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

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Direct popular election? First of all, there’s the question of what to do if no candidate receives a majority. Would there be a runoff, which would make the campaign season last even longer and might encourage third parties? Would the top vote-getter always be the winner—a system that could elect a candidate opposed by a majority of citizens? Would we mystify voters by asking for second and third choices?

Moreover, a nationwide election—something that has never taken place in America—would require a nationwide electoral board, with all the rules, forms, and inspectors that go along with it. Would states be allowed to set different times for opening and closing their polls? Would North Dakota be allowed to continue to have no form of voter registration, as it does now? Would a state seeking more influence be allowed to lower its voting age below 18? Then there is the potential discussed above for stolen or suppressed votes. Combine all these problems with the inevitable effect of concentrating candidates’ time, resources, and money on populous areas, and the case for a small state to support direct election looks mighty shaky.

 

Election by districts sounds appealing, but it would replace 51 separate races with about 480. Swing states would lose their all-or-nothing leverage, so candidates might concentrate on major population centers even more than they do now. (Under the present system, each new election gives a different group of swing states their moment in the spotlight, whereas with any other system, the big states would always get the bulk of the attention.) The effects of gerrymandering would be amplified, and third-party candidates would find it easier to win a single district than an entire state. Also, the small-state advantage would remain (and in fact be reinforced, since in most cases—all the time for the three-vote minnows—they would continue to function as units) while the big-state advantage from winner-take-all would vanish. In fact, if the 1960 election had been contested by districts and the popular vote had been exactly the same (a questionable assumption, to be sure), Richard Nixon would have won.

Proportional division of electors would be even worse, combining all the disadvantages of a direct popular vote with none of the advantages. Under this method, if a state has 10 electoral votes and Candidate A wins 53.7 percent of the popular vote in that state, then Candidate A is credited with 5.37 electoral votes. In essence, proportional division amounts to a direct popular vote, except that the votes of small-state residents are given added weight. And that’s the problem: By stripping the veil of illusion and ceremony and tradition from the Electoral College, this extra weighting makes the small-state advantage nakedly apparent, which infuriates one-person-one-vote fundamentalists.

But from the small-state point of view, proportional division would dilute the already tiny influence that goes with controlling three or four votes in a single lump. Also, there is a significant element of the public that views anything involving decimals as un-American—except baseball statistics, of course. Yet restricting the division of electors to whole numbers would be far more confusing, with different mathematical rules and minimum requirements in each state and often arbitrary results (if your state has four votes and the popular margin is 55-45, how do you divide them?). Proportional division would be fine for student-council elections at MIT, but to most American voters, it would amount to a mystifying black box.

To be fair, much worse ideas have been proposed. In the mist beyond proportional representation lies the wreckage of dozens of too-clever schemes, such as one cooked up in 1970 by Sen. Thomas Eagleton and Sen. Robert Dole (each of whom would within a few years take a personal interest in presidential elections). According to The New Republic, this plan provided that “a President would be elected if he (1) won a plurality of the national vote and (2) won either pluralities in more than 50 percent of the states and the District of Columbia, or pluralities in states with 50 percent of the voters in the election. . . .” And it went on from there.

In reviewing the history of the Electoral College, it quickly becomes clear how little anybody has to offer that is new. All the plausible reform ideas, and all the arguments for and against them, have been debated and rehashed for well over a century, in terms that have remained virtually unchanged. What has killed all the reform efforts has been the lack of a single alternative that all the reformers can agree on. As the politicians say, you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and you can’t beat one plan with three.

Moreover, the present system at least has the benefit of familiarity. Any change would be attended with an element of uncertainty, and politicians don’t like that. Opinions differ widely about who would gain or lose from electoral reform, but too many states and interest groups think they would lose and too few are sure that they would gain. After all, as we have seen, the original Electoral College functioned nothing like what its designers had expected.