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Latest attempt to manipulate Electoral College vote isn’t new
Virginia has used the familiar winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes since the election of 1800.

The idea that the Republican-controlled state governments of six states, led by Virginia, might rejigger the way those states award Electoral College votes (in what would be a blatant attempt to advantage future Republican tickets) seems to be blowing over.

Too many high-ranking Republicans, including key players in some of the six states, have publicly repudiated the idea.

That’s a good thing. Blatant manipulation of election rules for partisan purposes are ugly, wrong and undermine confidence in democracy.

But before the idea disappears (and it could, of course, come back another time), let’s dredge up a cool-but-disturbing little-known historical fact that puts an unexpected spin on the kerfuffle.

Virginia, which was in many ways the lead state in the recent idea, has used the familiar winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes since the election of 1800, when Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson defeated incumbent President John Adams. The Virginia Legislature adopted winner-take-all in a blatant (and successful) effort to help Jefferson. Jefferson approved of the measure. Massachusetts responded by likewise adopting winner-take-all to advantage its favorite son, Adams.

A chart in this historical post from shows that most states used other methods of choosing electors in the early days of the Electoral College system, but winner-take-all gained momentum in the 1820s and soon became the method in almost all states and has remained so ever since.

If you can stand my dredging up a few arguments from my recent series on the Constitution, the latest anecdote reminds us of a few things:

  • The winner-take-all system, to which we are so accustomed, is not required by the Constitution. The recently proposed Virginia plan for allowing split electoral votes would be constitutional. Even before the recent effort to change the apportionment of electoral votes, two states – Maine and Nebraska – have allowed for split electoral votes over recent cycles.
  • The practice of changing the system of apportioning a state’s electoral votes is not new and, as in 1800, it was generally done to advantage the ticket of the party that controlled a particular state. The recent Virginia gambit is unseemly, but not unprecedented.
  • There is nothing logical or pure about the winner-take-all system and even less that is logical or pure about the Electoral College system. It’s just what we are used to. The winner-take-all system is among the reasons that our nation runs the risk every four years of electing a president who has not won even a plurality of the national popular vote. This has occurred four times in U.S. history, most recently in 2000. It’s only a matter of time before it happens again.
  • The Electoral College system itself, which turns every presidential election into a battle for a few swing votes in a few swing states, is an absurdity that also leaves our presidential elections susceptible to the kind of manipulation that Virginia and a few other states are now contemplating. It is not popular (most recent polls indicate that the public would prefer a simple popular vote). New democracies, who have the benefit of our experience, never adopt anything like it.

Although as it currently functions it has pretty much nothing left of the reasons that the Constitution’s framers devised it, we are stuck with the Electoral College mostly because it is in the Constitution and the Constitution establishes such a high bar for amendment that it is almost unimaginable that we could summon the three supermajorities (two-thirds votes of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 of the 50 states) necessary to amend.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 02/04/2013 - 03:13 pm.

    I remember this from 2000

    I remember people discussing the idea of splitting electoral votes based on congressional district back around 2000 when the Green Party was on the rise because of Ralph Nader. But I think most people were able to game this out in their heads and saw that it would typically lead to more Republicans heading to the White House, so it never gained traction. (At the time, it seemed more likely that Democratic-leaning states would be the ones to push for the idea, but the outcome would only be to reduce the number of electoral votes for Democrats.)

    In this past election cycle, I was pretty surprised to hear that the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has gained quite a bit of traction over the years. Once enough states join the compact for their electoral totals to reach 270, they will all use the outcome of the national popular vote to determine who to cast electoral votes for. They’re currently at 132.

    The Wikipedia article lays out the reasoning pretty well:

  2. Submitted by Paul Harvey on 02/04/2013 - 04:13 pm.

    National Popular Vote

    Mike, above, is right that National Popular Vote would work around the Electoral College to institute the popular election of the president without the necessity of a constitutional amendment. Rick Hertzberg of The New Yorker has advocated it and Steve Simon (D-St. Louis Park) previously sponsored a bill to implement it in Minnesota. I don’t know whether it has been introduced in the current session.

  3. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 02/04/2013 - 08:06 pm.

    Go National Popular Vote!

    Solves many problems with the Electoral College in a relatively simple way. Worth checking into and letting your state rep and senator know that you support it.

  4. Submitted by Susan Anthony on 02/05/2013 - 11:48 am.

    75% of Minnesota Voters Support a National Popular Vote

    A survey of Minnesota voters showed 75% overall support for a national popular vote for President.
    Support was 84% among Democrats, 69% among Republicans, and 68% among others.
    By age, support was 74% among 18-29 year olds, 73% among 30-45 year olds, 77% among 46-65 year olds, and 75% for those older than 65.
    By gender, support was 83% among women and 67% among men.

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    The bill changes the way electoral votes are awarded by states in the Electoral College, instead of the current 48 state-by-state winner-take-all system (not mentioned in the Constitution, but since enacted by states).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count.

    The candidate with the most popular votes in the country would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

    The bill uses the power given to each state in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have been by state legislative action.

    The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states with 243 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions with 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

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