The electoral college – pros and cons

After many elections, there are often calls to abolish the electoral college method of choosing our president and vice president. (We note that this year, Arizona governor Jan Brewer voiced such an opinion.) We, the people, do not elect the president and vice president directly by popular vote. Instead, we elect a slate of “electors” who are pledged to particular candidates for president and vice president (24 states have laws that punish “faithless” electors, those who don’t honor their pledge). The manner in which each state selects electors is up to the state’s legislature. These electors meet on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December in each state capitol, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for President and Vice President.

An original proposal at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was that Congress select the president and vice president, but this was finally considered to make the president too beholden to Congress. The electoral college was a compromise between the big and small states and reflects the fact that our country is a union of states.

Each state has a number of electors equal to its Congressional representation (senators plus representatives). Also, the District of Columbia has three electors. In nearly all states, the winner of the popular vote in the state gets all the state’s electors.

Why not have a direct popular vote? Arguments have been that a direct popular vote would cause candidates to ignore rural areas and small states of the heartland and concentrate on the large population centers of the coasts. That same argument is put forth against the electoral method because it forces candidates to focus on “swing” states. For instance, it is possible to win the election by winning just eleven states and disregarding the rest of the country: California (55 votes), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), Georgia (16), North Carolina (15), and New Jersey (14) equal the currently required 270 electoral votes.

But, even with a “majority rule” popular vote, the majority may not rule.

For instance, in six postwar elections–1948, 1960, 1968, 1992, 1996, and 2000–no candidate had a popular majority. In the 2000 Bush-Gore contest, Bush got 47.9% of the nationwide popular vote versus Gore’s 48.4%. Neither got the majority of voters. In 1992, Bill Clinton won with only 43% of the popular vote (George H.W. Bush got 37.5%; Ross Perot got 19%). This was similar to the 1968 race in which Nixon won against Humphrey. Nixon got 43.4% of popular vote, Humphrey got 42.7% and George Wallace got 13.5%. The electoral college transforms a popular plurality into a majority and a small majority into a bigger majority, thereby providing a more satisfying outcome.

What about apportioning a state’s electoral votes based on the popular vote? This has been suggested, but others claim such a system promotes fraud and could lead to lawsuits and challenges in every county in which the vote count was close.

The current system has a popular component within each state and gives each state a say in the federal union. I’m sure the debate will continue.

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3 comments

  1. What would happen if the sitting President who just won re-election in November were to be impeached before the electors voted in December? Could the electors change the outcome of the election to favor the challenger?

    1. The situation of impeachment of a sitting, re-elected president has never come up, but we can take some guidance from the situation of a candidate dying between the election and the meeting of the electoral college. According to Wikipedia: “In the election of 1872, losing Democratic candidate Horace Greeley died during this time interval which resulted in Democratic disarray, but the Greeley electors were able to split their votes for different alternate candidates. A situation in which the winning candidate died has never happened. In the election of 1912, Vice President Sherman died shortly before the election when it was too late for states to remove his name from their ballots; accordingly, Sherman was listed posthumously, but the eight electoral votes that Sherman would have received were cast instead for Nicholas Murray Butler.” In other words, the electoral system allows flexibility.

  2. David Brooks made a interesting point on election night. He pointed out that the present system forces candidates to go to battleground states and appeal to a wide range of voters. Otherwise they could speak only to their base supporters, with a likely result of the winner being the president of only some, not all Americans.

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