To most of us the Electoral College is so inscrutable and immutable that we don’t grasp how much it is also so undemocratic and inequitable. Now we have just seen it go through its antique antics again.
Under the chairmanship of Vice President Dick Cheney, a joint session of Congress met in the House of Representatives chamber on January 6 to formally dole out the 538 Electoral College votes of the 50 states and the District of Columbia—286 for President George W. Bush and 251 for Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts. That was 15 more electoral votes for the winner than the 271 that made Bush the “accidental president” in 2000, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s blockade of a recount of the popular vote in Florida.
When you think about it—and most of us usually don’t—it all seems pretty obscure. So we asked for help from an expert: Professor George C. Edwards III, a leading scholar on the political inequities in our system and the author of the new book Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America.
One of the country’s leading authorities on the U.S. presidency, Edwards has written dozens of articles and has written or edited 19 books on American politics and public policy-making. He has spoken at more than 150 universities and before other groups in the U.S. and abroad, keynoted numerous national and international conferences, and can often be heard on National Public Radio.
Edwards is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas. He also holds the Jordan Chair in Presidential Studies and has held visiting appointments at the University of London, Peking University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the University of Wisconsin, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In 2005-06 he will hold the Olin Chair in American Politics at Oxford University. He was the founder of, and from 1991-2001 the director of, the Center for Presidential Studies.
Edwards has also applied his scholarship to practical issues of governing, including advising Brazil on its new Constitution, Russia on building a democratic national party system, and Chinese scholars on democracy.
It is difficult to imagine a definition of democracy that does not include equality in voting as a central standard for a democratic process. Because political equality is central to democratic government, we must evaluate any mechanism for selecting the president against it.
In 2000, the presidential candidate who received the most votes lost the election. In 2004, a switch of fewer than 60,000 votes in Ohio from George W. Bush to John Kerry would have elected Kerry, even though Bush would still have had a majority of the national vote and a margin of more than 3 million votes. The Electoral College is a capricious system favoring the votes of some citizens over others, depending solely upon the state in which they live.
All but two states award all their electoral votes to the plurality winner of the state. Nearly 3 million people voted for Al Gore for president in Florida in 2000. Because George W. Bush won 537 more statewide votes than Gore, however, he received all of Florida’s electoral votes; the votes for Gore played no role in the national election.
In multiple-candidate contests (as in 1992, 1996 and 2000), this system may suppress the votes of the majority as well as the minority. In 2000, pluralities rather than majorities determined the allocation of electoral votes in nine states, including Florida. In each case, a minority of voters determined how all of their state’s electoral votes would be cast.
A candidate thus can win some states by very narrow margins, lose other states by large margins, and win the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. The votes for candidates who do not finish first in a state election play no role in the outcome of the election, since they are not aggregated across states. The winner-take-all system takes the electoral votes allocated to a state based on its population and awards them all to the plurality winner of the state. In effect, the system gives the votes of the people who voted against the winner to the winner.
VOTE VALUES VARY—The Constitution allocates electoral votes to each state based on that state’s representation in Congress. Each state receives two electoral votes corresponding to its number of U.S. senators. When states with unequal populations receive similar numbers of electoral votes, states with smaller populations gain a mathematical advantage. Thus, every voter’s ballot does not carry the same weight. The typical citizen of Wyoming has on average four times as much influence in determining an electoral vote for president as the typical citizen of California and twice as much influence as the typical citizen of Texas.
In addition, under the Electoral College third-party candidates like Ralph Nader in 2000 may actually determine the outcome of the election. There is little question that Nader cost Gore the election in 2000. Most Nader voters would have voted for Gore in the absence of a Nader candidacy. Gore lost Florida by 537 votes, while Nader received 97,488 votes in that state. Pat Buchanan and the Libertarian candidate Harry Browne received a total of only 33,899, which were more likely to have otherwise gone to Bush.
Similarly, Gore lost New Hampshire by 7,211 votes while Nader received 22,198 votes. Buchanan and Browne together received 5,372 votes. Gore would have been elected if he had won either state.
THIS HOUSE IS NOT YOUR HOUSE—If no candidate receives a majority of the Electoral College vote, the House of Representatives selects the president. In this selection, every state has one vote. It would be possible for the seven members of the House representing the seven smallest states, with a combined population of about 4.9 million Americans, to have more say in the selection of the president than the 177 members representing the six largest states, with a combined population of 119 million people. The selection of the president by the House is the most egregious violation of democratic principles in American politics.
One net result of these distorting factors is that the candidate who receives the most votes in the country may not win the election, as happened in 1824, 1876, 1888, 1960 (as I demonstrate in my book Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America), and 2000.
The Electoral College distorts the preferences of Americans and thus the results of presidential elections. It violates political equality, favoring some citizens over others, depending solely upon the state in which people cast their votes for president. Can we reconcile such a selection system with the ideal of political equality, one of the most deeply ingrained of democratic principles? We cannot.
CONSENSUS WINNERS?—According to its supporters, one of the primary virtues of the Electoral College is that candidates must obtain concurrent majorities from around the country in order to win. In other words, these advocates argue, by guaranteeing a specific number of electoral votes to each state, the Electoral College forces the winner to pay attention to all regions of the country and to build broad coalitions by winning a wide geographic distribution of states that helps his coalition mirror the nation.
If states did not employ the unit rule by allocating all their electoral votes as a bloc, the argument goes, candidates might appeal to clusters of voters whose votes could be aggregated across states and regions. This could be potentially divisive and lead to discord because the coalition behind a candidate might represent only one part of society.
