Why We Need to Revise the Electoral College. Now.
Copyright © 2012-2019 Henry J. Sage

For years I have been telling my American history students that the Electoral College is an anachronism that needs to be either abandoned or revised. Created at a time when a republic and a democracy were not the same thing, the Electoral College has not only outlived its usefulness, it is an affront to the democratic process for three clear reasons.

For starters, the Electoral College does not mean that the candidate who gets the most votes will win. That has happened at least twice in our history, perhaps more often. Many people believe that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, but the election was so close as to be a statistical tie. (The margin of error wasgreater than Gore’s apparent victory of 100,000 votes.) The same thing occurred in 1960, when some people thought that Nixon had actually defeated Kennedy, who squeaked by (“with a little help from his friends”—as Chicago’s Mayor Daley put it) by 0.2% and about 120,000 votes. And the Harrison-Cleveland result in 1888 also had Cleveland winning the popular vote but losing the election, though voting in that era was so tainted by corruption (“Vote early and often!”) that it is not clear who really won. The same was true with the Hayes-Tilden election in 1877.

Those close calls have not caused much of an uproar solely because they were so close. Under the winner-take-all electoral vote circumstance, however, which obtains in almost every state, it is not that difficult for the will of the people to be thwarted. As an exercise, following the election of 1996 my students and I examined the record in order to determine how many votes it would have taken to turn the result around. In that election approximately 100 million votes were cast, so each million votes represented about 1% of the total. In the election President Clinton received about 49 million votes to Dole's 41 million. By reassigning a mere 1 million votes in larger states where the popular vote was closest, students moved those key states from Bill Clinton to Bob Dole. If that had in fact occurred, President Clinton, with 48% of the vote, would have lost to Senator Dole, with 42% of the vote.

Could that happen? Yes. Is it likely? No. But why should it even be possible? Had the Dole campaign thrown a maximum effort into those key states, perhaps using resources from “already lost” states, the disparity between popular and electoral votes might have been even greater. True, the national media might have picked up on such a tactic, and it could have backfired, but who is to know that for sure? And how likely is an outcome of that sort to occur?

Second. Under the winner-take-all system, some votes really don’t count. Much. In states where polls indicate a wide spread between candidates, voters can fairly conclude that for all practical purposes, their vote is meaningless in the presidential race. Sure, they also have to vote for Representatives and perhaps Senators and local officials, but if poll results are in fact wide apart, those outcomes may also be predetermined. Thus Republicans in heavily Democratic states and Democrats in heavily Republican states don’t have to think often or long about how much their vote is really going to count. The uproar caused when the national media issued predictions for the outcome of presidential elections before the polls were closed in the westernmost states suggested that once the presidential election was decided, voters opted to stay home, since they cared less about senatorial, congressional or local elections. If that is true, isn’t the same thing true for voters who realize that their candidate for president is either a sure winner or a sure loser in an upcoming election?

But: If the electoral college system were made proportional to the popular vote withion each state, then every vote would count. Why? Because no poll could predict exactly where the line would be drawn that divided electoral votes between (or perhaps among) candidates. The closer the election nationally, the more critical every vote would become, for even in a heavily Republican or Democratic state, getting one or two more electoral votes could make the difference overall. Every vote in every state would indeed be important. Under the current system, if a candidate gets 50.5% of the California vote, he or she gets all 55 electoral votes, more than 20% of what is needed to win (270). Looked at another way, any candidate who wins the electoral vote in the 11 largest states (in 2008) would win the election. He or she could lose the remaining 40 states (DC counts as a state in presidential elections) by large popular vote margins and narrowly win the big states, which could mean a victory over a candidate with fewer electoral votes but far more popular votes. The alternative result concocted by my students in 1996 election showed that a candidate could theoretically win with less than 20% of the popular vote. Such an outcome is completely unlikely, to be sure; but why should it even be possible? Why should system exist that allows even the mathematical possibility of such a travesty, no matter how unlikely it may be in reality? (Note that in most elections only about 50-60% of the people actually vote, which means that someone could be elected by less than 15% of the people.

