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The Electoral College

A Design for a Different Era

The true strength of a rationalist is the ability to be more confused by fiction than by
reality. From an informed, rational perspective, our method for electing a president seems to beg
credulity. One is tempted to invent any number of strange excuses to accept the claim that if
today we were to work out our political system from scratchwith all the knowledge wrought
from the scientific, industrial, civil rights, and information revolutions, and with the
fundamentally different state of the modern world in terms of technologies, cultural institutions,
political boundaries, and population sizeswe would still, somehow, arrive at the same design
that the Founding Fathers conceived of over 200 years ago. Such rationalizations include the
notion that most people are sheep who cannot be trusted to elect a wise president, or that the
interests of individual states are inherently at odds with the interests of the country as a whole.
We find ourselves tempted by these rationalizations, for the alternative is a profound sense of
confusion. However, it is right to feel this confusion, for our present answer to the question
Why do we use such an outdated system to make our countrys most important decision?
and the stock reply, Its the best we can come up indeed a confusing answer. In an
effort to resolve this, well explore the Electoral College in detail. We'll begin with a description
of its basic mechanics, and from there move to the rationale behind its design. In seeking an
understanding of this design, it should become very apparent that the Electoral College no longer
serves the purpose it was intended to serve, and the time to redesign our election process has
Contrary to popular belief, the people of the United States do not, in fact, directly vote for
a president. Instead, in each state the citizens vote for groups of individuals called Electors, and

those Electors pledge to vote for the candidate who wins the popular vote within that state. The
details are laid out in the Constitution as follows: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as
the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators
and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress." (U.S. Constitution. Art.
II, Sec. 1.) The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President
and Vice-President and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and
of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they
shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States,
directed to the President of the Senate; 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
(U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Amend. XII, Sec. 1.)
There are presently a total of 538 Electors in the Electoral College, which is the same
number as the sum total of the members of Congress. To win an election, a candidate must
receive an absolute majority of Electoral Votes, and currently that number is 270. (NARA) As
quoted above, each state determines its own method for choosing Electors. Over time, the
majority of stateswith the exceptions of Maine and Nebraskadeveloped a system of direct,
statewide election of a candidate, and then ultimately a system of winner-take-all. Under the
winner-take-all system, the presidential candidate who wins the most popular votes within a
State wins all of that State's Electors. (Kimberling) Mathematically, this has some interesting
consequences. As stated in the Constitution, each state will have electors equal to the number of
its congressmen. Therefore, every state receives at least 3 Electors. Two are derived from the
Senate, and the remainder are derived in proportion to the states population. The number
derived from population can never be less than 1, hence the minimum of 3 votes per state. This

has the effect of biasing voting power in favor of less populous states. To illustrate this, let us
consider the most extreme example.
The current allocation of electoral votes is based upon the 2010 population census. This
census reported the United States resident population as 310,430,829 people. (USCB) If the
elector count538were based purely upon population so that everyones voting power were
equal, then dividing the population by the total number of Electors would show us that each
electoral vote should represent roughly 577,000 people. If we calculate with this ratio and round
up to a whole number, then the most populous state, California, should receive 65 electoral votes
for its 37,334,079 people, and the least populous state, Wyoming, should receive 1 electoral vote
for its 564,516 people. (USCB) However, the actual numbers are very different. Presently,
California receives 55 electoral votes, and Wyoming receives 3. (NARA) Thus, the vote of an
individual in Wyoming is actually worth far more than that of an individual living in California.
To be precise, the vote of a Wyoming resident is worth about 3.6 times that of a California
Consider this math in the most lopsided case. Let us suppose that a presidential candidate
were to base his or her campaign strategy upon winning the optimal states within the Electoral
College. This would mean focusing their campaign resources on all of the smallest states, such
as Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, etc(USCB) If a candidate were to win these states by
narrow margins, it is possible to win the presidency with less than a quarter of the total popular
vote. Put another way, three quarters of the country could vote against a candidate, and it is still
possible for that candidate to win through the Electoral College. This seems to be the opposite of
democracy, and while its true that this would be an extremely unlikely scenario, many far more
probable possibilities exist within the range between this extreme and winning the presidency

