To follow up on my post on the Iowa Senate Democrats’ attempt to make the Iowa voter irrelevant I thought I’d share some background into the Electoral College from David Barton, founder of Wall Builders.

What Led to the Formation of the Electoral College?

During the Constitutional Convention, three proposals were originally discussed by the framers on how the president could be elected. Interestingly, those three proposals were rejected.

The first proposal was to allow Congress to select the president. This idea was rejected for three reasons: (1) rancorous partisanship would be encouraged in the Congress and the hard feelings residual for the losers of the contest would make any legislative progress following the election unlikely; (2) with Congress being such a relatively small body, and with it being assembled in one geographic location, the potential for foreign governments to affect the outcome of the election through bribery and corruption would be increased; and (3) if Congress selected the President, it would be virtually impossibility for the Executive branch to maintain its independence from the Legislative branch.

The second proposal was to allow the State legislatures to select the president. This idea was rejected for fear that the president might become so indebted to the States that he would permit the erosion of federal authority and thus undermine the federal republic.

The third proposal was that the president be elected by national popular vote. This idea was rejected not because the framers distrusted the people but rather because the larger populous States would have much greater influence than the smaller States and therefore the interests of those smaller States could be disregarded or trampled. Additionally, a nationwide election would encourage regionalism since the more populous areas of the country could form coalitions to elect president after president from their own region. With such regional preferentialism, lasting national unity would be nearly impossible.

The framers, dissatisfied with these three initial proposals, referred the issue of the selection of a president to the “Committee of Eleven” for further investigation. That Committee subsequently proposed an indirect election of the president on a State by State basis through a college of electors, a practice which had proved successful in ancient nations.

Why Was The Electoral College Method Chosen?

The electoral college synthesized two important philosophies established in the Constitution: (1) the maintenance of a republican, as opposed to a democratic, form of government (the explicit constitutional provisions on this issue, as well as the specific declarations of the Founders, will be examined later in this paper); and (2) the balancing of power between the smaller and the larger States and between the various diverse regions of the nation (this second point will be examined first).

When establishing our federal government, smaller States like Rhode Island had feared they would have no voice, and therefore no protection, against the more populous States like New York or Massachusetts. Similarly, the sparsely populated agricultural regions feared an inability to protect their interests against the fishing and shipping industries dominant in the more populous coastal States. These concerns on how to preserve individual State voices and diverse regional interests caused the framers to establish a bi-cameral rather than a uni-cameral legislative system.

In that wise plan, one body preserved the will of the majority as determined by population and the other preserved the will of the majority as determined by the States. As Constitution signer James Madison confirmed:

The Constitution is nicely balanced with the federative and popular principles; the Senate are the guardians of the former, and the House of Representatives of the latter; and any attempts to destroy this balance, under whatever specious names or pretences they may be presented, should be watched with a jealous eye.8

Consequently, in the Senate, Delaware has the same power as California with each State having two votes; but in the House, Delaware’s single vote often is completely negated by the fifty-two from California. Because of this different source of strength in each body, the votes in those two bodies on the same piece of legislation may be dramatically different. In such a case, before that legislation may become law there must be some compromise Ñ some yielding of the Senate to the will of the population and some yielding of the House to the will of the States. As James Madison explained, the electoral college wisely synthesized both of these important interests:

As to the eventual voting by States, it has my approbation. The lesser States and some larger States will be generally pleased by that mode. The deputies from the small States argued, and there is some force in their reasoning, that, when the people voted, the large States evidently had the advantage over the rest, and, without varying the mode, the interests of the little States might be neglected or sacrificed. Here is a compromise.9

James Hillhouse (a soldier during the American Revolution and a U. S. Representative and Senator under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison) also affirmed this principle, explaining:

The principle of the Constitution, of election by electors, is certainly preferable to all others…[because] Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York, may combine; they may say to the other [smaller] States, we will not vote for your man…[or] the agricultural will be arrayed against the mercantile; the South against the East; the seaboard against the inland.10

