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The Electoral College is an accident waiting to happen

If you've been reading my Constitution series, you know that I am no big fan of the Electoral College System. If you want to read a heartfelt defense of the ECS, I commend you to this piece by my buddy Doug Tice, Commentary editor of the Strib. Although I don't think the ECS is the worst problem facing America, I don't agree with him on this.

On the other hand, for reinforcement of the argument that the ECS is an accident waiting for excuse to happen, there's this one by Andie Levien of "FairVote." It starts with the calculation that,  although Pres. Obama won the popular vote by about 3.5 million, a switch of fewer than 200,000 votes in the proper states (out of a total of more than 122 million) would have changed the identity of the president-elect. That's a switch of less than two-tenths of one percent of the total.

Thanks to the ECS, this is not remarkable. In fact, it's a pretty big number compared to many others. The FairVote piece describes how few votes would have had to switch in seven of the previous 25 elections to change the result. It starts, of course, with the Gore-Bush cliffhanger in 2000, where a switch of 269 Floridian votes that were counted for George W. Bush to Al Gore would have changed the result, and, as you know, there are many ways to dispute whether than final count was correct. and, of the seven cases  Levien reviews, it's the only one where the switch would have caused the popular vote winner to win the electoral vote. The other six, in which a relative few switched votes would have enabled the overall national popular vote loser to win, and the number of votes that would have been necessary to bring this about were:

  • 2004, a switch of 59,393 votes in Ohio elects Kerry over Bush.
  • 1976, a switch of 9,246 elects Ford over Carter.
  • 1968, a switch of 77,000 would have thrown the Nixon-Humphrey-George Wallace election into the House of Representatives.
  • 1960, 9,200 switches would have elected Nixon over Kennedy.
  • 1948: 46,389 switches would have elected Dewey over Truman.
  • 1916, a switch of fewer than 1,900 would have elected Charles Evans Hughes over Woodrow Wilson.

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Comments (8)

Not convinced

Not that I routinely agree with D.J. Tice on issues, but I appreciate his arguments here. Folks who want to get rid of the Electoral College still need to identify how they'd deal with the following:

1) Any vote-tallying process involves error, which is usually the first thing identified in any recount. The more votes tallied, the greater the potential error. So accumulating errors in a nationwide vote tally increases the odds that errors will influence the outcome of the election, while 'firewalling' the vote totals by state means that many errors don't end up affecting the outcome of the election at all.

2) Currently, there is no authority for a national election -- elections are organized, conducted, and reviewed at the state level or below. Where would a candidate go if he wanted a recount of a national vote tally, and what authority would ensure that every state would conduct that tally in an acceptable way? (Recall the massive tangle that simply trying to ensure that all Florida counties were using the same basic methodology in 2000 during Bush v. Gore.)

3) Why would a national popular vote be any fairer than the Electoral College? Sure, the current system seems to over-represent less populated states, but since urban areas contain a greater concentration of voters, it would seem that a national popular vote would over-represent cities over rural areas. And since cities tend to vote Democratic (or at least left-of-center -- after all, Minneapolis has Greens but no Republicans on its city council), would that not skew elections toward Democrats, or at the very least make it harder for Republicans to compete, since their voters are much more widespread and thus more expensive to coordinate for get-out-the-vote initiatives, advertising, etc.

The Electoral College may not be perfect, but I tend to think of it in the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy -- the worst system possible, except for all the others that have been tried.

Don't you like accuracy?

In response to (1): Don't you like accuracy? The Electoral College only SEEMS to protect us against close elections – and it does so by distorting election results. Are we supposed to take comfort in our ignorance of which candidate is truly the more popular?

In response to (2): Counting isn't really that hard. Other democracies do it very well. Sometimes, elections are close and votes must be recounted, but with patience and simple, uniform rules, it can be done. Isn't it worth knowing who actually won? Aren't you even curious?

In response to (3): If what we believe in is the principle "one person, one vote," then it should be obvious why a popular vote is fairer than the Electoral College, which gives different weights to the votes of citizens in different states.