with a plurality. History has already shown that this can happen. The elections of 1876, 1888,
and 2000 were all won by a candidate who lost the popular vote. (Procon) At the end of this
year, 2016, it seems likely that another candidate will be added to that list. To justify a system
that seems to run contrary to our countrys core values, the reasons would need to be very
compelling. We must ask the obvious question: Why is it done this way?
Initially, the Founding Fathers had considered that the president should be elected by the
legislature. This was a matter of contentious debate throughout the constitutional convention,
but individuals like Gouverneur Morris argued that The Executive Magistrate should be the
guardian of the people, even of the lower classes, [against] Legislative tyranny, against the Great
& the wealthy who in the course of things will necessarily composethe Legislative body.
(Cronin, 40) Their fear was two-fold. First, they worried that allowing the legislature to elect
the president would result in something like a ruling aristocracy, as had been common in so
many other parts of the world at that time. Second, as James Madison stated, they feared that
dependence of the Executive on the Legislature, would render it the Executor as well as the
maker of laws; & then according to the observation of Montesquieu, tyrannical laws may be
made that they may be executed in a tyrannical manner. (Cronin 41)
As a sort of compromise between their very real fears of ruling-class tyranny, and their
fears of the inability of the population at large to make an informed choice, the Founding Fathers
voted upon a system that they believed would walk a fine line between vesting political power in
the people, and tempering their decisions with the wisdom of the political class. They couldnt
allow Congress to decide upon the president on its own. However, they found that the
mechanism by which Congress represented the peoplethrough the Senate and the House of
Representativeswas a satisfactory design. Thus, they sought to replicate it in the Electoral

College. In effect, the electoral college was simply a special congress elected to choose a
president, without the shortcomings of the real Congress. Since the electors would never
assemble together at one national site but would meet to vote in their respective States and
immediately thereafter disband, there was no danger of corruption, plotting, or cabal. (Cronin
Testing this rationale in the world of today, it doesnt seem to hold up. These days,
Electors are nearly always members one political party or another. Within political parties,
motivated plotting appears to be the norm. Direct, tangible evidence of this may be difficult to
locateafter all, a well-executed crime leaves behind no evidence. However, it would require a
remarkable naivety to believe that there is no collusion between major media outlets, the
candidates themselves, political think tanks, special interest groups and their corresponding
stooges among congress, and the sundry mob of partisan affiliates. It is common knowledge that
political corruption has been a vice of human nature since the dawn of recorded history, and we
have no specifically applicable laws against political corruption in our country. Is it any wonder
that the system has begun to break down? The political landscape has changed in ways the
Founding Fathers could never have foreseen, and the safeguards they sought to put in place are
scarcely relevant today.
Interestingly, there is no federal law requiring an Elector to vote for the candidate for
whom he has pledged to vote. However, most Electors are chosen on the basis of loyalty to their
political party, and there remains always a possibility of political retaliation for voting contrary
to the popular will of the state. Some states may even press criminal charges. An elector who
votes against his pledge is referred to as a faithless elector. There have been many cases of
faithless electors in the past, but as described by the Deputy Director of the Federal Election

Commission: Faithless Electors have never changed the outcome of an election simply
because most often their purpose is to make a statement rather than make a difference.
(Kimberling) The possibility of faithless electors could possibly mitigate the risk of cabal,
but it appears to have little or no effect. It is too small a measure, and the pressures against it are
immense. If politicians can be bought and sold, then so too, can Electors.
If we look at the vote allocation itself, we see the same situation. Its intended purpose no
longer applies. The members of the Constitutional Convention were representatives of their
respective, self-governed states. Each sought a system that would maximize the benefit to his
own state, while also allowing the country to cohere as a democratic whole. Naturally, there was
tension between the representatives of the larger and smaller states. The device of a congress
away from home represented, in sum, an adaptation of state experience modified by the need to
resolve the central dispute at Philadelphia, namely the large state-small state controversy.
(Cronin, 56) If the country were to function as a direct democracy, this would mean that the
more populous states had greater political influence. This didnt sit well with either the smaller
states or the southern slave states whose cultures were somewhat at odds with those in the more
populous north. To placate both groups, it was decided that each state should receive a minimum
of 3 votes, counting slaves as three fifths of a person for purposes of determining population
proportions in the Electoral College. (Cronin, 41) This was clearly a compromise, not a settling
of like minds upon an optimal solution.
In present day, this vote allocation has been lauded as a means of ensuring that
presidential candidates must pay due attention to all statesincluding the smaller states because
they have enough votes to influence the election significantly. In all, this was quite an elaborate
design. But it was also a very clever one when you consider that the whole operation was