Consequently, under the electoral college system, the smaller States receive a slightly greater voice, proportionally speaking. For example, California is the largest State and its 33 million inhabitants have 54 electors, each of whom represents 614,000 inhabitants. However, Wyoming is the smallest State and its less than one-half million inhabitants are represented by only 3 electors Ñ one for every 160,000 inhabitants. This therefore gives Wyoming slightly more proportional strength. As Uriah Tracy (a Major-General during the Revolution and a U. S. Representative and Senator under Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson) observed during debates on the electoral college:

He [the president] is to be chosen by electors appointed as the State legislatures shall direct, not according to numbers entirely, but adding two electors in each State as representatives of State sovereignty. Thus, Delaware obtains three votes for president, whereas she could have but one in right of numbers [population].11

So, on the one hand, the electoral college tends somewhat to overrepresent voters in smaller States; and no matter how small a State is, it is guaranteed at least 3 electors because, as explained by James Bayard (a U. S. Representative and U. S. Senator under Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison), the electoral college supplied a “means of self protection” to “a small State without resources.”12 In fact, the combined number of electors in the eight smallest States (Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, Montana, and Rhode Island) produce the same number of electors as the single State of Florida even though Florida has a population more than three times greater than those eight smaller States combined.

Yet, on the other hand, if a candidate wins California and its 54 electoral votes, then that candidate is one-fifth of the way to the 270 electoral votes needed to capture the presidency. Thus, while California accounts for only 11 percent of the nation’s population it can provide 20 percent of the electoral votes needed to obtain the presidency. The electoral college system therefore preserves a sound balance between population centers and between diverse State and regional interests, incorporating elements both of popular and of State representation in its operation.

Consider how this duality was demonstrated in the recent presidential election. If the national tally of the popular vote is transferred proportionally into a vote by the House of Representatives, the results would have been 210 Members voting for Gore, 209 for Bush, and 16 Members voting for others; Gore, therefore, would have narrowly won a vote in the House based on the will of the population. However, if the State by State votes are transferred to the Senate, since Bush won 30 States and Gore 20, the Senate vote would have been 60 for Bush and 40 for Gore; Bush, therefore, by a large margin, would have been the choice of the States. In short, Gore narrowly won the popular vote by winning heavily populated and narrowly concentrated urban parts of the nation (Gore carried only 676 counties, located primarily along both coasts and along the Mississippi River) while Bush was the overwhelming choice of the States and of the more geographically diverse regions of the country (Bush carried 2436 counties Ñ nearly four times that of Gore Ñ spreading virtually from coast to coast). The electoral college wisely weighs these competing interests in the selection for a President. In fact, John Taylor (an officer during the American Revolution and a U. S. Senator under Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) observed:

Two principles sustain our Constitution: one a majority of the people, the other a majority of the States; the first was necessary to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the people; the last, to preserve the liberty or sovereignty of the States. But both are founded in the principle of majority; and the effort of the Constitution is to preserve this principle in relation both to the people and the States, so that neither species of sovereignty or independence should be able to destroy the other.13

James Madison agreed, affirming:

In our complex system of polity, the public will, as a source of authority, may be the will of the people as composing one nation, or the will of the States in their distinct and independent capacities; or the federal will as viewed, for example, through the presidential electors, representing in a certain proportion both the nation and the States.14

This blending of the will of the population and the will of the States is why it is possible Ñ and has thrice occurred Ñ that a President may win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote (on those previous occasions, the margin of victory in the popular vote was less than 1 percent). Usually, however, the electoral college tends to exaggerate the margin of victory of the popular vote rather than run counter to it.

The Benefits of the Electoral College System

There are three important benefits produced by the current electoral college system:

  1. Because a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes from across the nation, a candidate cannot become president without a significant widespread voter base. In fact, as has happened in three previous elections, the distribution of voter support may actually take precedence over the quantity of voter support. Therefore, the electoral college ensures a broad national consensus for a candidate that subsequently will allow him to govern once he takes office.
  2. Since the electoral college operates on a State-by-State basis, this not only enhances the status of minorities by affording them a greater proportional influence within a smaller block of voters at the State level but it also ensures a geographically diverse population which makes regional domination, or domination of urban over suburban or rural areas, virtually impossible. In fact, since no one region of the country has 270 electoral votes, there is an incentive for a candidate to form coalitions of States and regions rather than to accentuate regional differences.
  3. The electoral college system prioritizes the most important factors in selecting a president. If a candidate receives a substantial majority of the popular vote, then that candidate is almost certain to receive enough electoral votes to be president. However, if the popular vote is extremely close, then the candidate with the best distribution of popular votes will be elected. And if the country is so divided that no one candidate obtains an absolute majority of electoral votes, then the U. S. House of Representatives Ñ the body closest to the people and which must face them in every election will then choose the president.

