Electoral College vs Direct, Popular Elections

Here’s one that’s been on my mind for some time….

First, I’ve always liked the electoral college for one reason: tradition. It’s how the Founding Fathers put things together and there you have it. But I realized that my interpretation of as well as my reasoning for liking the electoral college wasn’t really based on understanding. I decided to learn something.

What is it?

The US uses a system of indirect voting for the President. Basically, when you vote for President, you don’t actually vote for the person. Instead, you vote for the members of the electoral college, which are people who have pledged to vote for a particular person for president. Simple, right? Wrong.

So you might ask why we use an electoral college instead of a direct, popular vote for president. The answer, while complex, can be simplified by saying State Rights. Remember that the original 13 Colonies were far less nation-oriented in nature and much more state-oriented. There was a genuine fear among the smaller southern states that the northern states could use their overwhelming population size to dominate any election using a popular vote, a legitimate concern. Additionally, individual states wanted to ensure that the power to elect the presidency was a state issue, not federal. Much more to it than that of course (MUCH MORE), but that’s a nutshell that’d get you through most junior high history courses.

The solution to maintaining state rights and also the balance of power without catering to the higher population of the north was to grant an electoral vote to each state based on (1) the number of senators in the state and (2) the number of congressman. Because each state has two senators and at least one congressman, each state was guaranteed at least three votes. On the inverse, because more populous states have multiple congressmen, they had more votes. It was an imperfect win-win that worked well.

Today, the electoral college is often seen as archaic and past its usefulness. In particular, many are frustrated that past elections have occurred where a candidate won the electoral college but not the popular vote. The most recent example was when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore despite losing the popular vote in 2000.

This and other things have driven the issue forward and brought up again a call to amend the constitution to replace the electoral college with a direct, popular vote.


And all this leads to my list of pros and cons.

Pros for the Electoral College

  • Helps keep smaller states relevant. Wyoming, although it only has some 500,000 residents still gets three votes. The state will likely never swing an election, but at least it is relevant.
  • Because of the mostly ubiquitous winner-take-all system of awarding votes* on the state level, the electoral college strongly minimizes the possibility of a third-party system, which some claim leads to greater political instability.
  • Similar to the first point, the electoral college helps rural states maintain a measure of importance, which broadens the base that a candidate needs to relate with.
  • The electoral college also helps cater to minority groups. Because of the winner-take-all approach of awarding electoral votes, a candidate would likely pay attention to the needs and wishes of local minority groups in the hopes that building a coalition of support would capture the vote of a state.

In short, some argue in favor of the electoral college because, like originally wanted, it helps smaller populations and groups maintain a voice in the government. There are of course, many other reasons.

Now the cons:

Cons of the Electoral College

  • The big one is, of course, that it could go against the will of the majority of the people.
  • The electoral college pushes third-party candidates out. Because of the winner-take-all approach, a third-party would have to win the entire state to get even a single electoral vote. That generally doesn’t happen. A popular vote would at least legitimize third-parties.
  • The college also encourages candidates to focus heavily on the higher population states anyway simply because the winner-take-all approach for those states means you could capture the White House winning only a small number of mega-population states, such as California, Texas, New York, Florida, and so on.
  • Similar to the previous, the winner-take-all approach generally means that candidates can only focus on a handful of swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida. Let’s be honest, California is voting Democrat. Texas is voting Republican. Why spend time or money there?
  • On the same note, if you are in a state that is staunchly for one party or another and you are not for the same party, your vote is pretty much not counted because the electoral votes are winner-take-all. With a popular vote, your vote would at least count.
  • The electoral college unfairly supports small states. Going back to Wyoming, each electoral vote in Wyoming represents roughly 167,000 people. In California, it’s closer to 500,000 people.

Hopefully by now you’re seeing a very common trend here in my thoughts… Winner-take-all.

