Electoral College

The system in use by the UnitedStates that has raised such a ruckus in the 2000 election.

Or to put it another way: The ElectoralCollege is an institution of government about which such a ruckus was raised after the 1800 election, the 1860 election, the 1876 election, and the 2000 election, over 200 years after its inception. Others outside the US have difficulty understanding how it works and call it strange or compare it to a game as indicated below:

The Rules of the Game

UnitedStates citizens don't vote directly for their president. Instead, a group of people called "electors" meets after the general election and decides who will be the next president. The number of electors that each state sends to this "electoral college" varies by the population of the state, in a way that's weighted to give the smaller states more votes than they'd get in a DirectVote?.

(If you're curious, the exact number of electors per state is the total number of Senators and Representatives that the state sends to the federal government. Every state gets two Senators, plus a number of Representatives that varies by population. See http://blue.census.gov/population/www/censusdata/apportionment/computing.html for more info. [Hopefully someone can find a better page than that one.] Also, the District of Columbia gets three electors even though it has no Senators or Representatives.)

Each state can choose its electors any way it wants to, within certain broad rules about voting rights established in the Constitution. Currently, 48 of the 50 states choose their electors in "winner take all" fashion: the presidential candidate who wins a plurality of votes in the state gets all of the state's electoral votes regardless of the margin of victory.

In effect, then, the president is chosen by an election in which each state votes as a whole, with more populous states getting more votes.

The Strangeness of It

The odd thing about the electoral college is that in a close election, it's capable of choosing a different candidate than was chosen by the popular vote. If there are two major candidates, and one of them wins states by small margins while the other wins his states by large margins, the candidate who won by small margins may well collect a majority of electoral votes even while his opponent got a majority of the total votes cast.

So why engage in all this fragile complexity instead of just choosing the president by DirectVote?? You can read the specifics of Alexander Hamilton's reasoning in FederalistPapers #68 (http://www.mcs.net/~knautzr/fed/fed68.htm). The following is my understanding of the overall philosophy.

First of all, you need to understand that the UnitedStates has never had any pretensions to being a democracy. The FoundingFathers tried to engineer a system of government that would make reasonably good decisions even when run by real human beings, whom they assumed to be mainly petty, selfish, and given to factionalism - the reasons that both democracies and oligarchies tend toward extreme and self-destructive behavior. So the government has all sorts of built-in friction - the famous ChecksAndBalances - to prevent the rabble from passing sweeping new legislation in response to some passion of the moment, as well as to prevent the moneyed classes from abusing the rabble.

Secondly, the FoundingFathers envisioned the UnitedStates as a federation of loosely connected states, each of which would run its own affairs fairly independently of the federal government.

The ElectoralCollege is much more in harmony with these goals than a DirectVote?. The president is a representative of all the states. The ElectoralCollege leads the candidates to make broad appeal across the whole country, not just any one region. (Fearing regional factionalism, the FoundingFathers also made it a rule that the president and vice president cannot be from the same state.) The method of choosing the president is a compromise between a simple DirectVote?, a simple vote by the states, and a vote by congress (see below).

The only provision in the UnitedStatesConstitution for a national election is to choose the president. In keeping with the philosophy of "no fast changes, especially when demanded by the rabble", there is no provision for any sort of national referendum. Changes to the Constitution happen only by a particularly arduous process, which the people cannot even start by petition.

In hindsight, the system seems to have worked remarkably well. While political partisans fight bitterly in the courts, in the legislature, and across branches of government, rash, sweeping decisions have been rare, and today it is virtually impossible for an extremist of any sort to make any headway in national politics. All of the major candidates make broad, bland appeals aimed squarely at common-denominator beliefs that hold all across the country. The pungent, immoderate characters seldom make it further than the House of Representatives, the branch of the federal government with the least power, and where power is spread out most thinly.

On the other hand, holding 50 weighted presidential elections adds leverage to the "noise" inherent in any election. When the vote in the ElectoralCollege is close, small amounts of experimental error in a close-margin state (like Florida in 2000 or Illinois in 1960) get magnified into election-swinging fluctuations. Thus election fraud is encouraged (a small amount of fraud can buy you a president), the courts and local politicians make key decisions that can't possibly be unbiased, and the legitimacy of the new president is called into question.

Further Complications

1. A plurality in the ElectoralCollege is not enough to win the presidency. If no candidate wins an absolute majority of electors, the House of Representatives chooses the president from the top three candidates. They vote in a special way: each state's Representatives collectively get one vote - so it's another "election by states". If the House of Representatives fails to reach an absolute majority, there are still further tie-breaking rules, which I won't go into here, except to say that it's theoretically possible for a vice president who is running for president (such as Al Gore in 2000) to cast the final tie-breaking vote for himself.

2. There is nothing in the rules that says that the electors must vote as their states directed them to. Some states have laws prescribing penalties for FaithlessElector?s, but most don't. In fact, a few electors have voted differently than they were told to, but so far none has affected the result of a presidential election. (A majority of the Electors did not follow the rules in 1800. The Constitution was then amended.)