HT: Cynthia Merrifield (via e-mail)

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  1. I used to dislike the electoral college system before I understood it. Though I'd still make some changes (specifically, I'd remove the electors), I think it serves an important purpose:

    Without the electoral college, NY, LA, Miami, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston would essentially choose the president.

  2. The major shortcoming of the current system of electing the President is that presidential candidates concentrate their attention on a handful of closely divided “battleground” states. 98% of the 2008 campaign events involving a presidential or vice-presidential candidate occurred in just 15 closely divided “battleground” states. Over half (57%) of the events were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia). Similarly, 98% of ad spending took place in these 15 “battleground” states. Similarly, in 2004, candidates concentrated over two-thirds of their money and campaign visits in five states and over 99% of their money in 16 states. Two-thirds of the states and people have been merely spectators to the presidential elections. Candidates have no reason to poll, visit, advertise, organize, campaign, or worry about the voter concerns in states where they are safely ahead or hopelessly behind. The reason for this is the winner-take-all rule enacted by 48 states, under which all of a state’s electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who gets the most votes in each separate state.

    Another shortcoming of the current system is that a candidate can win the Presidency without winning the most popular votes nationwide. This has occurred in one of every 14 presidential elections.

    In the past six decades, there have been six presidential elections in which a shift of a relatively small number of votes in one or two states would have elected (and, of course, in 2000, did elect) a presidential candidate who lost the popular vote nationwide.

  3. The small states are the most disadvantaged of all under the current system of electing the President. Political clout comes from being a closely divided battleground state, not the two-vote bonus.

    Small states are almost invariably non-competitive in presidential election. Only 1 of the 13 smallest states are battleground states (and only 5 of the 25 smallest states are battlegrounds).

    Of the 13 smallest states, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Alaska regularly vote Republican, and Rhode Island, Delaware, Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and DC regularly vote Democratic. These 12 states together contain 11 million people. Because of the two electoral-vote bonus that each state receives, the 12 non-competitive small states have 40 electoral votes. However, the two-vote bonus is an entirely illusory advantage to the small states. Ohio has 11 million people and has “only” 20 electoral votes. As we all know, the 11 million people in Ohio are the center of attention in presidential campaigns, while the 11 million people in the 12 non-competitive small states are utterly irrelevant. Nationwide election of the President would make each of the voters in the 12 smallest states as important as an Ohio voter.

    The fact that the bonus of two electoral votes is an illusory benefit to the small states has been widely recognized by the small states for some time. In 1966, Delaware led a group of 12 predominantly low-population states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania) in suing New York in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that New York’s use of the winner-take-all effectively disenfranchised voters in their states. The Court declined to hear the case (presumably because of the well-established constitutional provision that the manner of awarding electoral votes is exclusively a state decision). Ironically, defendant New York is no longer a battleground state (as it was in the 1960s) and today suffers the very same disenfranchisement as the 12 non-competitive low-population states. A vote in New York is, today, equal to a vote in Wyoming–both are equally worthless and irrelevant in presidential elections.

    The concept of a national popular vote for President is far from being politically “radioactive” in small states, because the small states recognize they are the most disadvantaged group of states under the current system.

    In small states, the National Popular Vote bill already has been approved by a total of seven state legislative chambers , including one house in Maine and both houses in Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Vermont.. It has been enacted by Hawaii.

  4. Most of the medium-small states (with five or six electoral votes) are similarly non-competitive in presidential elections (and therefore similarly disadvantaged). In fact, of the 22 medium-smallest states (those with three, four, five, or six electoral votes), only New Hampshire (with four electoral votes), New Mexico (five electoral votes), and Nevada (five electoral votes) have been battleground states in recent elections.

