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10 reasons why the Electoral College is a problem

MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

One in a series of articles. You can read the whole series here.

Sticking with the Electoral College system, but not yet plunging into the surprising too-little-discussed history of why the Framers put it in the Constitution, I want first to dash off a quick list of ten problems and potential problems with the Electoral College system:

Problem No. 1

It creates the possibility for the loser of the popular vote to win the electoral vote. This is more than a theoretical possibility. It has happened at least four times out of the 56 presidential elections, or more than 7 percent of the time, which is not such a small percentage, and it created a hideous mess every time. The most recent occurrence was 2000.

Problem No. 2

It distorts the presidential campaign, as alluded to yesterday, by incentivizing the parties to write off the more than 40 states (plus the District of Columbia) that they know they either can’t win or can’t lose. Among the states that, in recent history, don’t get campaign visits (other than for fundraising) or TV ads (which is most of what all that fundraising pays for and the main method by which the campaign and their “independent,” “uncoordinated” allies seek to persuade the persuadable voters in the persuadable states) are the three most populous states (California, Texas and New York, which among them make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. population), the geographically biggest state (Alaska) and the best state (Minnesota, which, despite missing out on the ads and the campaign visits, usually leads the nation in voter turnout anyway, so there).

Problem No. 3

The Electoral College system further distorts the presidential campaign by causing the candidates to grant extra weight to the parochial needs of the swing states. If you have to carry Florida to win, it elevates the already ever-present need candidates feel to pander to elderly voters, Cuban-Americans, orange-growers and any other group that can deliver a bloc of Floridians. The same thing with Iowa and ethanol subsidies and other agriculture-friendly policies, except even more so because Iowa is not only a swing state over recent cycles but has become since 1976 the key first state in the presidential nominating process. . (But that last bit about the nominating process, of course, is not rooted in the Constitution.)

Since the selection of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running-mate, how many stories have you read that said Ryan’s controversial plan to change Medicare could be especially costly to the ticket because so many of the swing states have above-average portions of senior voters? Pandering to large groups of voters is not a pretty aspect of democracy, but pandering to groups just because they happen to be concentrated in “swing states” is even uglier. Who can explain how this can be a good thing?

Problem No. 4

For the same reason, it distorts governance. A first-term president who expects to have a tough reelection fight (as they all at least expect to) but who wanted to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba (broken in 1960) would have to consider the possibility that such a policy might cost him Florida and therefore a second term. Perhaps this helps explain why long after Washington normalized relations with the Soviet Union, China and other governments that formerly or presently call themselves Communists, Cuba remains on the do-not-call list.

Problem No. 5

The Electoral College system further distorts the one-person, one-vote principle of democracy because electoral votes are not distributed according to population. Every state gets one electoral vote for each member of its delegation to the House of Representatives (this by itself would be a rough measure of its population) and each state also gets two “bonus” electors representing its two senators.

This causes significant overrepresentation of small states in the “College.” In the most extreme case, using 2010 Census figures and the new distribution of House seats based on that census, an individual citizen in Wyoming has more than triple the weight in electoral votes as an individual in California. Yes, you read that right. In fact, it’s closer to quadruple than triple. Can this be a good thing?

If we could do nothing more than allocate the electoral votes on a population basis, it would make the system substantially more democratic. But we can’t do that, at least not without amending the Constitution, because the apportionment formula is embedded in the Constitution as one more inducements that the Framers felt was necessary to attract support of small states for ratification.

Problem No. 6

The Electoral College creates the possibility of a 269-269 tie vote, and in almost every recent election there has been a relatively credible scenario for such an outcome. (Here’s a recent CNN piece going over the ways that we could end up there this year and a Nate Silver article on the same subject.) The rules of the Electoral College system for dealing with a tie are bizarre and scary and create a fairly plausible scenario by which no one would be elected president in time for Inauguration Day.

