Why do we have the Electoral College?

We have had but one new constitutional amendment since 1971.


Click the map to create your own at 270toWin.com

Julie, who I known for a number of years, asked:
Do you think the US will ever get rid of the electoral college and go to something different? Why is it still done this way?

The second question is easier than the first, so let’s start with that. The original reason for the EC, like so much of the Constitution, was a compromise. As this article shows, “One idea was to have the Congress choose the president.” But that was rejected, for good reason. Even then, they didn’t trust Congress to do the right thing. Also, many felt that “arrangement would upset the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.”

Another thought was “to have the State legislatures select the president.” This idea, too, was wisely rejected out of fear that “a president so beholden to the State legislatures might permit them to erode federal authority and thus undermine the whole idea of a federation.” As you may know, the state legislatures used to pick US Senators in their states until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, and there are some folks that want to return to the old system; it won’t happen.

Naturally, electing President elected by a direct popular vote was considered but ultimately rejected. It was “not because the Framers of the Constitution doubted public intelligence,” though many have suggested that. Rather, the Founders “feared that without sufficient information about candidates from outside their State, people would naturally vote for a ‘favorite son’ from their own State or region.” You may laugh, given the overwhelming information now available, but 18th century Internet was the local newspapers and pamphlets.

“At worst, no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country. At best, the choice of president would always be decided by the largest, most populous States with little regard for the smaller ones.” Four of the first five Presidents were from Virginia, one of the largest states of the day.

Finally, they came up with the College of Electors to choose the President. “The original idea was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of the origin or political party.” The intent has been largely altered by the law requiring electors to vote for the candidate with the most votes in their states. Read this article from the Federalist (not to be confused with Federalist Papers), titled, “The Electoral College Still Makes Sense Because We’re Not A Democracy.”

As for the problem of “Will it change?” the answer is maybe. On one hand, we have had but one new constitutional amendment since 1971, when the 26th Amendment allowed 18-year olds to vote. The 27th Amendment, which was initiated in 1789 but not ratified until 1992: “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” So it’s difficult to change the Constitution.

The recent technological attacks against the United States have pointed out the vulnerabilities of our electoral process, with a number of states with no paper backup. I think this issue needs to be addressed very soon because, in the case of a close election, it’ll make EC reform easier to accept.

There are groups that support the popular vote initiative. National Popular Vote is keeping track of the progress of bills in the various state legislatures. Check out their YouTube videos. If you want this amendment to be in effect in 2020, you and your friends need to be bugging your members of Congress AND your state legislators. NOW.
The election will NOT be ‘rigged’

EDIT: While it IS true we don’t need a Constitutional amendment to “fix” the Electoral College, we also didn’t NEED one to allow states to allow women to vote. States were doing this on their own. I find amendment, rather than laws that can be more easily changed more reassuring.


Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

11 thoughts on “Why do we have the Electoral College?”

  1. The National Popular Vote bill is enacted by state legislatures.

    By 2020, the bill could guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill was approved this year by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Pure democracy is a form of government in which people vote on all policy initiatives directly.

    Popular election of the chief executive does not determine whether a government is a republic or democracy.


  2. As you know, I’ve been talking about this screwed-up system for years, so it’s not for nothing that I say that “National Popular Vote” proposal is just the current system with a prettier dress on. Everything their site lists as a problem with the current system would also be true for their proposal.

    The proponents ignore the stark reality of how the USA is structured: Candidates would campaign in the largest media markets—the Northeast, the West Coast, Chicago, and a few other markets here and there. That’s because there simply isn’t enough money to campaign in every single state, so candidates will go where their appearance can have the biggest media impact. And, that mainly means the Northeast, where all the media companies are based.

    It’s also more than a little icky for them to suggest as a reason to back their proposal the amount of campaign money spent in a very few states, as if money was the ONLY thing that mattered, not electing a president in a better way. That’s especially true because, as I just said, that money won’t magically be spread around if they were successful.

    Naturally, I DO have an alternative: States should adopt the Alternative Vote for selecting Electoral Votes. In some states, nothing would change, but in many there would be Electoral Votes allocated to both candidates and even third party candidates because the incentive to vote for “the lesser of two evils” would be gone and people could vote their convictions certain it would not accidentally elect the candidate they despise. Over time, it could even help healthy and genuine third parties emerge, though AV does tend to favour two-party systems.

    This would also not take a Constitutional Amendment—state legislatures can enact the change—and it also prevents legislatures from playing partisan games by gerrymandering (the fatal problem with awarding electors by Congressional District).

    There’s also a Constitutional Amendment I’d like to see, one requiring states to use a non-partisan commission to draw Congressional District boundaries and to outright and explicitly forbid them to use anything other than population data—NO voting history or party affiliation data could be used to draw the boundaries. This is the only way to end gerrymandering of Congressional Districts—which is why it probably could never be introduced, let alone ratified.

    My bottom line is that the USA needs a system to ensure that every vote counts, one that ensures that as few Electoral Votes as possible are taken for granted. Other than that, Abolish the Electoral College altogether. But National Popular Vote does neither.

  3. The main media at the moment, TV, costs much more per impression in big cities than in smaller towns and rural area. Candidates get more bang for the buck in smaller towns and rural areas.