    Because so few of the 22 small and medium-small states are closely divided battleground states in presidential elections, the current system actually shifts power from voters in the small and medium-small states to voters in a handful of big states. The New York Times reported early in 2008 (May 11, 2008) that both major political parties were already in agreement that there would be at most 14 battleground states in 2008 (involving only 166 of the 538 electoral votes). In other words, three-quarters of the states were to be ignored under the current system in the 2008 election. Michigan (17 electoral votes), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21), and Florida (27) contain over half of the electoral votes that will matter in 2008 (85 of the 166 electoral votes). There are only three battleground states among the 22 small and medium-small states (i.e., New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Nevada). These three states contain only 14 of the 166 electoral votes. Anyone concerned about the relative power of big states and small states should realize that the current system shifts power from voters in the small and medium-small states to voters in a handful of big states.

  5. The 11 most populous states contain 56% of the population of the United States and that a candidate would win the Presidency if 100% of the voters in these 11 states voted for one candidate. However, if anyone is concerned about the this theoretical possibility, it should be pointed out that, under the current system, a candidate could win the Presidency by winning a mere 51% of the vote in these same 11 states — that is, a mere 26% of the nation’s votes.

    Of course, the political reality is that the 11 largest states rarely act in concert on any political question. 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.

    Moreover, the notion that any candidate could win 100% of the vote in one group of states and 0% in another group of states is far-fetched. Indeed, among the 11 most populous states, the highest levels of popular support 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 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 votes for Bush in 2004.

  6. When presidential candidates campaign to win the electoral votes of closely divided battleground states, such as in Ohio and Florida, the big cities in those battleground states do not receive all the attention, much less control the outcome. Cleveland and Miami certainly did not receive all the attention or control the outcome in Ohio and Florida in 2000 and 2004.

    Under a national popular vote, every vote is equally important politically. There is nothing special about a vote cast in a big city. When every vote is equal, candidates of both parties know that they must seek out voters in small, medium, and large towns throughout the state in order to win the state. A vote cast in a big city is no more valuable than a vote cast in a small town or rural area.

    Another way to look at this is that there are approximately 300 million Americans. The population of the top five cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia) is only 6% of the population of the United States and the population of the top 50 cities is only 19% of the population of the United States. Even if one makes the far-fetched assumption that a candidate won 100% of the votes in the nation’s top five cities, he would only have won 6% of the national vote.

    Further evidence of the way a nationwide presidential campaign would be run comes from the way that national advertisers conduct nationwide sales campaigns. National advertisers seek out customers in small, medium, and large towns of every small, medium, and large state. National advertisers do not advertise only in big cities. Instead, they go after every single possible customer, regardless of where the customer is located. National advertisers do not write off Indiana or Illinois merely because their competitor has an 8% lead in sales in those states. And, a national advertiser with an 8%-edge over its competitor does not stop trying to make additional sales in Indiana or Illinois merely because they are in the lead.

  7. Fantastic post. I've read umpteen commentaries, etc. on the EC but this is a great one to forward to ignorant friends and naive (aren't they all) liberals.


  8. I”m still not sure I agree. The electoral college system makes it nearly impossible for a third party candidate to get any kind of foothold because in order to take ANY electoral votes in a state, the candidate has to get a majority of the popular votes.

  9. Have any third party candidates ever gotten more than single digit support nationwide? I don't think it makes a difference either way when it comes to third party candidates. In fact, I think it increases their effect on the outcome since they can prevent a candidate from one of the major parties from winning in the EC more easily than they could in the popular vote.

    I don't know if that's a good thing or not (sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't), but for a real life scenario, look at how Huckabee was able to take out Romney in Iowa and pave the way for McCain. Sure, that was just a single party's primary, but it shows how the system works.

  10. I'll never ever forget the coment Hillary Clinton made on the Electoral College in 2000 when there was the election controversy. Gore had won the popular vote so the Democrats were trying to push that fact on why Gore should win. In light of this Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought of the Electoral College and she said “We are a different Country now. ” Unbelievable!!!!!

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