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Thoughts on the US Electoral College

The Electoral College is a creature of the times and environment in which the nation was founded. This mechanism has behaviors not envisioned by the founders that result from the country’s growth.

Thanks go to Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan. Mark graciously grants Creative Commons share and share alike use of his cartograms. The featured image cartogram weights each state by its number of electoral votes and colors it by its 2012 presidential election winner.

In this article, I examine the original design objectives of the Electoral College and the biases in the Electoral College that result from our country currently having a majority of large low population states. I deliberately avoid matters of party beyond the obvious urban-rural party preference.

Reference [2] offers some suggestions for how these faults may be corrected. I may write about Professor Sabato’s proposal in a future article.

What is the Electoral College

The Electoral College is a feature of the US Constitution Article 2 Section 1 that outlines the national procedures used to choose a president. The Electoral College is a creature of the times and environment in which our nation was born. Since then, states have tinkered with the selection of electors and have limited how they may vote.

Image adapted from the National Atlas of the United States, https://nationalatlas.gov, for Wikipedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_territorial_growth_1775.svg
  • We had a prior attempt at forming a national government (Articles of Confederation) that failed because the relationship between the national government and the states was inadequately drawn.
  • We were still a slave-holding nation and chattel slave holders influenced the authors of our governing documents to duck the issue of slavery. The Constitution left the matter of chattel slavery to the states as a state power under the 10th amendment.
  • Slavery’s influence was largely indirect except for the Connecticut compromise counting five slaves as three residents. If something seemed odd but was not discussed in the Federalist Papers (essays socializing the new government), slavery was behind the scenes. If something was left out, controversy, most likely slavery was behind it.
  • Most of the 1786 population was illiterate.
  • In 1786, communications between the states was slow and unreliable. News traveled by coach and packet boat carrying newspapers and word of mouth.
  • In 1786, locally printed newspapers, the church pulpit, and gossip at gathering places were the dominant mass communication mechanisms of the period.
  • At the founding in 1789, there were 13 states which varied widely in size, wealth, and influence.
  • The founders expected growth but had no idea how much territory would be added, how it would be divided into states, or when expansion would occur but provided for the possibility of expansion.
  • The wealthy states had to bring along the poorer states. At the founding, Massachusetts and South Carolina were wealthiest. All states had to feel that they had a fair say in governance.
  • The wealthy elite was suspicious of direct election of national officers and desired that the right sort (wealthy white men) be elected to national office.
  • The founders feared conspiracy amongst the states to garner increased influence or wealth.

The founders developed the Electoral College that would meet in December to choose a president. Each state elected a slate of electors apportioned as described in Articles 1 and 2. Each state met in-state and forwarded its results to Congress via its Congressional delegation. Congress would tally the results.

Each state is free to define state-specific rules governing the actions of its electors. Wikipedia [3] explains the original design considerations. The founders sought to preserve state integrity, separation of powers (Congress has a supervisory role only), minimize collusion among the states, make foreign influence difficult, and to compensate for the slow communications and low literacy rates of the founding period.

In the current era, each state’s presidential election selects which of 2 (or more) slates of electors will vote on behalf of the state’s residents in December. State law in all 50 states currently directs electors to cast their votes for the winner of the popular vote in the district that they represent. Most slates act state-wide but Nebraska and Maine select electors representing part of the state (congressional district). These electors are bound to cast their vote for the popular vote winner in their districts.

References

The following references support the ideas presented in this paper but I must confess that 20 years of reading op-ed opinion pieces have also influenced it. An 50 years of watching congress and the people make sausage.

Reference 2 is recently discovered and is still available in E-book form from the usual suspects (Amazon, Apple, Google, and maybe your public library). Larry Sabato is a brilliant teacher of government and US history teaching at University of Virginia, Charlottesville VA inspired by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who once lived nearby and whose writings and ideas inspired [2].

  1. Mark Newman, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems, University of Michigan Email: mejn@umich.edu Updated: November 8, 2012
  2. Larry J. Sabato, A More Perfect Constitution, Ideas to Inspire a New Generation, Bloomsbury USA, 2007.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Electoral_College
  4. https://www.archives.gov/electoral-college/about
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_(1789–1849)
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_No._68
  7. https://www.nytimes.com/article/the-electoral-college.html

So, How well has the electoral college worked?

Each state has a minimum of 3 electors in the electoral college. Today, most have more. The constitution and related law apportion 538 electors following the rules governing determination of the number of Representatives that a state has in the House of Representatives. Legislation and court decisions have effected the formula for this determination several times. In addition, each state receives 2 electors just for being a state.

Rural states and districts are overly influential

The founders sought to ensure that each state had a minimum of influence by giving each at least 3 electors (or Congress critters). What they did not envision was that the interior of the country would be divided into a number of large but low population states.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia and Kingofthedead, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This conventional winner-shaded map gives the impression that the Republican Party won the presidential election as the red area appears much larger than the blue area. The reality is different. If we take a closer look at the 2016 results by counties, each state is a mix of red and blue.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia, File:USA Counties with names.svg: User:Mr. MattéThis file: Magog the Ogre (talk) (contribs), CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The urban areas show a preference for the Democratic party while the rural areas show a preference for the Republican party. This is not strictly true as ethnic considerations also appear in Arizona, New Mexico and along the Mississippi River.

Within the states, the voting districts and congressional districts have been drawn to make seats safe for one party or the other. A state can be evenly split in party vote totals but award 80+ percent of the legislative seats to the party the drew the districts under the states redistricting law. To do this, the redistricting body packs democratic voters into a small number of districts rather than dividing them evenly. This gives a small number of safe Democratic districts and a large number of safe Republican districts.

How has growth affected the electoral college?

The founders envisioned that each state would select its electors from its educated and politics-savvy population and that they would choose a president in the best interests of the state. The founders were concerned that an ill-informed electorate would choose a random person or that foreign powers could manipulate the general populace as they were not engaged between elections. So they proposed the creation of electors and apportioning them in the same manner as congressional representatives plus two to ensure that each state had a minimum representation. Each state was free to determine how to choose its electors.

The founders also feared that states would collude to elect a favored candidate. To reduce the ease with which collusion is possible, the electors meet in their home state rather than traveling to a central location to vote.

The structure of the electoral college gives the small states disproportionate power in selecting the president. All states, without regard to size have three electors. Small state electors represent far fewer electors than those in say California, Florida, New York, and Texas. The figure below shows the states distorted by size and shaded by party preference at the county level.

Cartogram courtesy of Mark Newman, University of Michigan

The rural and urban states are currently set in their party preferences and with rural states holding over 1/2 of the electoral college votes.

A Minority President?

Winner take all rules allow a minority of the population to elect the president when their states determine 270 or more electoral votes. This has happened 3 times in the 21st century. One of our parties consistently fails to attract a majority of the votes cast nationwide. Their shortfall is increasing as the country becomes more urban and more diverse ethnically.

Note that a 269-269 tie is also possible.

The end result is that campaigning is restricted to states nearest a 50-50 divide in party voting preference. Resources and attention are directed to these tipable states in size priority.

Electoral College Distorts Campaign Effort

Six states received a majority of the campaign attention in the 2020 election. California, New York, Illinois, and Texas were largely ignored because of their stable voting histories. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin having voted for both Democratic Party and Republican Party candidates in recent elections were dumped upon. Wisconsin is the smallest of these.