Another issue: Suppose nobody wins in the Electoral College? It’s not even necessary that a third party candidate garner a few states: all it takes is a tie. Then the election goes to the House of Representatives, and what an uproar that would cause. Why? Because each state gets one vote. That’s right: the 35 million people in California suddenly have no more weight than the less than about half a million people in Wyoming. And what about the District of Columbia? The 23rd Amendment notwithstanding, the District of Columbia is not a state. Here’s the language in the Constitution:

The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;—the person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice.

That has occurred twice, in 1800 and 1824, and in both cases problems arose. First, in 1800 it took, amazingly, 37 ballots for Thomas Jefferson to be elected over Aaron Burr, who was not even running for President. The 12th Amendment fixed that part. But in 1824, when the election again went into the House, the result was the famous “corrupt bargain” of 1824 in which Henry Clay apparently swung the election from Andrew Jackson to John Quincy Adams in return for the favor of being named Secretary of State, at that time an almost sure route to the White House. (Every previous President except Washington had held that office.) Since 1824, nothing has changed constitutionally to alter that requirement.

If it goes to the House—and that will surely happen sooner or later—what happens in a state where the vote is very close, and there are, say, an equal number of Congressmen from each party. Unless someone switches sides, that state is deadlocked (as happened in 1800—thus 37 ballots.) Or suppose the state goes narrowly Republican but Democratic Congressmen outnumber Republicans? What prevails? The people’s will, or party loyalty? In 1992 when it looked as though Ross Perot might carry two large states—Florida and Texas—there was a lot of talk about revising the Electoral College. But then Perot shot himself in the foot by dropping out and then back in, and the issue died.

When we have finished examining details of the Electoral College, students often express amazement that the situation has been allowed to go on for so long. “Why?” they ask, don’t they do something about it?” The answer is that until the political powers that be, ultimately the people, realize how unfair the system is, nothing is likely to change. That is, nothing is likely to occur until a crisis occurs.

It is a given that in any national election, the parties will put most of their effort into the states were the balance in the electorate is most precarious. In other words, neither Republicans nor Democrats are likely to expend large efforts or large amounts of money in states where the outcome is all but a foregone conclusion. That tendency may be alleviated by the fact that in races for the House of Representatives, Senate or governor, the situation may differ from the presidential situation, so that the parties will need to campaign for their other candidates in that state. We are talking, however, about the Electoral College, which applies only to the candidates for President and Vice President.

The last fly in the ointment is, of course, that fact that electors are not even legally required to follow the people’s mandate, and that has also occurred a few times. Suppose it happened in a close election and swung the result from one party to the other?

How can all this be fixed? The answer is simple: Amend the electoral college system so that in each state electoral votes will be decided proportionately to the popular vote in that state. California now has 55 electoral votes, a huge chunk of what is needed to achieve the 270 necessary for election. If a candidate in California wins the election by 1% of the vote, he or she gets all 55 electoral votes. If the vote in electoral votes were divided proportionately in that situation, each candidate would get 27 or 28 votes—but it would be proportionate. If that obtained in every state, then every would count for something important—one electoral vote.

Some have called for amending the Constitution to get rid of the electoral college. But amending the Contitution requires ratification by three quarter of the states. History shows that to be a very difficult task. The legislatures in a number of states are certainly content with the status quo.

Furthermore, if electoral votes were awarded proportionately, the chances of a gross distortion between the popular vote and electoral vote would be virtually impossible. True, some rounding off would have to take place, and there might be individual electoral votes which could be contested, but across the 51 voting jurisdictions those things would even out. Because Americans would feel that every vote is important, they would be encouraged to participate in the polls more widely than they do now.

When the Constitution is amended to correct the electoral College—and it must happen sooner later—a provision should be included that if the election is thrown into the House of Representatives, each representative shall get one vote, including the otherwise non-voting delegate from the District of Columbia.

“When,” my students always ask, “will they fix this?” My answer used to be, “The next time it comes out wrong.” Since the election of 2000 was so close, maybe it wasn’t wrong—we’ll never know for sure. But it will happen.

Update: In the 2016 election Hillery Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. You know who won.

Why wait for the crisis? Why not amend or even abolish the Electoral College now and avoid such a crisis in the future? The answer is ultimately up to the American people.

Sage History Home | Resources | Updated October 21, 2019