Electoral College advocates build their case about its virtues on a set of faulty premises. Do candidates try to build broad national coalitions by appealing to voters throughout the nation? Except in a superficial fashion, the candidates of both parties virtually ignore large sections of the country.
For example, in the presidential election of 2000, one of the most competitive elections in history, the Electoral College distorted the political system by providing incentives for candidates to campaign actively in only 17 “battleground” states, and largely to ignore the other 33 states and Washington, D.C. The candidates made few visits and did little or no advertising in the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Deep South, and the Southwest—except for New Mexico. The candidates displayed a similar pattern in 2004.
With a few exceptions, small states were not among the “battleground” states. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how presidential candidates could be less attentive to small states. Under direct election of the president, candidates would be much more attentive to small states. They would have incentives to appeal to all voters, not just those strategically located in swing states.
Do candidates actually win support across regions? Anyone examining the red and blue states on an election-night map knows that candidates tend to win with regional support. John Kerry and Al Gore won the West Coast, the Northeast and the Upper Midwest, while George W. Bush won the South, the Mountain States and the rural Midwest.
Do winning candidates receive majority support across social strata? In 2000, George W. Bush did not win a larger percentage than Al Gore of the votes cast by women, blacks, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, the elderly, the poor, members of labor unions, those with a high-school education or less, those with postgraduate education, Catholics, Jews, liberals, moderates, urbanites, those with less than $50,000 of household income, voters aged 18 to 29 and 60 and older—in addition to those living in the East and West. It is no criticism of the winner, but his vote simply did not represent winning concurrent majorities across the major strata of American society.
Is there a chance that a candidate under direct election could win a plurality of the vote by carrying one big state by a large margin but win no other states? Could a candidate enjoy extraordinary support in a state as diverse as, say, California, and lack substantial support in other areas of the country? Such a scenario is quite farfetched. There is nothing in American history that would lead one to believe that such an outcome is a realistic possibility.
The Electoral College did not prevent class appeals by Democratic candidates such as Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 or Harry Truman in 1948. Nor did it prevent the election of ideologues on the right such as Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. These, and others, were polarizing elections in which differences of opinion among the coalitions supporting the candidates were considerable.
If Al Gore had received 538 more votes in Florida in 2000, he would have been elected president. If Ralph Nader had not been on the ballot in either Florida or New Hampshire in 2000, Gore would have won.
Advocates of the Electoral College are in the position of having to argue that Bush was the proper winner but that if either of these changes had occurred, Gore would have been the proper winner—proper because the Electoral College elected him—even though Bush’s coalition would not have changed by one vote. Such an argument is simply nonsense.
STATES’ INTERESTS—Some argue that the Electoral College balances local and national interests, protecting small states from majoritarian politics. It is not clear what might be protected.
States do not embody coherent, unified interests to protect. Even the smallest state has substantial diversities of interest and opinion within it. Thus, Alaska may have a Democratic governor and two Republican senators, and Montana and North and South Dakota can vote for Republican presidential candidates and then send two liberal Democrats—now minus one, Tom Daschle—to the U.S. Senate.
Nor is there a need for protection. Given the many constraints the Constitution places on the actions that simple majorities can take, the Senate’s extraordinary representation of small states, the power of the Senate filibuster to thwart majorities, and the difficulty of changing these rules, it strains credulity to argue that certain geographically concentrated interests require additional protection from the majoritarian political process.
States with small populations do not have common interests to protect. Instead, they represent a great diversity of core economic interests, including mining, gambling, chemicals, tourism, energy and agriculture, ranging from grain and dairy products to hogs and sheep. Most farmers live in states with large populations, such as California, Texas, Florida and Illinois. It is not surprising that small-state representatives don’t vote as a bloc in Congress or that their citizens don’t vote as a bloc for president. The great political battles of American history have been over ideology and economic interests rather than between small and large states.
Do presidents focus on local interests in building their electoral coalitions? They do not. We have seen that candidates ignore most of the country in their campaigns. In addition, I have shown in my book that candidates do not focus on local interests in the states in which they do campaign.
Nowhere in the vast literature on voting in presidential elections has anyone found that voters choose candidates on the basis of their stands on state and local issues. Indeed, candidates avoid such issues, because they do not want to be seen in the rest of the country as pandering to special local interests. In addition, once elected the president has little to do with local issues. There is no reason and certainly no imperative to campaign on these issues.
Two of the most important architects of the Constitution, James Wilson and James Madison, understood well the diversity of state interests and the protections of minorities embodied in the Constitution. They saw little need to confer additional power to small states through the Electoral College. “Can we forget for whom we are forming a government?” Wilson asked. “Is it for men, or for the imaginary beings called States?” Madison was equally dubious, proclaiming that experience had shown no danger of state interests being harmed and that “the President is to act for the people not for States.”
Congress is designed to be responsive to constituency interests. The president, as Madison pointed out, is to take a broader view. When advocates of the Electoral College express concern that direct election of the president would suppress local interests in favor of the broader national interest, they are supporting a presidency responsive to parochial interests in a system that is already prone to gridlock, and that offers minority interests extraordinary access to policymakers and opportunities to thwart policies they oppose.
The Electoral College violates basic democratic principles and does not offer the country benefits to compensate for this disadvantage. We do not require a runoff between the top two candidates. We elect presidents without majority votes all the time (as in 1992, 1996 and 2000).
What we need to do is to count all the votes and declare the candidate who receives the most votes the winner.