Junk the Electoral College

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Ms. Appleby is professor emerita of history at UCLA and co-director of the History News Service.

Note: This article was first published in 2000 following the disputed Bush/Gore election.

The 2000 presidential election is unique in the annals of American history. Because of its indeterminacy? No. Its singular distinction comes from the fact that never before have both the popular and electoral votes been close in the same election.

When John F. Kennedy squeaked out a victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, his 48.7 percent of the popular vote triumphed over Nixon's 48.5 percent, but Kennedy won 303 electoral votes, 85 more than Nixon. Similarly, earlier close popular votes yielded major differences in Electoral College strength.

The simultaneous convergence of near-ties in the 2000 presidential race denies the winner the clear-cut authority of either the nation's informal popularity contest or its official Electoral College count.

This disturbing outcome may also alert the nation's voters to the real flaws in the Founders' ingenious invention, the Electoral College, detailed in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution.

Previous criticism of our peculiar way of electing a president through 50 separate contests has focused on the winner take-all policy in 48 of our 50 states. This policy of treating 51 percent of the votes the same as 75 percent can thwart the popular will when one candidate garners the requisite number of electoral votes in states that are evenly divided while the opponent overwhelming carries his or her states.

Election 2000 has thrown a searchlight on a far graver defect in the Electoral College: the two-elector bonus every state gets for its senators. The Constitution assigns electoral votes to states on the basis of the number of its representatives in Congress plus its two senators. After every census, congressional strength is readjusted to reflect population shifts. Not so the bonus senatorial electors; they never change.

If population were evenly dispersed among the United States, the bonus senators wouldn't make much difference. But, as this election has made crystal clear, voters are clustered in a handful of big states. The figures: 29 states have fewer than 8 electors. Only seven have more than twenty.

What does the math show? That our 31 smallest states get a 25-percent boost in their electoral strength from the senatorial bonus while California gets only 4 percent and New York, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida get 6 percent to 9 percent.

This campaign has also made starkly apparent just how much the Electoral College skews the candidates' campaigns. Why did Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore return again and again to Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Missouri and Michigan? Because their electoral votes were up for grabs while New York, Ohio, California and most of the states in the West and South had already formed majorities for one or the other candidate.

Can we expect reform of this dreadful system soon? Probably not. Those 31 states to which the Constitution delivers a 25-percent gift of electoral strength also have the power to determine the fate of the necessary constitutional amendment to eliminate the college. Amendments require the approval of three quarters of the states. Montana, Wyoming, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Alaska are unlikely to line up to give up their electoral heft. Tradition, constitutional reverence, protection of state differences, and anti-big city sentiment can all be expected to serve their cause.

But there's one thing -- after this election -- that the Electoral College's supporters won't be able to say: if it's not broken, don't fix it.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The electoral college system benefits small states, slightly, because that is what the founders intended. It is, however, practically impossible for a presidential candidate getting more than 52-53% of the popular vote to lose in the electoral college. Is that so bad ? That someone whom most of the electorate (voting and non-voting) don't care for is not chosen ? Isn’t counting all votes properly more important than worrying about whether Wyoming and Alaska get a slight edge in weighting of those votes (an advantage which is anyway overwhelmed by the importance of the winner- take-all rules in the much more populous states) ?

Furthermore, the winner-take-all provisions favor the current money-dominated two party system: There is thus virtually no hope at all of getting 2/3 of Congress and 3/4 of the state legislatures to pass a constitutional amendment so against their interests; hence even attempting such an amendment is an utter waste of time, unless and until we tackle the corruption in campaign finance, which is, of course, a vastly more serious problem to begin with.

Far more important than useless attempts at electoral college tinkering, and much more readily accomplished, would be voting reforms -along the lines of the Carter-Ford Commission recommendations- to update our ancient and broken patchwork quilt of voting procedures, by establishing a standard uniform approach for registration, ballot types, and mandatory recountable paper trails across the country.

William F Christian - 3/1/2006

I am a teacher (history) my students over the yrs create reforms these are the best:

Three (3) Constitutional Amendments

• National Primary last tuesday in May two highest candidates compete in November.
(US President, US Senator and US Representative).

Today the primary is a haphazard affair. It’s disfunction causes the public not to turn out to vote, believing “it’s been decided” by the “Super Tuesday” vote and media coverage.

• Reform electoral college:
Winner of state’s popular vote gets two electoral votes.
- One for each Senator
Winner of each congressional district’s popular vote gets
one electoral vote. - One for the Representative

Maintain the Electoral College, small states need a voice in the election of the president. The change in how Electoral Votes are counted would make the Electoral Votes be more in line with the popular vote. Still require that one more then half of Electoral Votes wins the November elections.

• limits on national elected positions:
Three terms or two consecutive terms US President
Three terms or two consecutive terms US Senator
Five terms or four consecutive terms US Representative

Without regular change the country will not move forward. Once established the congressional members defend their turf not their constituents needs. The presidential limits were a reaction to FDR’s four terms, making the executive branch’s term limits a method for the legislative branch to have equal power. The presidential limits successfully did reduce the executive branches overpowering authority. The congressional members need the same limits.

