On November 8 of 2016 a minority elected the President of the United States. This election process was enabled by a system invented in the 18th century; a system that does not exist anywhere else in the world. There are 21 federal republics, including highly successful countries like Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany and Switzerland. None of them uses a system like the US Electoral College.
The existence of this system has been traditionally supported by the arguments below.
#1- “The Electoral College protects the interests of the small states and promotes national campaigning”
Candidates do not care about small states: During the last 4 presidential elections, New Hampshire has been the only small State that has received significant attention. The other 14 States that make the list of the least populated 15 have been either in the “safe blue” column or in the “safe red” column: Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming have been reliably republican; while Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont have been reliably democrat. New Hampshire receives only a fraction of the attention that candidates devote to bigger “battleground” States with a bigger prize, like Florida, Ohio or Pennsylvania.
Wikipedia offers an excellent map based on the data presented in Fair Vote’s “Who Picks the President” article, showing the use of resources by the Bush and Kerry campaigns in 2004. I’m reproducing the map below. Each hand indicates a visit from a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate during the final five weeks of the campaign, and each dollar sign represents $1 million spent in advertising during the same period.
Candidates have no incentives to care about small states: Only 4 times in history the elections have been decided by a margin of less than 20 Electoral Votes: in 1796 and 1800, when the country was young and only a few states were part of the union; in the irregular election of 1876; and in the Bush/Gore election in 2000. In this recent one, all the attention was drawn to the big state of Florida, ultimately decided in favor of Bush by 537 votes. There is no historical precedent that justifies the use of limited campaigning resources in a state that only offers a few Electoral Votes.
Small states are not faring better (or worse): five objective metrics are proposed to track the economic progress of small states in order to check if the system serves their interests. There are, of course, global driving forces and policies beyond the federal level that have an impact on a state’s economy. Nonetheless, the following metrics offer an excellent starting point:
- Percentage of children making more income than their parents did, based on data for the 1980-82 birth cohort in the “Where is the Land of Opportunity” study (Harvard, Berkeley June 2014);
- Population growth; and
- Median salary.
In all these metrics, small States are scattered across the spectrum of success. Moreover, in 10 of the 15 least populated states the median salary growth over the last 4 Presidential administrations (2 Republican, 2 Democratic) lags the national average.
Verdict: Not a valid point. The Electoral College does not protect the interest of small States and does not promote national campaigning. The simple idea of national campaigning is out of the question, since no candidate can dedicate its full attention to all 50 States and DC. It’s all about choosing priorities with efficiency.
#2- “The System encourages coalition building”
The Electoral College grossly undermines the impact of third parties. Two alternatives to the current system are proposed below for benchmarking purposes.
Alternative 1: National circumscription system. Under this methodology, the Electoral Votes are assigned in a national voting basis. This is the best way to align Electoral Votes and the popular vote. For 2016, the results would have been:
Just think about it for a moment. Under this system, the electors committed to minority parties would have negotiating power. The mathematical combinations of the table above are interesting, including situations in which the Presidency would have been decided by the allegiance of Evan McMullin and his 3 Electoral Votes. Darrell Castle, of whom most of the country knows little, would have had at least a voice.
Alternative 2: Proportional allocation by State. Under this methodology, the Electoral Votes are assigned in a State circumscription basis using straight proportional allocation. For 2016, the results would have been:
In this case, there is a higher distortion between the popular vote and the Electoral Vote, as shown in the following table:
In this scenario, the election would have been decided by Gary Johnson. How does that sound, Libertarians? Stein and McMullin would have received one Electoral Vote each, due to their strengths in California and Utah respectively. It’s clear that under this methodology coalition is more encouraged than under the “Winner Takes All” current system.
The numbers in the tables above, however, are still understating the potential success of third parties. Voting for third parties is discouraged today (“do not waste your vote”), and it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that third parties would be much more significant and evolved under different election rules.
There are no strong third parties in the country: There is not even interest… Libertarians? Socialists? How much do you really know about the minor candidates, what they stand for, who they represent, and how they are selected? Did you ever hear of Darren Castle?
Verdict: Not a valid point. The Electoral College crushes third parties, thereby drowning democracy’s progress. Under the current system, other main stream minority voices are shut down. The most egregious cases in the 2016 election are the 4,685,047 Texans voting for Hillary Clinton, and the 4,483,810 Californians voting for Donald Trump. That’s over 9.1 million votes in just 2 states worth a grand total of zero Electoral Votes.
#3- “The Electoral College system makes harder to steal elections”
Key Presidential races have been decided by less than 1,000 votes: As we learned in Florida in 2000, a Presidential election can be decided by 537 votes under the Electoral College system. This is typically lower than a fraction of the election’s day turnout in just one polling location of a small town. Let’s compare this small margin with the popular vote. Since 1876, the narrowest margin has been 543,895, precisely in favor of Gore in his “defeat” to George Bush.
Vote suppression at the State level is real: in 2000, Katherine Harris was Florida’s Secretary of State. Her actions before and during the elections are controversial and well covered by journalists inside and outside of the United States. In particular, the use of the privately-owned DBT Online company resulted, in all likelihood, in the wrong purging of a number between 40,000 and 66,000 voters, based on the “close match” of their names with names in the official list of felons. It has been widely reported that DBT Online targeted minorities and Democratic voters. In 2016, some States reduced voting services like early voting period and opening hours for registration offices. Wikipedia offers a full article about voter suppression in the United States: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voter_suppression_in_the_United_States. A popular vote system would discourage these actions since the impact in a national count would be minimal.
Verdict: Not a valid point. Election fraud and vote suppression have been part of our recent history. Can elections be stolen under the popular vote? Of course. But tampering with a margin of millions of votes is an operation of a completely different scale.
#4- The weaker arguments
“The Founders had no intention of creating a pure majority-rule democracy”
The Electoral College was adopted in 1787, and used for the first time in the 1788-89 election. Some interesting facts about this first election:
- George Washington ran unopposed, receiving 100% of the 43,782 votes. Okay, let’s digest what I just said slowly. George Washington ran unopposed. He received 100% of the votes. 43,782 votes were cast…
- There was popular vote in 6 States only.
- 3 States did not participate.
All right, let’s accept that the first election is not representative of the methodology. It was just a pilot. Why don’t we give a look at the second election, in 1792?
- George Washington ran unopposed, receiving 100% of the 28,579 votes.
- Only 2 States cast popular votes
- You got the point
In 1796, a full 8 years into this experiment, the popular vote was still limited to a minority of electoral districts. I’m bringing up history because the type of democracy that the founding fathers had in mind in the times of the whiskey rebellion is now anachronistic. After all, it was a different country, under different circumstances, and at a different point of history.
“Pure democracies do not work”
Instead, the Electoral College has given us: segregation back to the States of the South (1876); the most unqualified President in history (2000); and an elected President that is not only unqualified, but also averse to learning and marred by conflicts of interest (2016). We have the Electoral College to thank for the Compromise of 1877, the invasion of Iraq, and the economic debacle of the Bush years, among others.
“Swing states change- California voted safely Republican as recent as 1988; Texas used to be Democrat; George Bush Jr. flipped West Virginia”
All true statements, but so what? Do we need to wait until our State is politically divided to be heard at the national scale?
In my next column I will address the top reasons why the Electoral College needs to be eliminated as soon as possible. Let me know if you like what you’re reading!