Graduating from the Electoral College

We all know the states where the 2012 presidential election will be decided. Not New York, which hasn’t voted Republican since 1984, a year when only Minnesota could muster support for Walter Mondale. Not Texas, where you have to stretch back to 1976 to find an election where a Republican victory wasn’t a given. The battlegrounds on which this year’s presidential race will be waged are Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nevada, Florida, and Wisconsin, and if you don’t live there, you can forget about the presidential campaigns giving you an ounce of attention. You’re either a given in the candidate’s electoral college tally, or they know you’re out of their league. Is it unfair? That majority of states who get ignored election after election sure thinks so. So why, after over 200 years, are we still using the Electoral College?

Let’s explain.

Who thought up the Electoral College in the first place?

Blame the founders. If you remember your history lessons from eighth grade, deciding how this new nation would elect presidents and representatives was one of the biggest fights at the 1787 Philadelphia Convention. Southern states weren’t too keen on elections based on pure popular vote, given that a large percentage of their populations consisted of slaves who were denied citizenship. The priggish delegates also doubted the intelligence of those citizens who weren’t fortunate enough to be part of the political aristocracy, a secondary reason for deciding to rely on a college of electors to choose the executive.

So how does it work exactly?

Time to bring out your handy pocket Constitution. Article II, Section 1 has all the goods.

To wit, Clause 2:

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.

And Clause 4:

The Congress may determine the Time of choosing the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

A translation for those of us who don’t speak the language of the white-wigged: All the states get Electoral College votes equal to the number of representatives they have in Congress—at a minimum, three. States get to decide how to divvy up their votes. All except Maine and Nebraska use a winner-take-all model now, which means whichever candidate gets the highest vote tally gets all the Electoral College votes. In the original incarnation of the Electoral College system, each elector got two votes—one to cast for a presidential candidate, one for a vice-presidential candidate. The first-place finisher became president, and the second-place finisher became vice president, which is why our second president, John Adams, and his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, were of such different political stripes.

So that’s the same system we have today?

Not exactly. The original version of the Electoral College only lasted four presidential election cycles, after which it was served a quick and painful death at the hand of political parties. The founders—who may have been sneaking sips of the ol’ Aaron Sorkin Kool-Aid—still retained their idealistic notions of governance despite all those Articles of Confederation and Constitutional Convention kerfuffles. That meant that they hoped political parties, and all the acrimony and complexity that follows in their wake, would not tangle up the political system too quickly. That turned out to be a tad too optimistic, as our political parties have become such a hallmark of American politics that they deserve their own Ken Burns documentary. In 1800, when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr ran under the Democratic-Republican banner and John Adams and his rather more forgettable and non-duel-starting running mate ran as Federalists, the majority of the electors devoted one vote to Jefferson and one vote to Burr, leading the presidential candidate to tie with his vice-presidential pick. The election then went to the House of Representatives, which elected Jefferson, but Burr was understandably a bit grouchy since the presidency seemed to be within his grasp for a few moments.

Politicians realized that there was a potentially fatal flaw with their beloved Constitution. The 12th Amendment—ratified in 1804—made it so that electors had to cast distinct ballots for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates, ensuring no Burr-like scenario would happen again.

So our election system’s been around for more than 200 years! Has anyone tried to get rid of it?

If you had a nickel for every time someone has started a group to abolish the Electoral College, you couldn’t start a super PAC or anything, but you could enter a drawing to have dinner with Barack and George Clooney at the least. People—mostly from those states that have voted reliably blue or red for decades—have been grumbling for years about the Electoral College.

We came this close to adopting a runoff presidential election (imagine a system like the French presidential election, where you start off with a football team-sized field of candidates that is narrowed down through several turns of voting until BOOM, president) instead of using the Electoral College in 1969, when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey by 110 electoral votes—but only collected 1 percent more of the popular vote. However, Southern and small-state senators eventually quashed the proposal with a filibuster.

