Monday, May 01, 2017

The Electoral College Enigma – Part III

In September 2012, the first of a four part series titled “The Electoral College: Time For a Change?” was published by me in this newspaper.  So what compelled me to write another series on the same subject now, only five years later?  Three reasons come to mind:  First, there is a host of new readers of this newspaper who never read the original articles. Second, not to denigrate the memory function of those who did read the initial series, even I could not remember much of what was written and I suspected the same would be true of my readers. Third, I was troubled by the results of the 2016 election where the Popular Vote winner actually lost to the Electoral Vote winner by 2,865,075 votes, the largest amount ever.

Sure, this last election was “only” the fifth time in our 241-year-old history that this happened.  In the election of 2000, Al Gore won the majority vote by 543,816 votes but the presidency was awarded to George W. Bush by a majority of the electoral vote.  (Of course the state of Florida and the Supreme Court can take the credit for that decision.) History records three other elections where the winner of the popular majority vote lost the election based on the vote of the electoral college: John Quincy Adams won the popular vote by 44,804 votes but lost to Andrew Jackson in 1824; Samuel J. Tilden who won by 264,292 votes but lost to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876; Benjamin Harrison who won by 95,713 votes but lost to Grover Cleveland in 1888.

These failings of the electoral vote process to recognize the popular vote is certainly part of the enigma surrounding the Electoral College.  More so however are the various pros and cons, each one, deserving of consideration, to the point of confusing an already complicated and divisive issue.  One of the best sources for the pro and con information is an organization logically named

This organization is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public charity, providing professionally researched pro, con, and related information on more than 50 controversial issues from gun control and death penalty to illegal immigration and alternative energy. Using the fair, FREE, and unbiased resources at, millions of people each year learn new facts, think critically about both sides of important issues, and strengthen their minds and opinions. So let’s see how ProCon balances each of three pros against an equal number of cons:

Pro 1

The Founding Fathers enshrined the Electoral College in the US Constitution because they thought it was the best method to choose the president. Using electors instead of the popular vote was intended to safeguard against uninformed or uneducated voters by putting the final decision in the hands of electors most likely to possess the information necessary to make the best decision; to prevent states with larger populations from having undue influence; and to compromise between electing the president by popular vote and letting Congress choose the president.  According to Alexander Hamilton, the Electoral College is if “not perfect, it is at least excellent,” because it ensured “that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”  [There are some who would question that today.] The Founders wanted to balance the will of the populace against the risk of “tyranny of the majority,” in which the voices of the masses can drown out minority interests.

Con 1

The reasons for which the Founding Fathers created the Electoral College are no longer relevant. Modern technology allows voters to get necessary information to make informed decisions in a way that could not have been foreseen by the Founding Fathers. Also, while Alexander Hamilton in 1788 saw the electors as being “free from any sinister bias,” members of the Electoral College are now selected by the political parties and they are expected to vote along party lines regardless of their own opinions about the candidates.  Just as several voting laws that limited direct democracy in the Constitution have been modified or discarded throughout history, so should the Electoral College. As a result of Constitutional amendments, women and former slaves were given the right to vote, and Senators, once appointed by state legislatures, are now elected directly by popular vote.  The vice presidency was once awarded to the runner up in electoral votes, but the procedure was changed over time to reflect the reality of elections.

Pro 2

The Electoral College ensures that all parts of the country are involved in selecting the President of the United States. If the election depended solely on the popular vote, then candidates could limit campaigning to heavily-populated areas or specific regions. To win the election, presidential candidates need electoral votes from multiple regions and therefore they build campaign platforms with a national focus, meaning that the winner will actually be serving the needs of the entire country. Without the Electoral College, groups such as Iowa farmers and Ohio factory workers would be ignored in favor of pandering to metropolitan areas with higher population densities, leaving rural areas and small towns marginalized.

Con 2

The Electoral College gives too much power to “swing states” and allows the presidential election to be decided by a handful of states. The two main political parties can count on winning the electoral votes in certain states, such as California for the Democratic Party and Indiana for the Republican Party, without worrying about the actual popular vote totals. Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates only need to pay attention to a limited number of states that can swing one way or the other.  A Nov. 6, 2016 episode of PBS News Hour revealed that “Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have made more than 90% of their campaign stops in just 11 so-called battleground states. Of those visits, nearly two-thirds took place in the four battlegrounds with the most electoral votes — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.”

Pro 3

The Electoral College guarantees certainty to the outcome of the presidential election. If the election were based on popular vote, it would be possible for a candidate to receive the highest number of popular votes without actually obtaining a majority.  This happened with President Nixon in 1968 and President Clinton in 1992, when both men won the most electoral votes while receiving just 43% of the popular vote.  The existence of the Electoral College precluded calls for recounts or demands for run-off elections. The electoral process can also create a larger mandate to give the president more credibility; for example, President Obama received 51.3% of the popular vote in 2012 but 61.7% of the electoral votes.  In 227 years, the winner of the popular vote has lost the electoral vote only five times.  This proves the system is working.

Con 3

The Electoral College ignores the will of the people. There are over 300 million people in the United States, but just 538 people decide who will be president. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.8 million votes, yet still lost the election on electoral votes. Even President-elect Donald Trump, who benefitted from the system, stated after the 2016 election that he believes presidents should be chosen by popular vote: “I would rather see it where you went with simple votes. You know, you get 100 million votes and somebody else gets 90 million votes and you win.”  [As stated above], in 2016 when Donald Trump received fewer nationwide popular votes than Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump will serve as the President of the United States despite being supported by fewer Americans than his opponent.

While there are other issues that enter into the dispute, the above are the most cogent and are those cited by most historians.  If you can dispute the validity of the above arguments, pro or con, then you have solved the enigma of the Electoral College.  You have then decided whether you would maintain the Electoral College as it has survived since its inception, or you would like to see it abolished.

Or perhaps, frankly, like me, you find the issues are not so clearly defined, that they are more nuanced than you would like, and a clear decision is not yet possible.  So let’s wait for next month’s article (the last on this subject, I promise), when we will finally learn that perhaps the Electoral College can be maintained within the framework of a popular vote.


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