When it comes down to it, I don’t necessarily dislike the Electoral College. I’m not really in favor of it either. I do like the positives that it brings while simultaneously disliking the negatives. I also do not think that a direct, popular vote is a great answer for the simple reason that it will disenfranchise the smaller state, and I am a believer that the states make the nation, not the nation the states.

So what is the answer? Remove the winner-take-all requirement. Maine and Nebraska award their electoral votes based on the winner of the popular vote within each congressional district. So, for example, if CD1 voted for candidate A, that’s one electoral vote. If CD2 then voted for candidate B, that’d be one for candidate B. And so on.

This approximates more closely the popular vote without disenfranchising the smaller states. It also makes it more likely that third-parties would have some relevance, albeit smaller than a true direct, popular vote.

Finally, this would force candidates to respond directly to regional needs and issues. In this system, California would still be the grand prize, but instead of being a grand prize of 58 votes, it’d be 58 smaller grand prizes of a single vote each. Utah, with six votes, would have as much relevance per district as California would.

This system would also minimize the effect of a strong state-wide party. In Utah, there are four CDs, one led by a Democrat. Instead of all six votes going Republican each year, there is certainly a chance that the electoral votes could go 5-1 or even 4-2.

And that’s a good thing.

The big negatives I see are that going to this system would extend the breadth of the presidential campaign to huge proportions. It also could create a dramatic case where someone could legitimately win the 270 smallest CDs in the country, which would mean they’d take the election while being literally millions behind in the popular vote. I doubt that’d ever happen, but it could.

The final one is that it would only increase gerrymandering because of the all-important boundaries and makeup of congressional districts.

In the end, it is still an imperfect solution, but I believe it to be a better solution than a direct, popular vote.

*Nebraska and Maine do NOT award votes using the winner-take-all method. They award based on the popular vote within the congressional district.

This entry was posted in Dave-isms. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Electoral College vs Direct, Popular Elections

  1. Emmerin says:

    Agreed. I like the electoral vote system because it prevents some of the sixty-million party systems they have in Europe. When you have that many groups to cater to, you’re trying to make every little group happy. It’s worse than lobbyists. I would prefer my candidates to cater to more centrist ideals, and with the system we have, that happens. Candidates aren’t making deals with the Alien Believers of America to get that last .5% vote to have a popular majority.

    However, I have long thought we should do exactly as you say and go by congressional district. It still takes care of those outlier groups but more closely approximates the popular vote.

  2. oldgulph says:

    After more than 10,000 statewide elections in the past two hundred years, there is no evidence of any tendency toward a massive proliferation of third-party candidates in elections in which the winner is simply the candidate receiving the most votes throughout the entire jurisdiction served by the office. No such tendency has emerged in other jurisdictions, such as congressional districts or state legislative districts. There is no evidence or reason to expect the emergence of some unique new political dynamic that would promote multiple candidacies if the President were elected in the same manner as every other elected official in the United States.

  3. oldgulph says:

    Dividing a state’s electoral votes by congressional district winners would magnify the worst features of the Electoral College system.

    If the district approach were used nationally, it would be less fair and less accurately reflect the will of the people than the current system. In 2004, Bush won 50.7% of the popular vote, but 59% of the districts. Although Bush lost the national popular vote in 2000, he won 55% of the country’s congressional districts.

    The district approach would not provide incentive for presidential candidates to campaign in a particular state or focus the candidates’ attention to issues of concern to the state. With the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all laws (whether applied to either districts or states), candidates have no reason to campaign in districts or states where they are comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind. In North Carolina, for example, there are only 2 districts (the 13th with a 5% spread and the 2nd with an 8% spread) where the presidential race is competitive. In California, the presidential race was competitive in only 3 of the state’s 53 districts. Nationwide, there have been only 55 “battleground” districts that were competitive in presidential elections. With the present deplorable 48 state-level winner-take-all system, 2/3rds of the states (including California and Texas) are ignored in presidential elections; however, 88% of the nation’s congressional districts would be ignored if a district-level winner-take-all system were used nationally.

    Awarding electoral votes by congressional district could result in third party candidates winning electoral votes that would deny either major party candidate the necessary majority vote of electors and throw the process into Congress to decide.