Electoral College grumbling reignited after 2000, when George W. Bush became president despite Al Gore winning half a million more votes. The National Popular Vote movement has been at the forefront of pushing for electoral reform, and their most successful effort so far has been the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Professors started putting together proposals for national popular vote legislation in 2001, and in 2007 the bills were introduced in 42 states. Since amending the Constitution is an arduous and unlikely avenue for reforming anything, the only other option is for states to change how they allocate their Electoral College votes, since the Constitution puts the logistics of the Electoral College and most other electoral policy in their hands. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact posits that the involved states allocate their Electoral College votes on a national winner-take-all basis, which amounts to basically using the Electoral College’s power to elect presidents based on national popular vote. For example, if this compact were in effect in 2004, New York’s electoral votes would have gone to Bush, even though the state always roots for blue. The compact would only go into effect if the law passes in enough states by the July 20 before a presidential vote—until it has a majority of the electoral votes, the compact remains dormant. If the day ever came where the Electoral College ceased to exist, so would the compact.

Sounds pretty legit. Will it work?

I wouldn’t be too optimistic given our country’s languorous pace at changing anything. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is gaining members, though. Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, and the District of Columbia have all passed the bill in their state legislatures. If the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is going to go anywhere, they need the support of some electoral heavyweight states like California and New York—which are still a bit skeptical about tossing out the Electoral College—as well as some reliably Republican states, too. However, the Electoral College works to the advantage of Republican geography. Those same states that were afraid of drowning in a popular vote—small and sparsely populated states—during the Philadelphia Convention vote consistently Republican today.

The public seems ready to alter our centuries-old method of electing the president. Gallup found in 2004 that 61 percent of Americans approve of amending the Constitution to elect the president by popular vote.

As presidential election gear-churning grows more visible thanks to the perpetual Web and cable television coverage, it gets easy to see how insanely invested both parties are in swaying a handful of states, making the whole affair seem somewhat less democratic to everyone else. Just last week, The New York Times hosted a Sunday dialogue that highlighted that many readers have conflicted feelings about the Electoral College. The whisperings of a revolution are there.

Would getting rid of the Electoral College actually change electoral results?

If you look at results, getting rid of the Electoral College doesn’t change much. Only three elections—1876, 1888, and 2000—would have resulted in a different president had the elections been conducted by popular vote alone.

But the process of presidential elections could change significantly if presidents didn’t have to be strategic about where their votes come from, or at least had to employ a different strategy of how to go about getting votes. Right now, presidential candidates—the only representatives elected to stand for the entire nation—campaign more like regional candidates, favoring issues that play well in Ohio to the detriment of issues that deserve attention on the coasts. With a national popular vote system, instead of trying to placate only the hard-to-woo voters on the fringes of their party and the opposing party, candidates could take the revolutionary step of campaigning in urban areas where an extremely large number of untapped—and ignored and disenfranchised voters—have been up for grabs for decades. Only 56.8 percent of the voting-age public cast a ballot in the 2008 election—a race that was defined by its buzzworthiness. That leaves 43.2 percent of the nation up for grabs—and I’m betting you won’t find most of those voters in the swing states where presidential candidates spend all their resources. Swing state New Hampshire, for example, saw 71.7 percent of its population hit the polls in 2008. In Minnesota, 67.6 percent of the people voted. Texas, on the other hand, had only 54.1 percent of voters turn out. Having a chance to shake hands with the president, or even be bombarded by political ads, makes a difference.

Comments

Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections. Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don't matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

Kerry won more electoral votes than Bush (21 versus 19) in the 12 least-populous non-battleground states, despite the fact that Bush won 650,421 popular votes compared to Kerry’s 444,115 votes. The reason is that the red states are redder than the blue states are blue. If the boundaries of the 13 least-populous states had been drawn recently, there would be accusations that they were a Democratic gerrymander.

Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group. Support in smaller states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK -70%, DC -76%, DE --75%, ID -77%, ME - 77%, MT- 72%, NE - 74%, NH--69%, NE - 72%, NM - 76%, RI - 74%, SD- 71%, UT- 70%, VT - 75%, WV- 81%, and WY- 69%.

In the lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in nine state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 3 jurisdictions.

