Tuesday, July 17, 2012

U.S. Electoral College Deprived of Democratic Sense

What were the U.S. constitutional framers thinking when they agreed to Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution? This Section of Article II allows U.S. State electors to determine the U.S. president rather than the American people. Also, the Section allows each State to determine how to select its electors, and the number of electors from each state must correspond proportionally to the number of congressional representatives each State has. The consequence of this approach is that the American people do not directly select their president, and the number of votes for a candidate and party has no bearing on who is president, as shown by the Gore/Bush presidential race in which Gore and the Democratic Party had a majority of the overall national vote, and yet Bush and the Republicans had more electoral college votes. Further, the popular vote and electoral college vote can be quite different. In 1984, Reagan received 59% of the popular vote versus 40.6% for Mondale, while Reagan received about 98% of the electoral college votes.

U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1 excerpt:

             The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his office during the term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows:

Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

The electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves. And they shall make a list of all the persons voted for, and of the number of votes for each; which list they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates, and the votes shall then be counted. The person having the greatest number of votes shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the wthole number of electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such majority, and have an equal number of votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately choose by ballot one of them for President; and if no person have a majority, then from the five highest on the list the said House shall in like manner choose the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by States, the representation from each state having one vote; A quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. In every case, after the choice of the President, the person having the greatest number of votes of the electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal votes, the Senate shall choose from them by ballot the Vice President.

The Congress may determine the time of choosing the electors, and the day on which they shall give their votes; which day shall be the same throughout the United States. (Source: Cornell University Law School, Legal Information Institute.)

The framers of the U.S. Constitution lived in a privilege, inequitable society. As an example, male blacks and women did not have the right to vote. (The 15th Amendment gave male blacks the right to vote as long as they paid a poll tax; women did not receive the vote until the 19th Amendment.) And clearly based on the electoral college, the framers may have had a disdain and/or distrust for the majority of Americans determining their president. It may be argued that the States' electors are extensions of the people by being selected based on a process determined by the State Legislatures. This position assumes that the States' political representatives are extensions of the people. Why not just have the people decide? Is the electoral college a form of societal control by elites and/or privilege class?

The lack of U.S. urbanization at the time of framing the U.S. Constitution helps explain why the framers decided upon the electoral college:

In 1790, the United States population was 5% urban and 95% rural. In 1900, the U.S. population was 47% urban and 53% rural. In 1940, the U.S. population was 57% urban and 43% rural. In 2000, the U.S. population was 79% urban and 21% rural (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency).


Do Away With the Electoral College
By Alexander Keyssar is the Stirling professor of history and social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School

In a presidential election season, it seems obvious (yet again) that we should rewrite parts of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution — so that we can dispense with the Electoral College and hold a national popular vote to choose our chief executive.

Indeed, if we were drafting a constitution today, few people would even consider a presidential electoral system like the Electoral College. (Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, in the mid-19th century, characterized it as “artificial, cumbrous, radically defective and unrepublican.”) The concerns that prompted the Founding Fathers to adopt this system — a distrust of popular elections, worry that the people would be unfamiliar with national candidates, a desire to reinforce the great constitutional compromises between large states and small states, slave states and free states — have lost much of their salience since 1787.

Moreover, we have learned a lot in the last 225 years about shortcomings in the framers’ design: the person who wins the most votes doesn’t necessarily become president; the adoption of “winner take all” rules (permitted but not mandated by the Constitution) produces election campaigns that ignore most of the country and contribute to low turnout; the legislature of any state can decide to choose electors by itself and decline to hold an election at all; and the complex procedure for dealing with an election in which no candidate wins a clear majority of the electoral vote is fraught with peril. As a nation, we have come to embrace “one person, one vote” as a fundamental democratic principle, yet the allocation of electoral votes to the states violates that principle. It is hardly an accident that no other country in the world has imitated our Electoral College.

If we were writing or revising the constitution now, we would almost certainly adopt a rather simple method of choosing our presidents: a national popular vote, followed by a run-off if no candidate wins a majority. We applaud when we witness such systems operating elsewhere in the world. Perhaps we should try one here.


  1. It's my understanding the the Electoral College persists because of pure politics. The smaller states would proportionately lose more influence in determining an election's outcome if the country moved to a system based purely on popular vote.

  2. Should the small State interests (or any other special interests) come before the interests of the majority of Americans (within limits)?

  3. Keep in mind that the electoral college was a 18th century apparatus designed for 18th century realities. I just don’t see how popular voting could work logistically in a nation the size of pre-industrial America, full of farmers who were too busy to care about politics. Also, back then there were absolutely no high speed communications that we depend on today.

    1. Good point; however, the rural and technological arguments do not apply to the latter 20th Century to present. Why keep what is obsolete and less democratic than alternatives?

    2. Again,it all comes down to politics. Apparently, ideas for system overhauls have been submitted. But they have not gotten very far. They just have faced too many political and procedural barriers.

  4. Educational attainment is another reason to do away with the electoral college. In 1790, illiteracy was widespread. Combine this with the lack of other mass-information channels at the time, and it would have been doubtful that the populace would have made the best decision in an election. The electoral college would have been a reasonable check and balance, I think.

    But today, more people have college degrees than ever before. So I just don't see the point for the continuation of the electoral college. Although, with the amount of misinformation being propogated in this year's election, sometimes I wonder if the US has really advanced that far in terms of educational attainment!


Thank you for sharing your perspective.