Imperfect Union: The Constitutional roots of the mess we're inThe only tie in Electoral College history was in 1800, a totally bizarre situation, in the days before formal tickets, and back in the days when several states still did not even hold a popular vote in the presidential selection process. (The Constitution did not and still does not require that any popular vote be conducted for president.) In that 1800 election, Thomas Jefferson tied with his own running mate Aaron Burr. Better not try to cram that whole saga in here right now. It led to the 12th amendment (ratified 1804), which changed the Framers’ original language so that each elector could indicate which candidate they supported for president and which for vice president, thereby eliminating the possibility that any presidential candidate will end up in a tie with his own running mate. But that didn’t solve the serious problems inherent in the tie scenario.

Problem No. 7

Although our system, as evolved, makes it very hard for third parties to win elections and almost impossible for a third party to win the presidency, the Electoral College system makes it quite possible for a small third-party showing in a single state or two to change the outcome of the whole national election.

This happened in 2000, when Ralph Nader, running as the Green Party nominee, finished third in the popular vote with just 2.74 percent, and received just 1.6 percent in Florida, but those votes (plus a number of other weird factors about which some people are still arguing) probably shifted the state from Democratic nominee Al Gore to Republican George W. Bush. And, because of winner-take-all, that one state also tipped the outcome of the national election.

In most recent cycles, there has been at least one halfway credible scenario under which a small third party can tip a key state and perhaps the whole election. Here’s a Fox News piece about the possibility that Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson could play that role in 2012. Johnson, by the way, will be on the ballot in 48 states. (According to this New York Times piece, Republican state officials in Michigan "blocked Mr. Johnson from the ballot after he filed proper paperwork three minutes after his filing deadline, and Romney campaign aides participated in unsuccessful efforts to keep him off the ballot in other states as well.)

There’s an even weirder scenario in which former Congressman Virgil Goode, the nominee of the tiny, right-wing Constitution Party, costs Mitt Romney the presidency by drawing votes in Virginia (which happens to be the state Goode represented in Congress, so he has a name there). Although the Constitution Party doesn’t even show up in national polls, when Goode’s name is included in Virginia polls this year, he has scored as much as 9 percent. I doubt he’ll get anywhere near 9, but Virginia is considered very close and has been designated a key swing state worth 13 winner-take-all electoral votes. Maybe that’s why a couple of lefty parties helped Goode get the signatures he needed to get on the ballot in Virginia.

Of course, even in a pure popular vote system (unless you have ranked choice voting) minor parties have the potential to change the outcome. But the Electoral College, paired with the winner-take-all aspect, greatly increases the leverage. I’m not predicting that any of these scenarios will come true in 2012, but the Electoral College system makes such shenanigans possible, and they happen more often that you might realize. (And by the way, if the name Virgil Goode rang a bell but you can’t place it, Goode was the congressman who made the biggest fool of himself objecting to both the election of Minnesota U.S. Rep Keith Ellison – first Muslim ever in Congress --  and to Ellison’s decision to take his oath of office on a Qu’ran. The Qu’ran, by the way, had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.)

Problem No. 8

The Electoral College system prevented Dick Cheney from becoming vice president. Well, no, it actually didn’t, but it would have if we had taken the letter and the intention behind the words in the Constitution seriously.

Donkey holding Ohio
MinnPost illustration by Jaime Anderson

The Constitution says that an elector cannot vote for a presidential and vice presidential candidate both of whom come from the same state as him/herself (the elector, that is). This rule actually made sense when the Framers put it in there but stopped making sense almost immediately. (To explain this, we’ll eventually have to get to the story of how the Framers thought this contraption was going to work.) But it’s still in there. George W. Bush was a Texan. In 2000, when he became Bush’s running mate, Cheney had been living and voting and paying taxes for five years in Texas where he eked out a living as CEO of Halliburton.

