Saturday, April 28, 2007

Examining the Electoral College—Part 1

As you probably know, Maryland recently adopted a law requiring its “electors” in a U.S. Presidential Election to cast their votes for the winner of the National Popular Vote. This “compact” will come into effect when States with a majority of Electoral College Votes have passed similar legislation. Although this effort to by-pass the Electoral College is (or could be) bipartisan, some (mostly of the conservative persuasion) have attacked it. For example, one of our local reactionary bloggers posted about the issue recently and had this to say:
“This is about right. Liberals who for the life of them cannot figure out why we have an electoral college system in place to elect our President are trying to find a way to get our Founding Fathers spinning in their graves. OK, Liberals back to the class room! Why do we not elect the President solely on the Popular vote? (1) Alexander Hamilton' famous quote... The "masses are asses"! (2) That a few states with large populations would overwhelm states with smaller populations. It's an effort to prevent a Tyranny of the Majority over the Minority, on the National level.
This makes sense especially in light of the "Great Compromise" which gave us the current make up of Congress and it's (sic) representation in the House of Representatives and Senate. . . . Therein lay the protection that the smaller states needed to see that their interests would be protected. This system has worked for over 200 years.
The same can be said for the Electoral College System, which again weighs in favor of the states, because as was played out in the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Sen. Al Gore. Gore won the popular vote, but lost in the electoral College, as Florida was declared for Bush. . . . I look forward to the day when Liberals appreciate our Founding Fathers intent, and quit tinkering with a system that has served us well, just because they lost an election.”
All of which is very interesting but exceedingly shallow. It not only ignores what the original intent of the “Founding Fathers” really was, but also ignores that the original system was flawed and had to be adjusted by the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. And even if our current system did work exactly as the founders intended--which it does not--why shouldn’t we as a nation strive to make the system even better? This particular reactionary blogger dismisses the effort to improve the system as the work of “Liberals” but I think it is he who needs the history lesson. Furthermore, he objects to the law “throwing away the vote of the people” although, as I pointed out in a comment left on his blog, exactly the opposite would happen. The movement that Maryland has joined would shift power away from the “electors” and back to the people, since the state popular vote would be aggregated with the popular votes in other states.

So the new system is worth considering and discussing, instead of being dismissed without examination, and I propose to do that by reviewing a recent book on the subject, Taming the Electoral College, by Robert W. Bennett, a law professor at Northwestern University. It’s a complicated discussion so I propose to do it in several parts. Please stay tuned.

Next: History Lesson


joreko said...

The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that voters in two thirds of the states are effectively disenfranchised in presidential elections because candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. If the partisan divide in a state is not initially about 46%-54%, no amount of campaigning during a brief presidential campaign is realistically going to change the winner of the state. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the concerns of voters of states that they cannot possibly win or lose. As a result, 88% of the money (and other forms of campaigning) are concentrated in just 9 closely divided battleground states: Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and New Hampshire.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide.

The National Popular Vote bill (recently signed by the Governor of Maryland) is described in chapter 6 of the book Every Vote Equal: A State-Based Plan for Electing the President by National Popular Vote (available for free reading or downloading at and

The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee that the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in all 50 states will win the Presidency. Similar bills have 320 legislative sponsors in 47 states and have passed the Colorado Senate, Arkansas House, and Hawaii House and Senate. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The legislation would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President.

Unknown said...

Well, yes, thanks, that's where this discussion is headed. And in fact the shortcomings of the current system are even more problematic than the one's you mention. When I've finished discussing the book under review, I'll come back to the site you've mentioned here.

Stephen M said...

A more fitting solution (and one that does bring up the Constitutional issues incumbent in the law Maryland passed) would be to address underrepresentation in the House. Since the House is frozen at 435 members (by an act of Congress, not by the Constituion), Electoral votes no longer grow or contract as a state's population changes (as was originally intended). At present, House districts average about 600,000 people--a far cry from the 30,000 minimum in the Constitution. As a result, states like Oklahoma actually have far greater influence on the Electoral College than they deserve. If the size of the House of Representatives was increased, the balance of Electors would change dramatically.