Bill Christian

Lynn Bryan Schwartz - 11/3/2004

I am disheartened when I read how respected historians are pulled down by their personal political preferences. I think that it is interesting that these scholars frequently (especially on HNN) reject everything they instruct their students and warp the study of the history to fit their narrow, overtly biased political views. (I also direct this to Dr. Rakove, who discredits himself somewhat by hoping that the election would end in chaos.)This is not to say there is no bias in history, there is. However, all scholars in their work must acknowledge that bias and, through thorough study, analysis of sound evidence, and reasoned argument, strive for some stread objectivity.
As concerning the Electoral College, I oppose any effort at reform because it does not take into account how the electoral system preserves democracy and freedom for all Americans. Like the two party system, the electoral system forces candidates and parties to seek broad coalitions across the ENTIRE country. A simple plebisite would limit the appeal of candidates and parties to a handful of metropolitian areas. Election by state forces the parties to fight for all American votes thus avoiding the tryanny of a majority and protecting the rights of minorities. It must be reminded that this is the UNITED STATES of America. By simple plebisite, states of small population would always be left out of the decision making process. I am not sure how this idea would increase democracy. The failure of the Democratic Party to win involves thinking based on the simple plebisite. As a result they have become a regional party concentrated mainly in the west and east coast (the midwest too but mostly in urban areas). The Republicans have been better at creating a broad geographic coalition solidly taking the South, Great Plains and West, as well as competitive in the Midwest.
Frankly, I think that those currently opposing the electoral system do so because their candidate lost. Yet, in this election the President won the popular vote as well, so I am not sure what the problem is. More to the point, our democratic process should not be revise because of petty political jealousies.

Andrew D. Todd - 11/1/2004

The Eisenhower and Clinton administrations had the common characteristic of being "administrations of acquiescence," in the aftermath of the New Deal and Reaganomics, respectively. That is, in the aftermath of a drastic change in economic policy, the opposition party finally regained the White House-- and did substantially nothing for eight substantially uncontested years. The effect was to legitimize the changes by making them bipartisan. Eisenhower was known as a "golf course president." As William F. Buckley once remarked, in response to far-right accusations that Eisenhower was a communist, "He's not a communist, he's a golfer." Bill Clinton, of course, favored the, um, indoor sports.

The common characteristic of the 1960 and 2000 elections was that the two parties had talked themselves to a standstill as regards substantive policy. Both proposed to continue with the prevailing consensus. The differences in their respective programs were minimal and cosmetic, eg. promises to the extreme supporters which were never meant to be carried out. Naturally, under the circumstances, an exceptional number of voters more or less flipped a coin, and the result was a close election.

Furthermore, given a choice which is no choice, the middle-of-the-road voter has four options: he can flip a coin; he can vote for a third-party candidate who obviously has no change of winning; he can go to the polls but leave the relevant space on the ballot pointedly blank; or he can simply not vote. Something like half of the voting-age population had adopted the last option by 2000. I am going to suggest that the coin-flippers have a different type of relationship to authority than the other groups. They are more easily influenced by a sitting president. If a likely voter for 2004 is defined as someone who voted in 2000, then Bush can be expected to win by a landslide. If you include people who did not vote in 2000, but have registered, and who declare their intention to vote tomorrow, Kerry can be expected to win in a landslide. It all depends on what kind of people you thing the nonvoters in 2000 are. It is not going to be a close election-- we simply don't know which kind of landslide it is going to be.

A more practical reform would be to say that if the president has not been elected by a certain percentage, additional checks and balances click into place, say an extra five or ten percent required for the various levels of majority in Congress. The two twentieth century presidents who really did have a mandate for radical change even over the protests of the opposing party, FDR and Reagan, secured electoral vote majorities of 89% and 91%. It should be made more difficult for a party to allocate resources and assemble an absolute majority consisting of a series of 51% votes by the same voters on each side, ie. 51% of electoral votes, plus 51% of the House and 51% of the Senate, coming from the same states. The genius of the American constitutional system consists in being designed to be extremely resistant to "steamrollering." Reforms should be designed to make that resistance more perfect.

Richard Henry Morgan - 11/1/2004

Appleby fails to address the problem of a recount, which in a popular election needs be a national recount. Imagine the fun of Florida times 50.

Andy Moursund - 10/31/2004

The evil side in me hopes that the President wins the popular vote but loses in the electoral college. Sauce for the goose, etc.

But as to Prof. Appleby's point about the small state bias of the electoral college: While this is mathematically unassailable, it is offset by the number of electoral votes that the winner in California and New York alone will get, even if his margin in those two states is one vote each, compared to how many votes the winner of the fifteen smallest states will get, even if the total victory margin in those states is much larger. As a Democrat, I find this to be enough of a consolation, especially since, as Peter Clarke rightly notes, there is zero chance of the electoral college's abolition.