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers, in 21 small, medium-small, medium, and large population states, including one house in Arkansas(6), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), The District of Columbia, Maine (4), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Mexico (5), New York (29), North Carolina (15), and Oregon (7), and both houses in California (55), Colorado (9), Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island (4), Vermont, and Washington.

On June 7, 2011, the Republican-controlled New York Senate passed the National Popular Vote bill (S4208 / AB 489) by a 47–13 margin, with Republicans favoring the bill by 21–11 and Democrats favoring it by 26–2. Republicans endorsed by the Conservative Party favored the bill 17–7.
The bill passed the New York Senate in 2010 when the chamber was controlled by Democrats.

The bill has been enacted by the District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (19), New Jersey (14), Maryland (11), California (55), Massachusetts (10), Vermont (3), and Washington (13). These nine jurisdictions have 132 electoral votes -- 49% of the 270 necessary to bring the law into effect.

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The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a shift of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 13 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 6 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore's lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A shift of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

The National Popular Vote bill would change existing state winner-take-all laws that award all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who get the most popular votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), to a system guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes for, and the Presidency to, the candidate getting the most popular votes in the entire United States.

The National Popular Vote bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It ensures that every vote 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.

Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. The candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. That majority of electoral votes guarantees the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC wins the presidency.

National Popular Vote would give a voice to the minority party voters in each state. Now their votes are counted only for the candidate they did not vote for. Now they don't matter to their candidate.

And now votes, beyond the one needed to get the most votes in the state, for winning in a state are wasted and don't matter to candidates. Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

With National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere would be counted equally for, and directly assist, the candidate for whom it was cast.

Candidates would need to care about voters across the nation, not just undecided voters in a handful of swing states. The political reality would be that when every vote is equal, the campaign must be run in every part of the country.

Nate Silver says Obama has the same chance to win WI (86%) as Romney does to win AZ, so if you're going to call WI a swing state, you should also include AZ.

In the National Popular Vote system, if you were the campaign chairperson for one of the parties, where would you look to find your candidates for president and vice-president? And then, what would be your campaign strategy?

The Electoral College was invented by the Holy Roman Empire.

It is not going to happen. There would be winners and losers and the losers would have no reason to agree or cooperate. In addition, think of the problem if the vote was close. It is one thing to recount the ballots in Florida. Imagine having to do the entire country.

Excellent point, Colin. Also, all future candidates would come from the four most populous states, CA, NY, TX, FL.

Why would all future candidates come from the four most populous states, CA, NY, TX, FL?
What supports that?

In terms of recent presidential elections, the 11 largest states include five "red states (Texas, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Georgia) and six "blue" states (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey). The fact is that the big states are just about as closely divided as the rest of the country. For example, among the four largest states, the two largest Republican states (Texas and Florida) generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Bush, while the two largest Democratic states generated a total margin of 2.1 million votes for Kerry.

Among the 11 most populous states in 2004, the highest levels of popular support, hardly overwhelming, were found in the following seven non-battleground states:
* Texas (62% Republican),
* New York (59% Democratic),
* Georgia (58% Republican),
* North Carolina (56% Republican),
* Illinois (55% Democratic),
* California (55% Democratic), and
* New Jersey (53% Democratic).

In addition, the margins generated by the nation's largest states are hardly overwhelming in relation to the 122,000,000 votes cast nationally. Among the 11 most populous states, the highest margins were the following seven non-battleground states:
* Texas -- 1,691,267 Republican
* New York -- 1,192,436 Democratic
* Georgia -- 544,634 Republican
* North Carolina -- 426,778 Republican
* Illinois -- 513,342 Democratic
* California -- 1,023,560 Democratic
* New Jersey -- 211,826 Democratic

To put these numbers in perspective, Oklahoma (7 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 455,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004 -- larger than the margin generated by the 9th and 10th largest states, namely New Jersey and North Carolina (each with 15 electoral votes). Utah (5 electoral votes) alone generated a margin of 385,000 "wasted" votes for Bush in 2004. 8 small western states, with less than a third of California’s population, provided Bush with a bigger margin (1,283,076) than California provided Kerry (1,235,659).

