A few people have mentioned to me that I should blog about the electoral college. It’s been intimated to me that I have a lot to say on the subject, and that my thoughts are worth sharing with the world. I have my doubts about that, but here goes.
Since November, a lot of folks have been wondering what the hell is up with the electoral college, including a number of my friends from around the globe. It’s an odd aberration for electing a nation’s top leader, to be sure; most countries just hold a popular vote and have done with it.
The DC Comics Origin Story for the electoral college is an interesting one. Whether its inception came from James Madison seeking to protect Southern states’ interests in the debate over slavery, or from Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers warning against a popular demagogue, the very concept of an electoral college seems anti-democratic. Giving power to a select few individuals based on the assumption that the general electorate cannot be trusted with the decision.
I won’t bother with the history lesson; it’s been done to death, and almost everyone talking about the paranoid or tragic origins of this weird institution has an agenda to promote. The truth is, it doesn’t matter why the electoral college was created (not least because it was created more than two centuries ago in a very different kind of American government). What matters is how the electoral college functions now, today, with modern American government.
The first issue with the electoral college is representation. Each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to that state’s representation in the federal government: two for the state’s senators, and then a number of additional votes based on the state’s population.
This raises the first of several problems with the electoral college: a state with only 600,000 people (like Wyoming) has fully three times the number of electors that it’s supposed to have, while a state with more than 37 million people (like California) has roughly 15% fewer electors than what would be representative of its population.
In fact, this disparity affects every single state in the union. Sixteen states have electoral representation that is less than 100% of what it should be, while the remaining thirty-four states have more than 100% representation. A tax-paying citizen living in Texas, in other words, is treated by the electoral college as being just slightly more than one-fourth a Wyomingite, or .27. To put that in historical perspective, the freed slaves immediately following the Civil War were counted as three-fifths of a white person each, or .6.
There’s an idea floating around the internet that if we eliminated the Electoral College completely, Urban America would outvote Rural America in every election, thus completely marginalizing Rural America’s interests. This, interestingly enough, was exactly the argument put forth by James Madison, although he was looking out for slave-owners rather than farmers.
The result of the electoral college, however, is hardly any sunnier. We see instead a system that triples the voting power of predominately rural states and marginalizes the interests of Urban America. Based solely on population and electoral votes, the more populous states lose an estimated 24 million votes every time we vote for president.
tl;dr – A Texan is worth .27 Wyomingites. More populous states collectively lose 24 million votes to the electoral college every four years due to underrepresentation.
Winner Takes All
That’s just the apportionment, though. Assume we could fix that by giving each state a number of electors that more closely matches its population. That would give California 199 electoral votes to Wyoming’s 3, and give us an electoral college of more than a thousand electors, making our elections much less easy to predict and forcing Nate Silver to find a new domain name.
The second problem with the electoral college is the system of Winner-Takes-All that 49 out of 51 US territories use to select their electoral votes.
Winner-Takes-All means that, for example, if a state has 100 electoral votes, and one candidate gets 51% of the votes in that state, that candidate gets to take all 100 electoral votes from that state, even though 49% of the state voted for someone else.
Two states (Maine and Nebraska) skirt this problem by dividing up their electors based on congressional districts, with the two senatorial electors going to the state’s popular vote winner. (There are problems with that system as well; more on that in a moment.)
In practice, that means that in Winner-Takes-All states, any vote over the single vote required to create a majority or plurality for one candidate is completely ignored when it comes to deciding the presidency. Your state has 50 million people, and the other candidate got 25,000,001 votes? Sorry, the other 24,999,999 people don’t count.
In our most recent election (based on available vote totals from late November), the Winner-Takes-All system caused nearly 18 million votes to be ignored.
The Winner-Takes-All system also creates a bizarre voting economy across state lines where people are only willing to vote for third-party candidates if they’re certain it won’t throw their state to their least-preferred candidate.
tl;dr – Winner-Takes-All states collectively caused nearly 18 million votes in 2016 to go uncounted for purposes of deciding the presidential election.
Every four years we pretend we’re electing the president. And every four years we have to remind ourselves, or be reminded, that no, our votes aren’t choosing the president; our votes are choosing electors who will convene in December to choose the president for us.
This pretense has at least two effects, neither of which is pleasant.
The first is that occasionally (twice in the last two decades), a candidate might win the electoral college but not the popular vote. This should be viewed as a profound failure of democracy, that the will of the people is flatly ignored in favor of a centuries-old institution.
The second effect, which my friends on the left are clinging to like a life preserver, is that the pledged electors for each candidate are under no constitutional obligation to vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged. This means that Democrats (and some Republicans) are actively campaigning for the will of the people to be ignored.
Neither of these effects is pleasant; they represent a failure of this country to effectively communicate its status as a representative democracy, and a failure of the electoral college to effectively represent the country.
The electoral college is, by design or by accident, undemocratic. Either the election was designed to serve as a referendum, to advise the electoral college in the selection of a president but not compel them towards any one candidate–or it was designed as an unpleasant workaround to the needs of a technologically primitive nation, and then exploited to preserve the balance of power between a pair of monolithic parties.
tl;dr – The electoral college is, by design or by happenstance, a profound failure of democracy, since its representatives are under no compulsion to elect the candidate chosen by the people, and in some cases may feel compelled to elect the candidate who was least preferred (out of the top two choices).
A Better Way
It doesn’t have to be like this. No other democratic country in the world uses this bizarre system of leader-selection. It’s long past time for something better. Here is what I would propose.
Step 1: Abolish the electoral college altogether.
It’s an antiquated system and we don’t need it. We have 350 million people in this country, most of whom are informed enough to vote. We count every vote in every election; eliminating the electoral college would simplify the voting process.
Shifting to a straight national vote would also enable voting blocs to speak collectively across state lines, instead of squeaking out their needs from pockets within deeply red or deeply blue states. 18% of the United States lives in rural areas, and those areas are spread out across dozens of states. Let that 18% speak all at once, and you’ll see a much more compelling voice that’s finally worth listening to–and it won’t be at the expense of urban voters.
Step 2: Institute ranked ballots for the president.
With ranked ballots, voters rank their first, second, third, etc. choices for the office of the president. Once all the votes are tallied, if no candidate has a majority of the votes, the bottom-ranked candidate (lowest-ranked on the most ballots) is removed and the votes are counted again, and so on until one candidate has a majority.
Among other things, this would ensure that no candidate enters office in January without a majority of the country’s support–even if the candidate who wins was no one’s first choice.
This would also enable voters to support third-party candidates without fear of tossing the election to their least-preferred candidate in the process. We would eliminate accusations of “spoiler candidates” altogether, and force candidates to speak to a variety of constituents, ensuring that no one’s voice would go unheard.
Step 3: Build in time for election audits.
With increased importance placed on the popular vote, there would naturally be an increased need for recounts and election audits, and we need to account for that.
Election results shouldn’t be certified until they have been audited and checked for errors. Institute a cut-off for requesting hand recounts (and budget for those recounts), and once the results have been certified, no one can legally dispute them.
It means we wouldn’t find out who our next president is until a few weeks later than election night. And that’s okay. We deserve to be a little more patient with the most powerful elected official in the world.
But that’s it. Three “simple” steps to improving our democracy and bringing us closer to a more perfect union.
This solution doesn’t give us an out if we choose to elect a popular demagogue. But to be honest, I don’t think Hamilton really worried about demagogues, so much as he was speaking to the fears of others. History has shown us that those fears are largely unfounded.