    In the 2012 campaign, “Much of the heaviest spending has not been in big cities with large and expensive media markets, but in small and medium-size metropolitan areas in states with little individual weight in the Electoral College: Cedar Rapids and Des Moines in Iowa (6 votes); Colorado Springs and Grand Junction in Colorado (9 votes); Norfolk and Richmond in Virginia (13 votes). Since the beginning of April, four-fifths of the ads that favored or opposed a presidential candidate have been in television markets of modest size.”

  4. A successful nationwide presidential campaign, with every voter equal, would be run the way presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, under the state-by-state winner-take-all methods. The big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami do not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida.

    In Iowa, Ohio, Florida, and Virginia (the four states that accounted for over two-thirds of all general-election activity in the 2012 presidential election) rural areas, suburbs, exurbs, and cities all received attention—roughly in proportion to their population.

    Iowa has four congressional districts (each, of course, with equal population). The presidential candidates campaigned approximately equally in each part of the state in the 2012 presidential election.

    The itineraries of presidential candidates in battleground states (and their allocation of other campaign resources in battleground states) reflect the political reality that every gubernatorial or senatorial candidate knows. When and where every voter is equal, a campaign of polling, visiting, advertising, and organizing must be run everywhere.

    With National Popular Vote, when every voter is equal, everywhere, it makes sense for presidential candidates to try and elevate their votes where they are and aren’t so well liked. But, under the state-by-state winner-take-all laws, it makes no sense for a Democrat to try and do that in Vermont or Wyoming, or for a Republican to try it in Wyoming or Vermont.

  5. Presidential candidates currently do everything within their power to raise as much money as they possibly can from donors throughout the country. They then allocate their time and the money that they raise nationally to places where it will do the most good toward their goal of winning the election.

    Money doesn’t grow on trees. The fact that candidates would spend their money more broadly (that is, in all 50 states and DC) would not, in itself, loosen up the wallet of a single donor anywhere in the country. Candidates will continue to try to raise as much money as economic considerations permit. Economic considerations by donors determines how much money will be available, not the existence of an increases number of places where the money might be spent.

    Presidential candidates concentrate their attention on only a handful of closely divided “battleground” states and their voters. There is no incentive for them to bother to care about the majority of states where they are hopelessly behind or safely ahead to win. 10 of the original 13 states are ignored now. Four out of five Americans were ignored in the 2012 presidential election. After being nominated, Obama visited just eight closely divided battleground states, and Romney visited only 10. These 10 states accounted for 98% of the $940 million spent on campaign advertising. They decided the election. That’s precisely what they should do in order to get elected with the current system, because the voters of 38+ states simply don’t matter. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or care about the concerns of voters in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. Over 85 million voters, more than 200 million Americans, are ignored.

    If every voter mattered throughout the United States, as it would under a national popular vote, candidates would reallocate their time and the money they raise.

  6. Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

    With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of three-quarters of all Americans is now finished for the presidential election

    Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    “Battleground” states receive 7% more presidentially controlled grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.

    Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a “safe” state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a “swing” state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida’s shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, steel tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states – like water issues in the west.

    The interests of battleground states shape innumerable government policies, including, for example, steel quotas imposed by the free-trade president, George W. Bush, from the free-trade party.

    Parochial local considerations of battleground states preoccupy presidential candidates as well as sitting Presidents (contemplating their own reelection or the ascension of their preferred successor).

    Even travel by sitting Presidents and Cabinet members in non-election years is skewed to battleground states

  7. I ABSOLUTELY agree with the non-partisan Congressional lines. It was because of the lack of same that I balk at the ME and NE allocation of EV.
    I’m not entirely convinced about the NPV people either.
    I’ve been long a fan of instant runoff voting, maybe at a fair Congressional level, which would give 3rd and 4th parties a chance. It’d be a bit more European for Americans’ taste.

  8. The National Popular Vote bill ensures that every vote counts equally, and no Electoral Votes are taken for granted.

    It ensures that every voter is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in presidential elections in each state.

    And all votes, beyond the one now needed to get the most votes in the state, would matter to candidates.

    Under National Popular Vote, every voter, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would matter in the state counts and national count.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

  9. The National Popular Vote bill has been endorsed by organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, FairVote, Sierra Club, NAACP, National Black Caucus of State Legislators, ACLU, the National Latino Congreso, Asian American Action Fund, DEMOS, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Public Citizen, U.S. PIRG, and the Brennan Center for Justice.

  10. Of course, those folks in Ohio are SICK of seeing those ads. I’d be THRILLED to leave them off MY TV.

    U.S. Constitution
    Article II
    Section 1.

    The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his office during the term of four years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same term, be elected, as follows:

    Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

  11. As an outsider who sometimes scratches his head about how the US system works I found this post really helpful and informative.

    I still don’t know enough to comment on what changes should or shouldn’t be made, but the simple majority or rule of the mob argument struck a chord following the Brexit referendum in the UK. It is all but impossible for most people to reach a yes or no decision on complex issues, especially if no-one knows what the detailed implications of that decision entail. We cannot possibly know everything about everything even if we could be bothered to find out. But we have real lives to get on with which is why we pay governments to do the worrying on our behalf whether we agree with the politics or not.

    The real problem surely is the increasing polarisation in politics, both in the politicians themselves and the public at large. No system change will address this.

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