supposed to work without political parties and without national campaigns while maintaining the
balances and satisfying the fears in play at the time. (Kimberling)
Yet we do have political parties and national campaigns; therefore the results run contrary
to the intentions of the Founding Fathers. If we look at the campaign activity of past elections, it
is easy to notice a disturbing trend. For instance, in the most recent election cyclethe 2012
campaign between the front runners President Obama and Governor Mitt Romneywe observe
that the number of campaign visits candidates paid to most states was exactly 0. Yet, the state of
Ohio received 15 visits from President Obama, 27 visits from Governor Romeny, 13 visits from
Vice President Biden, and 18 visits from Congressman Ryan. Only a small handful of other
states received, on average, about half a dozen visits from the candidates. Of the remaining 39
states, none received even a single visit from any of the candidates. The allocation of campaign
spending followed a nearly identical trend. (FairVote) Why is this the case?
The combination of political parties and a winner-take-all system has rendered it
pointless to visit states that are clearly already going to vote one way or another. For most states,
the partisan bias is so strong that paying a campaign visit therelet alone bothering to address
that states particular concernswould have little to no impact. Why, for instance, spend money
and time campaigning in California, if all 55 of Californias electoral votes will be going to the
democratic candidate anyway? The candidates are smart enough to focus their resources where
it matters, and so everything is biased towards what are popularly referred to as the swing
states. These are states that might reasonably be expected to vote for either party, depending on
how a campaign develops. This is why the 2016 national conventions were held in Ohio and
Pennsylvania, as they were the two most heavily weighted swing states of the election cycle.
Thus, the way in which votes are allocated has absolutely no correlation with how much respect

is given to a states political influence. Whether a state has 55 electors, or a mere 3, unless it is
one of the cherished swing states, no attention will be paid to it. This is not democracy, but a
bizarre sort of pandering.
Up to this point, weve learned that each state decides how its Electors are chosen, and
the most common method is a winner-take-all scenario aligned with one of the two primary
political parties. The number of Electors per state is equal to the number of Congressmen for
that state, and the Electors themselves have the ultimate say on who becomes the next president
of the United States. However, that freedom of choice has yet to make any real difference in the
entire history of U.S. elections. It is clear that the original intentions of the Founding Fathers did
not involve political parties, and that the electors were supposed to represent, roughly, the
popular opinion of the nation as a whole. And so, at this point we must ask the obvious question:
why did we ever need these middlemen in the first place? Why not simply take a direct, popular
vote for a candidate? If the Electors were simply going to vote in favor of whatever the people
had decided, and those votes would be proportional to the population at large, then what purpose
did the Electors serve, other than to add another layer of bureaucracy?
First, we must recognize that the Founding Fathers conceived of the Electoral College in
an environment very different from our own. They faced the difficult question of how to elect a
president in a nation that: was composed of thirteen large and small States jealous of their own
rights and powers and suspicious of any central national government, contained only 4,000,000
people spread up and down a thousand miles of Atlantic seaboard barely connected by
transportation or communication, believed that political parties were mischievous if not
downright evil, and felt that gentlemen should not campaign for public office (The saying was
The office should seek the man, the man should not seek the office.). (Kimberling)

Given this situation, it becomes clear that a simple, popular vote was untenable for
mundane physical reasons. In 1789, the predominant form of long distance communication was
a handwritten letter, sent off with a man riding a pack animal, and the hope he wouldnt die due
to bandits, wild animals, or disease along the way. Most of us take for granted that we now
transmit information at the speed of light through rivers of electrons in copper cabling, or
through radio waves bouncing about the stratosphere for thousands of miles. To those of us in
the information age, it is easy to forget just how isolated and poorly informed most of the
population once was, and how difficult it was to organize large numbers of people over vast
distances. This created a two-fold concern; the first being a need to aggregate the collective
opinions of the people, and the second, finding a way to ensure those opinions were wellinformed.
Wisely, the Founding Fathers didnt trust that people could have well-informed opinions
in Colonial age conditions. For instance, Sherman of Connecticut wrote: The sense of the
Nation would be better expressed by the Legislature, than by the people at large. The latter will
never be sufficiently informed of characters, and besides will never give a majority of votes to
any one man. They will generally vote for some man in their own State, and the largest State
will have the best chance for the appointment. (Cronin, 38) Why would the people at large
never be sufficiently informed of characters and generally vote for some man in their own
State? One need merely think about the conditions. How are the local farmers and mill
workers supposed to vote for a President of the United States when at best, the only politicians
theyve ever known are their own states Congressmen? As Thomas Cronin writes: The vast
expanse of the United States, the difficulty of communication, and the unfamiliarity of the
general populace with national personalitiesall militated against an informed choice. (Cronin,