If you had to say which state he “inhabited,” at that point in his life, you could not say anything other than “Texas.” This became awkward when the Bush-Cheney ticket carried Texas. The Constitution (in both the original and as changed by Amendment XII) technically prohibit the Texas electors from voting for both Bush and Cheney. And the electoral vote was so close that without the Texas votes, Cheney would not have had a majority.

It’s true that shortly before the election, Cheney obtained a Wyoming driver’s license and put his Dallas home on the market (he had a vacation home in Wyoming, which is the state he used to represent in Congress). And the courts decided that was good enough to make him a non-Texan for electoral vote purposes. It would have been silly to disqualify Cheney over this, but the issue is at least one more bizarre legacy of the Framers’ contraption and the fact that we are still (wink, wink, nod, nod) bound by the rules ratified in 1789 and 1804.

Problem No. 9

In case of a tie, or if no candidate receives a majority of all electoral votes cast for president, the choice of president is thrown in the House of Representatives but  the election is conducted on a one-state one-vote basis. (Yes, Wyoming – population 563,000 in the 2010 census -- would have equal say in the selection of the president with California – 37 million.) And to win, a candidate must receive the support of an absolute majority of states.

But states that have an even number of House members may deadlock. (Minnesota, with its current delegation of four Democrats and four Republicans, would be a good candidate for this fate.) A deadlocked state cannot vote at all for a presidential candidate. But, to produce a winner, one candidate would still have to win 26 states, even though several states would presumably be deadlocked.

If no presidential candidate can get to 26, there is no constitutional mechanism for producing a winner. The vice president (whose selection in this scenario would be thrown into the Senate) could serve indefinitely as acting president. This has never happened, although it has come close. If we wait long enough, it will happen someday.

Problem No. 10

And here’s a really crazy part, which sort of underscores the craziness of our practice of abiding by the Framers’ language. When the Framers put that crazy structure, where the presidential election would be thrown from the Electoral College into the House for a one-state one-vote choice of the next president, they believed this would actually happen on a regular basis. Which is why you need to come back here tomorrow for the installment on what the Framers thought they were doing when they came up with the Electoral College system (which, as I’ve already mentioned, had pretty much nothing to do with how it has turned out).

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Comments (15)

problem number 11

Is listening to a partisan hack like eric black in order to form your opinion on any important subject.

Black fails to aknowledge that the US is not a democracy but rather a republic with democratically elected representatives.

He fails to understand the simple concepts of the constitution and the history of the changes that have been made to it. Do you actually think that one person, one vote is part of that history? If you need proof, just ck and see when the blacks and women gained the rights to vote.

Black also fails to recognise the fact that the electoral college acts as a buffer against a few more populated states taking total control of the country and its governance as a result.

Lastly,reading minnpost is akin to reading the dfl platform and talking points. Just feeding the sheep as usual.

So, what makes the EC so good for conservatives, then?

It is clear from everything Eric Black has written that he acknowledges that our system of government is, in fact, a republic.

It is equally clear from what you yourself have written that you understand that the United States of America is in fact gradually becoming a country where "one person, one vote" is the law of the land, even if it did not start out that way. I think we all agree on these basic facts.

It is less clear why you believe that without the Electoral College, "a few more populated states" will take "total control of the country." If we are moving toward the principle of one person, one vote, then the end result of this development will be that we, the people, will take control – not any state, big or small. Isn't that how it should be? And if not, why not?

Because here's the clincher. As Eric Black has shown, the Electoral College represents us all haphazardly and inaccurately. Shouldn't our government represent us consistently and accurately instead? And if not, why not?

I understand why liberals like Black (and me) reject an antiquated governing structure that fails to represent us consistently and accurately, as a truly republican institution should. What I do not understand, and what you have failed to explain to me, is why a conservative should want to defend it.

10 Problems and no Solution?

How can we take an important piece like this and make it mainstream, then organize people around debating ways to solve it? The great points here lead directly to the zero-sum game we have today, which is causing the rancor and acrimony in America. We are made to feel that we MUST win because we will not be represented otherwise. The shortcomings of the Electoral College are examples of how this happens.

