Ten Miles Square


July 27, 2012 2:58 PM Case for the Electoral College?

By Jonathan Bernstein

A reader asks:

What is the case for the electoral college? I’m familiar with the pragmatic arguments (a national recount would be a nightmare, voting fraud in one municipality could have a massive effect, etc.), but what is the principled reason why an electoral college is superior to a national popular vote?

That’s a good question. I’m mildly in favor of the status quo on the electoral college, mainly because I think the case against it turns out to be fairly weak.

The strongest case for it, I think, is that historically the biases it introduces tend to be somewhat different than the biases involved in the rest of the system, and so using the EC method for presidential elections has tended to bring some balance. In particular, the malapportionment of the Senate, and the traditional malapportionment of House (and state legislative) districts until about 1960, meant that urban areas were shortchanged in Congress — while the big, urban states traditionally did very well in the electoral college. As it happens, however, that’s been much less the case recently. Remember, New York used to be a major swing state; California also was very contested once it became large, and even Texas had a run as a competitive state with big cities for a while. For whatever reason, all of that has slipped some over the last twenty or thirty years, which in my view makes the electoral college less worthwhile.

Still, all else equal, a presidential candidate would rather pander to a large state with lots of winner-take-all electoral votes than a small one, which should tend, over time, to balance out the small-state advantage in the Senate. So in terms of a positive case, I’d probably emphasize that.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Jamie on July 27, 2012 5:06 PM:

    the problem with the electoral college, is that all Montana, the Dakotas and Idaho would never agree to a more sensible method of choosing a POTUS.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 27, 2012 5:22 PM:

    "while the big, urban states traditionally did very well in the electoral college. "

    Come again? Somehow we're using wildly different measurements.

    If your state has 53/435 of the population, but only gets 55/535 of the electoral votes, how could that ever be said to favor your large state? There might be dynamics that would lead to your state becoming a major swing state, with plenty of attention from the candidates, which is what I understand you to be saying. But it's still underrepresented in the College.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on July 27, 2012 5:23 PM:

    55/538 and obviously I'm using present-day CA, not numbers from a few decades ago when CA and NY were swing states, but you get the point.

  • dave schutz on July 28, 2012 7:36 AM:

    "... voting fraud in one municipality could have a massive effect, etc.)"

    I'm not sure why your interlocutor blew this off as not principled. If you can set your system so it does not encourage locals all over the country to do vote fraud, that seems to me good in principle. If in Baltimore the Dems, or in the Atlanta suburbs the Reeps, can have a national effect by stealing votes, that's not a good thing.

    The 2006 Mexico presidential election (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexican_general_election_2006_controversies) was what sold me on the US Electoral College, really - 0.58% difference, and this led to looking for votes in every precinct. National conflagration. Bush/Gore, on the other hand, boiled down to a very few jurisdictions where the outcome was in doubt, and quickly.

    I kind of like the Nebraska system of one EV per congressional district. I also think it might encourage state parties to try and draw relatively competitive districts, so that a more centrist candidate from their party would do well more broadly in the state.

  • matt w on July 28, 2012 12:52 PM:

    The Nebraska one EV per district system would be a ridiculous disaster on a national scale, amounting to something like a +25 gerrymander for the Republicans in every election. Look at the results in 2000 -- it would have handed Bush the election by 27 electoral votes in a 50-50 election (the author thinks that would be an advantage for some reason). It systematically disadvantages large states and big cities, since large states will get their votes split more often, and big cities tend to have a lot of Democratic votes concentrated in a few districts.

    As for the idea that it'll encourage competitive districts, I think that's a pipe dream. It'll encourage the party in power to do more to gerrymander the districts, since that'll give their party an advantage in the presidential race as well as the congressional races.

  • oldgulph on July 29, 2012 1:15 PM:

    The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC).

    Every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in presidential elections. No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps. There would no longer be a handful of 'battleground' states where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in more than 3/4ths of the states that now are just 'spectators' and ignored after the primaries.

    When the bill is enacted by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes– enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538), all the electoral votes from the enacting states would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

    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%, IDAHO – 77%, ME – 77%, MONTANA – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SOUTH DAKOTA – 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.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc

  • oldgulph on July 29, 2012 1:16 PM:

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes maximizes the incentive and opportunity for fraud and voter suppression. A very few people can change the national outcome by adding, changing, or suppressing a small number of votes in one closely divided battleground state. With the current system all of a state's electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who receives a bare plurality of the votes in each state. The sheer magnitude of the national popular vote number, compared to individual state vote totals, is much more robust against manipulation.

    National Popular Vote would limit the benefits to be gained by fraud or voter suppression. One suppressed vote would be one less vote. One fraudulent vote would only win one vote in the return. In the current electoral system, one fraudulent vote could mean 55 electoral votes, or just enough electoral votes to win the presidency without having the most popular votes in the country.

    The closest popular-vote election in American history (in 1960), had a nationwide margin of more than 100,000 popular votes. The closest electoral-vote election in American history (in 2000) was determined by 537 votes, all in one state, when there was a lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide.

    For a national popular vote election to be as easy to switch as 2000, it would have to be two hundred times closer than the 1960 election--and, in popular-vote terms, forty times closer than 2000 itself.

    Which system offers voter suppressors or fraudulent voters a better shot at success for a smaller effort?

  • oldgulph on July 29, 2012 1:20 PM:

    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.

  • LaFollette Progressive on July 30, 2012 11:04 AM:

    This is every bit as much of a pointless, inane, rationalization of our pointlessly convoluted electoral system as all the other arguments. It's staggering the lengths of sophistry to which people will go to justify maintaining a system other than one-person-one-vote.

    The Electoral College is biased in favor of small, rural states to a much lesser extent than the Senate, but it's still biased in favor of small, rural states. Whatever large, urban state happens to be equally divided (currently Florida) get pandered to, and the others are ignored. This is hardly a counterweight to the malapportionment of the Senate. It means that none of the nation's four largest metro areas has much of anything to do with the election of our President.

    Any political system in which the election is almost entirely contested in roughly a quarter of the country, with everyone else's vote taken for granted, is inexcusably undemocratic. Period.

    And the phony 50-state recount fear is a lame excuse, too. Each state has its own election officials and volunteers, you know. A 50-state recount is statistically much less likely than a large-state recount in the current system, and would not actually take much longer or be more of a mess than Florida 2000. If Mexico can survive a disputed nationwide popular election, so can we.