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

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Nonetheless, the flaws of the Electoral College, however exaggerated they may be, are clear. It magnifies small margins in an arbitrary manner; it distorts the campaign process by giving tossup states excessive importance; it gives small states a disproportionate number of votes; and perhaps worst of all, many people don’t have a clue about how it works.

Each of these except the last can be turned around and called an advantage by traditionalists: Magnified margins yield a “mandate” (though have you ever heard anyone who wasn’t a journalist talk about presidential mandates?); the need to pander to a diverse set of constituencies makes candidates fashion platforms with broad appeal; and after all, small states deserve a break. Still, nobody really loves the Electoral College—until a specific alternative is proposed.

The lack of agreement among would-be reformers has allowed the Electoral College’s vastly outnumbered supporters to defend it successfully against all attacks for nearly two centuries. Before the Civil War, slavery, called by its polite name of States’ Rights, stymied electoral reform in the same way it stymied so many other things: The Southern states would not consider any reform that did not increase their region’s importance in national elections, Oddly enough, by losing the war, the South got the influence it had always wanted.

Today’s controversy goes all the way back to our country’s first contested presidential election, in 1796, and the first proposal for Electoral College reform, in January of 1797.

From the end of Reconstruction into the 1940s, Democrats could count on a sure 100 to 120 electoral votes from the Solid South—the 11 states of the old Confederacy. Though the three-fifths rule was gone with the abolition of slavery, it had been replaced by something even worse, for while blacks were effectively disenfranchised in most of the South, their states now got full credit for their black populations in the House of Representatives and thus in the Electoral College. This allowed Southern whites not only to keep blacks from voting but in effect to vote for them. For most of a century after the 1870s, then, the Electoral College was a racket for the Democratic party.

Today the Solid South is a thing of the past. Nonetheless, since 1804 no electoral reform amendment has even made it through Congress. Why not? Who benefits from the Electoral College? Briefly put, two groups benefit: big states and small states. The winner-take-all feature favors the first of these groups, while the disproportionate allotment of electors favors the second.

With their tempting heaps of electoral votes, the big states attract by far the greatest bulk of the candidates’ attention. If you consider having politicians descend upon your state a benefit, the winner-take-all feature is a big plus. In 1966, in fact, Delaware sued New York (which then had the most electoral votes) and other states in hopes of forcing them to abandon the winner-take-all policy. A dozen other states soon climbed on board. Although the suit, which was based on the novel theory that a provision of the Constitution can be unconstitutional, was summarily rejected by the Supreme Court, it revealed the frustration that the small fry have always felt. In response, the small states cling to their three or four electoral votes the way an infant clings to its blanket. Since no one pays any attention to them anyway, they feel entitled to an extra vote or two.

Partisan considerations persist as well, this time on the Republican side. Today a group of Plains and Mountain states (Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah) can be thought of as a Solid West, reliably delivering most or all of their 32 electoral votes (as of 2000) to the Republican ticket, though their combined population is about equal to that of Michigan, which has only 18. As we have recently seen, those few extra votes can make a big difference if the election is close; and if the election isn’t close, any electoral system will do.

It’s impossible to say definitively whether the big-state or small-state advantage predominates, though that hasn’t stopped generations of political scientists from trying. But these two opposing factors explain how the 1970s notion of “urban liberal bias” and the 1980s notion of a “Republican electoral lock” can both be correct: The former results from winner-take-all, while the latter results from disproportionality.

Through all the analysis, reform proposals keep coming. They generally fall into three classes: a straightforward nationwide popular vote; election by districts, with the Electoral College retained but each congressional district choosing its own elector (and, in most such schemes, the statewide winner getting a bonus of two); and proportional representation, with electoral votes determined by each candidate’s percentage of the popular vote in a given state. Any of these would probably be better than what we have now, but each one has imperfections. Since every change would hurt someone, the chances of getting through all the hoops needed to pass a constitutional amendment—a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress plus approval by three-quarters of the states—look dim.