Seriously, what evidence do you have for that? There has never been a Presidential nominee from Florida. The last New Yorker to win the nomination was technically Richard Nixon, his place of residence at the time was a Manhattan apartment, but the last true New Yorker to win the nomination of either party was Dewey in 1948. As for Californians, well there was Hoover, born in Iowa but elected from California; Richard Nixon, the only one born in California; and Ronald Reagan, born in Illinois but elected from California. The last Californian to run for the nomination of his was Pete Wilson with apologies to Fred Karger but no one took that candidacy seriously.

At some point we either all Americans or this idea of Union is really a myth.

Nor are we living in 1800s either. The last few Presidents have ties to multiple states.

Obama born in Hawaii, college in California and New York, worked in Illinois, law school in Massachusetts and then back to Illinois.

George W. Bush born in Connecticut, grew up in Texas, boarding school in Massachusetts, college in Connecticut, back to Texas, then back to Massachusetts for his MBA, a short stint in Alabama, then back to Texas, a year in DC working for his fathers' 1988 campaign and then back to Texas.

Clinton born in Arkansas, educated in DC and Connecticut with a stint abroad, before going back to Arkansas.

George HW Bush born in Massachusetts but has lived in Connecticut, DC/VA, NY and Texas not to mention Beijing. Prior to being elected President in 1988, he has spent the bulk of the previous two decades serving the country in Washington though he always maintained a home in Texas and a summer home in Maine that was given to his parents by the Walker family.

Reagan lived in Illinois, Iowa and California. I'll grant you that Reagan lived in California from 1937 on.

Even Carter who is associated with one state attended some college in Maryland and was stationed in New York and Canada.

Ford born in Nebraska, grew up in Michigan, lived in Connecticut, served in the Navy being stationed in New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, California and the Pacific Theatre.

Where is the evidence that our presidents represent one state?

In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided). Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%,, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

The bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes - 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

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The idea that recounts will be likely and messy with National Popular Vote is distracting.

The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush's lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore's nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the miniscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state-by-state winner-take-all methods.

The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system so frequently creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.

Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

No recount would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 56 previous presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.

The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a "final determination" prior to the meeting of the Electoral College.

I cannot allow democracy to depend on the lack of ambition in actually counting the votes. Counting the votes is a pursuit that is worth the effort. The original intent of the Electoral college was hardly valid, as it ignored a significant segment of the population, by assuming the electorate was too stupid to count. There are also the blatant racism employed by southern states which denied the black residents the voting rights. On these grounds, the Electoral college is invalid as a construct of democracy, and needs to be abolished. The conditions of an illiterate public, and the presence of slaves, no longer exist, so those early excuses are also invalid.

NOTE TO AUTHOR: California has already passed it.

"Only three elections—1876, 1888, and 2000—would have resulted in a different president had the elections been conducted by popular vote alone."

Actually four elections and you're forgetting perhaps the most egregious of them all, the 1824 election when Andrew Jackson won 41 percent of the vote to John Quincy Adams' 31 percent in a four way race that tossed the election into the House where Henry Clay threw his support to Adams.

Samuel Tilden was robbed. I'm still not over that one either. It is curious but in each of the four cases, the more "progressive" or "populist" candidate lost.

National popular vote now. DC statehood now. National election of Senators now. Seriously, the Connecticut Compromise which allots two Senators per state no longer works. As much as I admire Roger Sherman, the idea that California and Wyoming each have two Senators is anti-democratic. The country is no longer a collection of sovereign states but a nation. The Civil War settled that issue. We are the only Presidential system in the world that does not elect any official as a a nation. Technically, we vote for Electors, who are free to vote for whom they please, not for a given candidate.

Two points:

The founding fathers were also concerned that the President has a "majority," which is one of the purposes of the EC. Regardless of you get there, the President will always have a majority of electoral votes and will not have to but together a coalition government. (This is also one of those truisms the Founding Fathers didn't see. If there is only one prize, the organized will be the unorganized every time, whether it's baseball, bowling, business or politics….therefore Parties.)

Secondly, when you look at most of the proposed reforms to the EC, they do not address or change the way a tie is handled. When a reform is submitted by the party who controls the House of Representatives, alway be suspicious.

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