    Because there are generally more close votes on district levels than states as whole, district elections increase the opportunity for error. The larger the voting base, the less opportunity there is for an especially close vote.

    Also, a second-place candidate could still win the White House without winning the national popular vote.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

  4. Laura G says:

    I could even live with the existing electoral college setup (not like it, but accept it) if they changed one thing:

    Currently, in most states, electors are not legally bound to vote the way the people of their state say.

    Yes, 99.99999% of the time they will, but they are not bound to. That was a safety mechanism that was intentionally built in by the founders for reasons that I’m not convinced made sense then, and definitely don’t make sense now. Force the electors to vote the way the people say, and it’s at least a step in the right direction.

  5. JeffreyD says:

    Laura G, the freedom of an elector to change his or her vote is one of the saving graces of the system, in my mind. It is one of the last vestages of our original republic, which was much wiser about human nature, and realistic about the proper role of government.

    Dave, I really appreciate the electoral college and wish that it were more transparent to the people.

    The popular election is just that, a popularity contest more akin to a beauty pagent than a solemn assembly. By picking a few from our midst who can get more direct contact with the candidates, we have a better chance of getting a real leader for president.

    The real problem with our presidential election process isn’t the electoral college, or the popular vote, it’s that the stakes are too high! The President (and the rest of the federal government) wield too much power and influence over our lives. Winning matters way too much, which raises tensions, hardens party lines and escalates conflicts. This drives everyone to “make their vote count” as directly as possible, thus ensuring the “lowest common denominator” gets the job.

    I am tired of “popular” presidents who only placate the masses while grabbing more power from the people, instead of teaching, leading and empowering citizens to govern their own lives and communities.

    We need to shink government drastically, returning the power and responsibility to the people, as close to the people as possible.

    There’s only one real candidate for president that would fit the bill, and he is the least photogenic of the lot!

  6. daveloveless says:

    Sorry, Oldgulph. Your comments went to my spam folder, and I just rescued them.

    I actually have to disagree with the popular vote. I think Jeff nailed it on the head that it would turn into a popularity contest/beauty pageant of sorts where candidates say and promise anything to get elected (much as happens now anyway I guess).

    I also agree with Jeff that one of the principle problems with our elections currently is the power the election holds. The prize is so great and far-reaching that it encourages, in my opinion, both the wrong types of people to run AND those people to make statements and promises that are unrealistic, unwise, and outside the realms of the office.

    On the GOP side, you have every candidate promising to repeal Obamacare, something I do want to see happen. But do people realize that the President does NOT have the power to do that? That is a legislative function and can only be done by our congress. As President, you can encourage and request–even direct–but you cannot actually repeal legislation. And yet that is a fundamental promise and platform on the GOP side. We see similar promises and expectations on the DEM side as well.

    Put it all together and we have shady characters running for an extremely powerful position promising to do things that are outside the realms of that power.

    As much as I dislike some of Ron Paul’s platforms, he’s right that this power should be pushed back to the states. That was the original intention, and we’ve strayed from that. In that sense, the electoral college still serves the purpose of making the states the true power in electing the president as opposed to the people themselves.

    Oh, and thanks for the detailed data on Congressional Districts and so forth. May I ask a source? I’m not questioning the legitimacy of the data but rather out of a genuine interest to see it.

  7. Pingback: (My) Ways to fix the Electoral System | Unsettled Christianity

  8. Bill says:

    Iam a Republican BUT I live in New York. Since my vote no longer counts in this ultra Liberal state, I feel that I have essentially been excluded from the process. I really don’t want to move to one of the “swing” states , but my vote WOULD ACTUALLY COUNT there. We need a better system. States like NY that have MANY large cities have historically become Democratic states. I don’t want to speculate on the reasons this happens, but the bottom line is we have polarized the country via our state demographics and it has clearly skewed the outcome of the most important election voters can and should determine.

  9. My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.
    This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this
    info! Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s