Just one thing

Gore won Florida. Yes, the consortium that did the recount declared that given the "limited" recount that the court usurped, Bush might of have won. But they also did a full statewide recount, and looked at the over votes. Furthermore Bush supporters got late arriving absentee military votes counted in select districts, if all those votes has been counted statewide Gore would have won. Gore got the votes but lost the recount because he failed to get a full statewide recount of all ballots and an application of the same standards to all late arriving absentee military ballots. You can't blame Ralph Nader for this. Furthermore, Gore didn't lose to Nader he lost to Bush, more Democrats voter for Bush.

http://www.monitor.net/monitor/0111a/copyright/bushlostrecount.html

A bipartisan effort

...as impossible as it seems in today's fog, is the only way abolition of the E.C. happens. Both sides must be adversely affected within a reasonable time period. Could happen this year if Romney ekes out a narrow popular vote edge while Obama hangs onto Ohio for the E.C. win. 2000 is recent enough to spark popular sympathy among President Gore's supporters to join with the the latest electoral "victims."

With the present concentration

Of leftists in the urban areas, of course Eric and his ilk are going to dislike the college... More the reason to protect it.

The good news is

that about two thirds of the population of the United States live in metropolitan areas.

The Electoral College cheats rural citizens, too.

Whenever somebody makes a good case against the Electoral College – and Eric Black has done an excellent job here – somebody else (not always a conservative, by the way) is bound to dredge up the old canard that the Electoral College is worth keeping because it gives well-deserved extra support to rural Americans.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the glibly unspoken insinuation that rural people deserve this extra support because they are inherently more virtuous than urbanites (or suburbanites, who seem oddly to go unmentioned when this argument is brought up). Even if one happens to agree that over-representing rural people and under-representing urban and suburban ones is somehow always the right thing to do (and I do not agree with that), this much-used defense of the Electoral College still fails because of a complete lack of evidence that this peculiar institution does, in fact, generally favor rural voters over urban ones.

Let’s consider the states that Eric Black contrasted to show the injustice of the Electoral College: California, with 33,872,000 residents as of 2000, and Wyoming, with only 493,782 residents in that same year. (I chose the year 2000 because this is the latest year for which I could find urban versus rural population data.)

If we consider only percentages, there seems to be something to the argument that the Electoral College favors rural citizens over urban ones. 94.4% of California’s population in 2000 was urban. In the same year, only 65.1% of Wyoming’s population was urban.

But what happens when we compare the rural population of Wyoming with that of California in raw numbers? California had 1,882,000 rural residents in 2000. Wyoming had only 172,000.
That means that the vote of a rural citizen in Wyoming is worth more than 10 times the vote of a rural citizen of California. Is that fair?

Moreover – and here's the real kicker – most of our country’s rural citizens live in the 15 most populous states – those that get short-changed the most by the Electoral College. The census counted 59,061,000 rural citizens in the year 2000. Of those rural citizens, 1,882,000 lived in California (as mentioned above), 3,648,000 lived in Texas, 2,374,000 in New York state, 1,510,000 in Illinois, 2,817,000 in Pennsylvania, 2,571,000 in Ohio, 2,519,000 in Michigan, 475,000 in New Jersey, 2,322,000 in Georgia, and 3,200,000 in North Carolina, 1,909,000 in Virginia, 548,000 in Massachusetts, 1,776,000 in Indiana, and 1,700,000 in Washington state. Add those numbers up, and you get 30,963,000 rural citizens – an absolute majority of them – cheated by the Electoral College just because they happen to live in the 15 most populous states.

Do you still believe the Electoral College helps rural citizens? I don't.

Data:

For the US population in 2000, I used Wikipedia.

For urban versus rural population, go to: http: // www.census.gov / compendia / statab / cats / population.html” and click on the hypertext following “29 - Urban and Rural Population by State” below.