In another comment to another excellent article by Eric Black, have already demolished the argument that the Electoral College protects rural citizens against the allegedly evil influence of urban ones (and the curiously always unmentioned suburban ones). Rather than recapitulate the whole argument (which you can find with a search of MinnPost's archives), I'll just give you the summation of my findings here: The 15 most populous states, those which are most cheated by the Electoral College, also happen to contain an absolute majority of the country's rural residents. They are just as surely denied equal representation as the urban (and suburban) residents of those 15 states.

Finally, other systems of democracy have been tried – and they work. No Western European democracy today chooses its chief of government with an Electoral College. Why should we cling to this undemocratic relic?

Comparing the popular vote in

Comparing the popular vote in today's context is irrelevant. Candidates are NOT trying to run up the popular vote - they are trying to win the maximum electoral votes. If the candidates HAD been trying to win the popular vote the count would likely have turned out very differently. The Obama team maximized their effort by narrowly winning many states. If there was no electoral college they would have campaigned very differently, spending lots of time in New York, California and Texas.

Not necessarily

Remember that in a hypothetical national popular vote, states are irrelevant, just as counties are irrelevant in a gubernatorial election. Candidates look for votes wherever they can find them.

Now everyone knows that certain counties lean Republican or Democratic, but I mean it when I say "lean." There is no such thing as a 100% DFL or GOP county. I live in a very DFL neighborhood in Minneapolis, and yet there were people with Republican lawn signs at the rate of about one per block in the days leading up to the election. Furthermore, there are Democrats in rural areas.

Note that when our gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates campaign, they don't go only to their party's strongholds. A smart statewide candidate sets up local campaign centers in every county, knowing that there are votes to be had everywhere, even if the prevailing culture in a given community opposes their party.

The current national system, where a few states get so much attention that residents can't escape the candidates if they want to while the rest are lucky if they get a one-hour stopover in the largest city, is absurd.

Watching the totals come in on Election night, I was struck by how close the race was in so many states. Idaho, where Obama received only 13% of the vote, was the most lopsided, but figures such as "45% to 55%" or "49% to 51%" in favor of either the D's or R's were the norm in the majority of other states.

Under a popular vote system, people who vote for the party that is the minority party in their state can at least take consolation in the fact that their status within their state is meaningless and that what counts is their contribution to the national total.

So what?

Clearly, you don't like the electoral college, but I'm not sure this article presents the right reason to be against it. The bottom line is that we don't have a presidential election in this country; we have 51 of them. The nationwide popular vote is irrelevant. Is that bad? I would argue that it is not necessarily good or bad. A candidate who lost the popular vote but won the electoral college is still elected. That circumstance is not particularly good for the president-elect to try to claim a mandate. But a narrow winner in both the popular and electoral votes wouldn't have much of a mandate either.

Essentially, the electoral college was an innovation (at the time) to try to balance the weight of states on selecting the president between large and small states. Give a little more weight to the small; a little less to the big.

Given how hard (almost impossible) it would be to change the system, I'm pretty sure that we will be living with the ECS for the rest of my and my children's lives.

Alternatives

I'm not enamored with the Electoral College, but it seems to be superior to any other alternative. An election going only by popular vote could give someone the highest office in the land with 25% of the vote mainly from a single region of the country in some sort of fractured four-way contest. The most frequently suggested alternative--based on votes in Congressional District--would have produced a President Romney in this election, due to severe Republican gerrymanders in many populous states. Proportional vote would be a mess. I'll take the Electoral College until there is a clearly better alternative.

Smug ECS Adherents

I find the proponents of the ECS to be smug and condescending. While the rest of us fall for this facile argument of elections being decided by the majority (or sometimes the plurality), they're much smarter than us since they see the inherent wisdom of the Founders. Even though the reasons they give in support of the ECS were never envisioned by the Founders.

Actually, I'm starting to disagree

For decades I've been all for getting rid of the EC, but this election gave me serious pause. I'm not worried about who wins so much as I am the time frame or the election results. In THIS election I realized that were it not for the EC we wouldn't know won the election for days. The EC made it possible to accurately call the election by midnight on election day, and I like that.

People worry about the popular vs. the EC mismatch but they frequently point to the Gore v. Bush election as an example. This is an artificial example because we know that Gore should have gotten the EC as well, they just didn't recount the whole state. When they recounted the the whole state, Gore has the votes to get the EC, and that would have put him the white house. So it wasn't a glitch with the EC that put Bush in, it was a glitch with the vote count and re-count.