor should anyone else's count any more or less, we're all equal and the weight of our votes should reflect that. I would 100% support a constitutional amendment to change to a direct-vote format.

  2. Thanks, Nick. I personally think the Great Compromise is still necessary, to protect the needs of the citizens in less-populous states. It’s been pointed out on many occasions that even with the Electoral College intact, all it takes are the eleven most populous states, to win the Presidency. In other words, all a candidate has to do, to win the Presidency, is court people in those eleven states and leave the other 39 behind. The problem with this is that those eleven states have wildly disparate needs and interests (take Texas vs. California, for example), so the Electoral College effectively forces a candidate to court the entire American people as best as possible.

    Now, imagine if we were to take away the Electoral College. More than half of the population still lives in those eleven states, but now the candidates can completely ignore rural America and concentrate on the major population centers. By espousing policies that favor urbanites, any politician can breeze into the Presidency while alienating everyone who doesn’t live in those few, relatively isolated locations.

    The Great Compromise was all about checks and balances—the three branches of government, the two Houses of Congress, etc.. If you don’t think checks and balances are as necessary today as they were, a couple of centuries ago, then I suspect we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

    Thanks again! :-)

  3. While your point is true, to an extent, if we look at the reality of our current system, many states will pretty much always vote Democrat or Republican, with a key portion of political strategy bent on convincing voters in so-called "swing states". If Mitt Romney's policies gain him an extra 10% of voters in California, despite the massive effect that would have on the popular vote, but absolutely no effect on the result of the election. So instead candidates and political parties shift their policies and their campaigning to things that appeal to voters in swing states. This is great for people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, but not for Americans as a whole.

    Also, fairness of voting has nothing to do with checks and balances, it's about equality. I'm not suggesting we abandon our bicameral congress, which even more heavily weights decisions in favor of small states. This simple little Wikipedia chart shows some of the great inequality in voting:

    So essentially, vote from a citizen in Wyoming or Washington D.C. weighs three times as heavily as a vote from California or Texas. The phrase "checks and balances" refers to branches of government being able to keep each other in balance, the executive branch (the president) has the power to veto laws passed by the legislative branch (congress), while congress can, in turn, override a presidential veto. The judicial branch oversees both with judicial review, yet members of the judicial branch are appointed by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislative branch. Checks and balances does not mean Wyoming's votes for president count three times as much as California's, it means each branch of government keeps the other in check.

    If the Electoral College were replaced by a direct vote, citizens of small states would still maintain a disproportional impact on national law due to the extreme power of the Senate, so that check and balance would remain intact.

    I really see no reason why not to completely abandon the electoral college, perhaps a direct popular vote would even help some of the smaller third-party candidates to build some momentum and thus give Americans more choices in future elections.

  4. Nick, your point is well taken, but I still maintain that smaller states have a right to be represented in electing the President. Ultimately, I think this is a question of states’ rights vs. federal rights. The popular vote allows us to act as a single nation; the electoral vote allows us to act as a conglomerate of united states. Which be better is based entirely upon your point of view.

    Cheers! :-)