Third party problem

I know people love the idea of a third party because of dissatisfaction with both major parties. However, in parliamentary systems, the third (or fourth or fifth) party is what is the cause of frustration. Because it is possible (usually likely) that no one party gains enough seats in parliament, you create coalitions - frequently not of like-minded parties. There have been some odd ones in Israel in the last decade.

If we got rid of the electoral college and the filibuster in the senate, we would be the envy of democracies all over the world. We could actually do something - for good or bad. But then, at least, if you were dissatisfied you could "throw the bums out" and let the other party try to run it. Now all we have is stagnation and shared blame. For instance, I love how Republicans are saying Obama didn't do enough to help the economy and it was the Republican House and the filibuster in the Senate that blocked him at virtually every turn.

Who could have had the foresight?

This article begs the question: is it at all likely that the framers imagined the Constitution would ever govern a country where just over half the states would have greater populations than the entire country at the time they were writing, where again, about half of states would have a population density greater than that of Manhattan at the time of the Constitution (today NYC is some 300 times as densely populated as it was then), and that yet a handful of states would remain as sparsely populated as the least populated areas of the country (re: most of it) were at the time of the Constitution?

I'm not saying that it isn't a remarkably flexible text, all I'm saying is that there are some changes that have happened in the past two-hundred-some years that it's simply dishonest to say are handled fairly by the original framework, and the issues in this article are a great example.

Once again...

One advantage of the electoral college... It "creates" a consensus insofar as the winner invariably wins bigger in the EV count than they do in the popular vote. Case in point: Barack Obama 53% share of the popular vote in 2008 translated into 68% of the electoral college vote.

As far as these problems go, they all would disappear (except for #8, which I really don't see as a problem) under the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. ;)

One man one vote is not the Holy Grail

In response to your ten points:
1) The popular vote is not the Holy Grail for the election. The nation is a union of states not a union of people alone. If the vote were to be about the popular vote alone then some day a majority of voters in 10 cities will decide the results for all fifty states.
2) Under a purely popular vote system Campaigners would visit the ten cities and ignore the rest of the country. A visit by the candidate is now such a "media event" that the visit is not really significant anyway.
3) Giving added support to parochial concerns of the states is a good thing
4) All voting systems "distort Governance in some manner. The electoral college distorts governance in a good fashion and brings greater strength to those states with less population
5) Once again the principle we are founded upon is a Republic of states and not a democracy of individual voters. A Republic of states is harder to manipulate from the center of power than a democracy of voters. The electoral college was designed to strengthen states rights.
6) The system has worked well and we still have a Republic. Under the system of pure democracy it is possible we might not have made it this far.
7) I agree it probably makes it more difficult for a third party to make a difference. This can also be said about Congress and a lack of a parliamentary system. Some think the two party system is a strength.
8) Cheney should have been disqualified
9) Once again we are a Republic. States matter.
10) The electoral college was to provide another power base beyond Congress and the state Legislators. Electors are a final bulwark against the rise of a demagogue such as napoleon who was voted in by popular vote as Emperor of France 3,000,000 to 1,000
11) I am a Republican Elector candidate for Republican Party of Minnesota 2012 and I hope to vote for Romney and help lead Minnesota out of 40 years in the Wilderness of Democratic failure.
12) Electors also need to insist on birth certificates from their own candidates to ensure eligibility of all candidates.