Using Electors as middlemen solved both of these concerns simultaneously. Someone

had to deliver the will of the people. Therefore, it was reasoned that those who delivered that
will might as well be those who decided what it wasprovided that each state could formulate a
method to assemble a slate of Electors that it could trust to make the right choice. This solved
the problem of communication, and it also solved the problem of informed choice. By
traveling to the capital and discussing matters with representatives of each state, Electors would
be in a better position to make wise choices for the people at large. It was a brilliant solution for
its time. Yet, one must include the phrase for its time, because it should be glaringly obvious
that these issues no longer apply to our own society. Public schooling, national news networks,
and other information sharing mediums have fundamentally altered the political landscape.
Many scholars and pundits, recognizing this, have taken to defending the Electoral College on
the grounds of another problem it seems to solvethe Tyranny of the Majority, as originally
coined by Alexis de Tocqueville.
For instance, Joe Miller of writes: The reason that the Constitution calls
for this extra layer, rather than just providing for the direct election of the president, is that most
of the nations founders were actually rather afraid of democracy. James Madison worried about
what he called factions, which he defined as groups of citizens who have a common interest in
some proposal that would either violate the rights of other citizens or would harm the nation as a
whole. (Miller) In reading a statement like this, one would be led to believe that James
Madison was opposed to popular elections. However, the opposite is actually true. The most
prominent advocates of direct elections were those who campaigned for a strong executive
Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Madison. (Cronin, 55) Having fears or doubts about an idea is
not the same as being opposed to it. Yet, the reasonable doubts and debate among the Founding
Fathers is often pressed into the service of advocates for one political goal or another. This can

be very effective, for as a people we seem to harbor the delusional notion that the Founding
Fathers were somehow an all-knowing, unified monolith, rather than the highly contentious,
brilliant rabble of men that they actually were. Most of the Founding Fathers concerns over
direct democracy had little to do with a fear of the Tyranny of the Majority, but as mentioned
earlier, a conviction that the extent of the country and the difficulty of communication did not
permit the informed selection of a national candidate. True representation could work only over
a small area where the people could be acquainted firsthand with the candidates. (Cronin, 55)
Nevertheless, it is fallacious to place too much stock in the opinions of the Founding
Fathers. Our society seems to hold a tradition of treating the words and ideas of the Founding
Fathers as sacred, timeless wisdomas though spoken from the mouth of a God. They were
simply menwise for their time, but certainly fallible, and very much a product of their
relatively primitive culture. Some of them kept slaves. Just imagine how much our
understanding of the world has changed since that time! We have our own minds, our own
capacity to think, and we should put this capacity to use by asking: does this really make sense
anymore? Putting aside the problem of political parties and the bizarre strategy revolving around
swing states, one must question a premise that was predicated upon the fears that one or a few
states might dominate the political future of the country.
During the time of the constitutional convention, there were only 13 states. Now there
are 50perhaps soon to be 52 if we incorporate territories like Puerto Rico. We also live in a
highly globalized world with mass telecommunications and modes of transportation that are
orders of magnitude faster than anything that was available to us in Colonial America. Arguably,
decisions at the federal level todayparticularly decisions on matters of foreign policy and
executive controlare vastly more important than ever before. Its not as though a U.S.

President circa 1800 had to worry about bioethics, global poverty, digital information security,
data privacy rights, the interplay between massive international trade networks and humanitarian
disagreements, threat of nuclear war between nations, global Jihadism, planetary climate change,
or the rise of automation and its impact on the future work force. The national issues today are
much bigger than whatever relatively minor disputes might emerge locally between states. Why
should we allow state-level politics to influence our decisions at the federal level?
The information infrastructure necessary to implement a completely open and directly
democratic election process is more than feasible. There is absolutely no technical reason we
cant do away with the Electoral College in its entirety. What are the chances that the Founding
Fathers, wise though they may have been, happened to stumble upon the optimal political
arrangement for our nation for all time, and then perfectly enshrined it within the written law of
the constitution? The idea should sound preposterous, because it is. The electoral college
constituted a package deal in which diverse interests and safeguards were neatly balanced. Even
the slightest change was likely to undermine the entire structure and to make the machinery
inoperable. (Cronin, 52) More than 200 years of development through multiple worldtransforming revolutions is not the slightest change. It is a massive change, and its time we
understood that. The Founding Fathers were products of the Enlightenment. They were bold
and willing to try new things, and ultimately they made the world a better place. However, they
were not Gods. They were rationalists, and we must be willing to surpass them.

Works Cited

Cronin, Thomas E. Inventing the American Presidency. Lawrence, Kan.: U of Kansas, 1989.
FairVote. Presidential Tracker 2012., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
Kimberling, W. C. (2004). The Electoral College. U.S. Federal Election Commission, Office of
Election Administration.
Miller, Joe. "The Reason for the Electoral College." FactCheckorg. N.p., 11 Feb. 2008. Web. 5
Dec. 2016.
NARA. "U. S. Electoral College: How Are the Electoral College Votes Allocated." National
Archives and Records Administration, 10 Dec. 2010. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
Procon. "Presidential Election History from 1789 to 2012 - 2012 Presidential Election."
ProConorg Headlines., Web. 21 Nov. 2016.
USCB. "Population Estimates." US Census Bureau, Data Integration Division. U.S. Department
of Commerce, July 2015. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.
U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec. 1.
U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Amend. XII, Sec. 1.