Why the Electoral College?

“Do away with the electoral college!” That’s the cry that emanated from some Democrats after the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote but George Bush won the electoral vote and the presidency. Some, including Hillary Clinton, called for a change in the Constitution to a simply majority vote nationwide to determine the winner. I believe that would be shortsighted and a detriment to our political system. Why? Let me offer a short history of why the Founders chose this method.

  • Are you aware that the Constitution says nothing about the people as a whole voting for the president?
  • Did you know that there was no popular vote for presidential candidates in the first elections, and that it only became widespread in the 1820s?
  • Further, do you realize that the controversial 2000 election could have been decided constitutionally without counting even one vote in Florida? A riot might have ensued, but it could have been done without violating the rule of law.

The Constitution never uses the term “electoral college,” but that’s how we describe the method set up there for choosing a president. The choice rests, not with a popular vote, but with electors selected by state legislatures. The Founders gave the people a vote for their representatives in the House, but senators were sent to the nation’s capital by state legislatures [another whole blog post would be needed to cover that] and those same legislatures were tasked with picking the official slate of electors who would cast a state’s vote for president. Why was this?

The reasoning behind it was that legislatures would choose the most trusted, wisest people in the state to decide among the various candidates. That part of the electoral college system hasn’t worked as intended. They apparently didn’t foresee the country dividing into a rigid party system. Today, when the legislatures pick their electors, they follow the popular vote total for the state and send the slate of electors for the winning party. So, in practice, all the legislatures are doing is rubber-stamping what the people have decided. That’s one reason some say the method should be discarded: it doesn’t accomplish the purpose for which it was established.

However, there is another aspect of the electoral college system that works quite well, and the main reason why I want to keep it intact—it provides for a proportional vote for the presidency, allowing every state to have some say in who that next president should be. Let me illustrate with that famous map that was circulating on the internet shortly after Bush was declared the winner in 2000. Look at it carefully:

What you see are all the counties in the nation. Every county in red was one Bush took; the blue counties were won by Gore. There is a pattern in the voting. Gore wins most of the big cities/heavily populated areas [plus Indian reservations], while Bush is victorious in the overwhelming number of those counties. In fact, you could travel from the east coast to the west and never cross a county that went for Gore.

Why is this significant?

If we went to a simple majority vote for the presidency, no candidate would ever find his way to many of the states. The entire mid-section of the nation would never see a presidential contender during a campaign. They would spend all their time in the heavy population areas because that’s where they would win the most votes. Gore won the popular vote by taking big majorities from places like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. That means candidates would have to woo urban voters who have their own priorities and policy preferences. Meanwhile, other segments of the population—rural, small town people—who might have different priorities and views of what the government should be doing, would be ignored. No one would ever visit Oklahoma, for instance, or Wyoming, or North Dakota. It wouldn’t be worth the time.

At least with the current system, every state has some proportional weight in determining the winner. Candidates cannot dismiss the interests of the vast middle section of the country. The three electoral votes of Wyoming might sometime play a pivotal role in deciding the victor. No one can be ignored completely.

While no electoral system is perfect, I believe allowing states some proportional say is a vast improvement on a simplistic nationwide majority vote. Why should the desires of New York City and a few select other urban areas overwhelm the wishes of other sectors of the nation? Don’t worry, New York; you still have a greater proportional vote in the selection. But the current method is far more representative of all the interests of our nation.