Electors and the Elected

Most of the replies to Eric's points here reflect a political philosophy regarding states rights that is at least worth a debate, but responses 10-12 deserve some comment:

10) Louis-Napoleon Bonaporate was not elected "Emperor of France." As in much of 19th century French history, the circumstances were convoluted and complicated, but the short version is that Louis (a nephew of the original Napoleon I) was a candidate to be first President of the new Second Republic of France (following the overthrow of King Louis-Phillipe in 1848). Louis won the election against a candidate who had served as a temporary "dictator" for the new Republic--by about 3.5 million to 1.5 million. In 1851, facing the end of his term-limited four years as President, Louis staged a coup that overthrew the govenment, assumed dictatorial powers, and a year later proclaimed himself Emperor of the Second French Empire. He then had the coup and his designation as Emperor confirmed in two "referenda" that were about as legitimate as elections were in the USSR, Egypt, etc. It is doubtful that an electoral college system was even possible in the France of that era, and it's an apple-orange comparison.

11) Electors traditionally pledge to vote for the candidate of one party or another, but nothing in the system prevents them from breaking ranks and voting for someone else entirely. That has happened a few times with a lone elector or two in the last century, but only tradition keeps it from happening more frequently and consequentially.

12) A birth certificate is not a problem for the current incumbent, despite what people continue to misrepresent, but it could have been a problem for Mitt's father, George Romney, in his own Presidential run in 1968 if he had been the nominee. As Mitt continues to remind people, George was actually born in Mexico.

Federalist paper # 68 makes

Federalist paper # 68 makes it's case that the purpose of the Electoral college is to prevent the control of power by those at the center who are already established and capable of intrigue even if legal. I suggest that in fact the parties have been moving to attempt to prevent presidential candidates arising from the states before they are vetted by the "wise" men and women of the central committees of either party. It is for this reason that Obama was featured as a keynote speaker in 2004 and then played as a candidate in 2008. Marco Rubio is being vetted in the same manner for 2016 by the Republican Party. The Republican party would love to run a Hispanic (even if of Cuban background and possibly ineligible). They appear willing to ignore the Constitution and its meaning of Natural born to mean born of two citizen parents. I think it is time that the issue be brought before the Supreme Court. I will be able to play a part should Minnesota go for Romney. Otherwise the Electoral college is now made up largely of sycophants who would never dream of challenging their own party as to constitutional eligibility of their candidate. I am not an expert on the eligibility of Romney but believe that all parties need to vet their candidates on this issue. To not do so belies their claims to care about the constitution.
I suspect the reason the Electoral College is being slowly stripped of its power and respect is because it has no long term serving members to defend it's turf. It was part of the division of power devised by the writers but it is losing out because everyone at each step of the process sees no reason to have to deal with " free thinking electors". They are concerned that instead these electors
vote for the candidate regardless of eligibility. If Romney is ineligible then he should not be president. It is time the Supreme court be called into play to define the current rule of law as it relates to "natural born citizen"

how about revamping the EC?

What if the EC became the final stage of a 3-stage election? In the first stage, instead of an ad hoc group of state primaries or caucuses, we could use state open primaries and proportional represetnation to determine which seven finalists who would go to the second stage. Then, in early November, we would all vote for our three favorites among the seven finalists and the three candidates who get the most votes in that election would go to the EC. Then, 1305 electors, three per congressional district that would be chosen with PR in early November, would decide the next president within a week by voting until one candidate gets a majority.

And, among the 3 winners from the 2nd stage, they could choose their Veep from among the six other finalists, including one of the other two winners from the 2nd stage.

What this would do is manifold, but

1. It would make more state primaries count, since it'd take longer to determine 7 finalists.
2. The use of PR in stage one would make for more diversity among presidential candidates for stage 2.
3. There'd be much less incentive to attack your opponents in stage 2, since their supporters can also vote for you.
4. The third stage would be closer to a pure democracy.
5. The selection of electors at the same time as the 2nd stage would give non-politicians a chance to campaign and draw attention to local issues.
6. The winners of the 2nd stage having to choose their veeps from among their fellow candidates would be an additional discouragement to negative campaigning.
7. If say a wealthy person spent a lot of money to get their candidate to be among the 3 finalists, it wouldn't give them the presidency. The final stage would require extensive candidates-elector interactions that couldn't be scripted or spun by big money donors.

dlw