If you want to read the official rules yourself, see the UnitedStatesConstitution at http://www.constitution.org/constit_.htm. Or cut to the chase at http://www.constitution.org/afterte_.htm#amd12.

A further difficulty is that the ElectoralCollege makes it virtually impossible for more than two major political parties to stably co-exist. Were there three, the president would be decided by the House of Representatives every time. This stability might be a good thing (see above), but the two major parties are now so similar and so entrenched that there's little hope of replacing them. The last third-party candidate who won the presidency was AbrahamLincoln in 1860. A regional candidate, his election so incensed the South that several southern states immediated seceded, precipitating a civil war - the very worst-case scenario that the Constitution was designed to prevent.

Invented in a time when votes had to be compiled via horseback...

Also invented in a time when Jupiter orbited the Sun, but neither was the reason for choosing the system. As originally designed, each state's electors were supposed to convene separately and debate among themselves to decide which candidate to vote for. The electors would thus be insulated from the passions of the rabble and hopefully make a wiser choice. See http://www.mcs.net/~knautzr/fed/fed68.htm.

In its more modern incarnation, with electors directed to follow the popular vote in their state (winner-take-all), the ElectoralCollege seems to me to be completely in harmony with a theme that runs through the entire U.S. Constitution (seen most commonly in the structure of our two Congressional houses): a delicate balance between representation of individuals and of states.
Other reasons for the EC: 1) Federalism -- states had to be given the right to set voting requirements. If not for the EC, states could lower the minimum age or change other requirements to gain an unfair advantage. This has a downside of course, as in Jim Crow laws, which allowed only Southern whites to vote but for their votes to count for the black state population as well. 2) Regionalism -- Giving states weight based on population rather than voter participation prevents local issues from dominating national concerns.
No doubt we will be having some discussion about whether or not the EC has outlived its usefulness in 21st century USA. For instance, the high minded aspirations stated above about "insulating from the passions of the rabble" and electors making a "wiser choice" don't seem to hold any more. Noblesse oblige is long dead in this country; its last vestiges died with JFK's assassination. The current [2003] crop of pirates, robber barons, and outright criminals who are running things are a far cry from the FoundingFathers' view of nobility that was supposed to watch out for the Little Guy.

In an age of instant Internet communications and news sources from around the block and around the world (as the news agencies like to say), we have a much better informed electorate. Perhaps the EC can finally be replaced by direct popular voting for elected officials. National referenda can be held the same way, although there is no mechanism for making such referenda binding. Still, this discussion needs to be kept live.
It doesn't even have to be a close election overall for the Electoral College to produce skewed results; it only needs to be close in a few key states. In the worst case, it's possible for a candidate to win the presidency despite being very soundly defeated in the popular vote. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are only two candidates for president (Candidate A and Candidate B, of course), that all of the electors in every state / district vote according to the plurality of the popular vote in their state / district, and that voter turnout is similar to that reported in the 2000 Census.

Then suppose that in the following states, Candidate A receives one more than one-half of the votes, while Candidate B receives one less. The states are: AK, AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, DC, DE, HI, IA, ID, KS, KY, MD, ME, MS, MT, NC, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OK, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, WV, and WY. They are chosen as the group of states comprising 270 electors with the smallest total voting population. Candidates A and B receive almost identical numbers of popular votes (differing by only 66 votes in total); approximately 23 million votes each by 2000 Census turnout numbers. Candidate A receives 270 electoral votes, securing the presidency, while candidate B receives none.

In the remaining states (I won't waste space by listing them), suppose that Candidate B wins by a landslide in every state, with Candidate A receiving 0 votes. Candidate B receives approximately 82 million votes, and 268 electoral votes. The end result is that Candidate A wins the presidency with 50.2% of the electoral vote, while only 21.8% of voters voted for him: a more than 3:1 popular defeat.

Of course, the problem there is that states tied their electoral votes to their popular votes. That's not a flaw with the Electoral College, which came long before the popular vote. It's a problem with the popular vote; it's a bad idea to have the public, who are necessarily ignorant of the relevant issues, to be picking the leader of the free world. Each state could, if they wished, pick their electoral votes in completely different manners, like having the state legislator and house vote for the electors, or by ditching the all or nothing strategy currently in effect. There's no reason that a state can't send a split vote, making the whole system fairer. Were the government operating within its constitutional powers of simply regulating interstate commerce and maintaining the security of the union, the president wouldn't really matter on the domestic front, as each state would be operating independently of the currently unconstitutional butt loads of federal regulation that are forced upon them. The problem isn't the electoral system; the problem is our government is completely corrupt, every branch, through and through, and has been ignoring the constitution for years, and our public is for the most part, too stupid to do anything about it, or even realize it's happening.

My point, though, is that the EC system gives the appearance, in modern times, of reflecting the will of the populace. I think that my experiment is useful in that it shows just how poorly it does that job.

If you apply a similar tactic to an election of three candidates, you find that a mere 14.5% of the voters control sufficient electoral votes to elect a president in the worst-case performance of the electoral college.
See: ElectoralCollegeDiscussion, VotingPatterns, ElectionEpistemology

Contributors: BenKovitz, GlennVanderburg, others

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