The Electoral College: How It Got That Way and Why We're Stuck With It

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Jackson, it is often pointed out, won the most popular votes in this election. But 1824 was the first year popular votes were widely recorded, and the figures are of questionable accuracy. The reported turnout was a derisory 27 percent nationwide and less than 15 percent in some states where the race was one-sided. On top of that, in 6 of the 24 states, the legislature chose the electors, so there was no popular vote.

The 1824 election was the last gasp for legislative selection, though. In 1828 only South Carolina and tiny Delaware still used it, and by 1836 every state except South Carolina (which would stubbornly retain legislative selection until the Civil War) had adopted the popular vote, winner-take-all method. Give or take a few small anomalies, then, the electoral system in place by the 1830s was identical to the one we are still using.

After a one-sided election, everyone shrugs off the Electoral College. After a close election, there’s a fuss, and then the always fades away.

The dismay and outrage that have greeted the 2000 election were nothing compared with the public’s reaction to the 1824 disaster. When the next Congress assembled, a flood of schemes was offered to reform America’s procedure for electing a President. None of them got anywhere. And the pattern has repeated itself through the years: After a one-sided election, everyone shrugs off the Electoral College, and after a close election, everyone makes a fuss for a year or two, and then the issue fades away.

Through the years, numerous inadequacies of the Electoral College have come to the fore: potentially fractured multi-party elections (including 1912, 1924, 1948, and 1968); contested results (Hayes-Tilden in 1876 and Bush-Gore in 2000, plus a near-miss with Nixon-Kennedy in 1960); “minority” Presidents (1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, with near-misses in 1960 and 1976); and “faithless” electors voting for candidates other than the ones they were chosen to vote for (as some Southern electors threatened to do in 1948 and 1960).

It’s safe to say that if you were designing an election method from scratch, it wouldn’t look like the Electoral College. Yet it’s worth pointing out what’s not wrong with our current system before we think about fixing what is. The famous 1876-77 Hayes-Tilden fiasco, for example, is not a good argument for abolition; it was the result of outright fraud and corruption, which could occur under any system. Indeed, the present Electoral College decreases the possibility for vote fraud (while admittedly increasing the payoff if it’s successful) by restricting it to a few states where the vote is close. In a direct nationwide popular election, votes could be stolen anywhere, including in heavily Democratic or Republican states where no one would bother under the current rules. In this way, the Electoral College acts as a firewall to contain electoral tampering.

It is also often said that under the Electoral College a popular-vote winner can be an electoral-vote loser. But this “problem” dissolves upon closer examination. Popular-vote totals are not predetermined; if they were, there would be no use for campaign consultants and political donations. Rather, the popular vote is an artifact of the electoral system. With a winner-take-all Electoral College, candidates tailor their messages and direct their spending to swing states and ignore the others, even when there are lots of votes to be had.

In the recent election, for example, neither presidential candidate made more than a token effort in New York, which was known to be safely in Gore’s pocket. To residents, it seemed as if neither man visited the state at all except to ask for money. Gore ended up receiving around 3.7 million votes to Bush’s 2.2 million. Now suppose Bush had campaigned in New York enough to induce 170,000 of those Gore voters, or less than 5 percent, to switch. He would have made up the nationwide popular-vote gap right there. Instead, both candidates spent enormous amounts of time and money fighting over handfuls of uncommitted voters in Florida, Michigan, and a few other states. That’s why in a close election, it doesn’t make sense to compare nationwide popular-vote totals when popular votes don’t determine the winner. You might just as well point out that the losing team in a baseball game got more hits.

As for faithless electors, not since the anomalous situation of 1824 have they made a difference in a presidential election. There is some reason to believe that if an elector broke his or her trust in a close race today, the switch would be ruled invalid. In any case, this problem can easily be eliminated with state laws or an act of Congress. These laws could also be tailored to take account of what happens if a candidate dies before the Electoral College meets or if a third-party candidate wishes to give his or her votes to another candidate. Flexible electors can even sometimes be useful, as in the three-way 1912 race, when some Theodore Roosevelt electors said before the election that if Roosevelt could not win, they would switch their votes to William Howard Taft.