By Rod Thomson

As it appears that for the second time this century the United States will elect a president who did not win the popular vote, there are the predictable calls for killing the Electoral College. The same thing occurred in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote but George W. Bush won the presidency. In fact, this is the fifth time in U.S. history this has occurred.

But as is often the case, the knee-jerk response overlooks well-designed reasoning. In many ways the Electoral College is yet another example of the brilliance of the Founders and Framers of the Constitution.

They purposely avoided a pure democracy majority rule form of governing at every turn. The reason is simple. Pure democracies do not work. Straight majority-rule democracy is sometimes compared to two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. That old saw depicts how a simple majority can tyrannize the minority — and inevitably will.

This is human nature. Mankind could never be expected to act selflessly and self-sacrificially for the greater good, so the Founders built in a tension between the three branches of government that harnessed basic human nature to keep government in check. They believed only a self-checking and self-limiting system could keep the tyranny of human nature at bay. And they actually used human nature to accomplish it.

They employed the same thinking for how we elect our government leaders through a process that ensured presidential candidates had to run in all the country, not just the population centers. This was to make sure that a diverse and growing nation would get representation from all sectors and that a President would have to campaign in all regions and demographics.

Here’s how it works

The president and vice president are not elected by popular vote, but by 538 electors — which is essentially the sum total of the House of Representatives, Senate and the District of Columbia. So there is population representation through the number of congressional districts, and state representation through number of Senate seats. This is the math for spreading out the Electoral College.

So when we vote for president and fill in the oval for our candidate, we are actually voting for the slate of electors in our state, who will then officially vote in December for president. If the Democrat wins, the Democratic electors will vote. If the Republican wins, the Republican electors will vote.

Julio Gonzalez for State Representative

This is why 270 is magical number to win the presidency. It is 50 percent plus one of these electors.

With a straight popular vote, presidential candidates would only campaign in the major population centers along the coasts and some big cities inland. Regions such as the upper Midwest and rural South and western mountains would rarely if ever see a candidate. And worse, presidents would then feel free to ignore the interests of people in those regions. Need to dump toxic waste? North Dakota it is!

But with the Electoral College as the method, North Dakota’s three electors just might matter.

In this system, presidential candidates need to build coalitions and campaign nationally. A regional candidate cannot win nationally. A candidate with a narrow base cannot win nationally.

This creates the phenomenon of swing states, which get a hyper-media focus every four years. But those are not in granite. In fact they change all the time. Florida may well be the longest term swing state going forward because of our in-migration patterns from around the nation. But remember, until 1988, California was a reliably Republican state. Kind of astonishing to think about now. And Texas was as solid blue as the came. Virginia and North Carolina were part of the Democrat South, then became part of the Republican South and now are kind of swingy.

What this means, and this is just brilliant, is that no major party can ignore any state for too long without suffering. Even small states. Remember 2000? George W. Bush won that, hanging chads and all, because of Florida, right? Well, yes. But what is forgotten is that Florida would not have mattered if Democrats had not taken West Virginia for granted. It was a solid blue state, they ignored it, and Bush flipped it. That is what made Florida and its huge electoral count relevant. Yet West Virginia only has four electoral votes.

That is the genius of the Electoral College, forcing presidents to create coalitions, campaign nationally and represent even thinly populated areas. Another grand slam by the Framers that is still working.

The Brilliance of the Electoral College

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14 thoughts on “The Brilliance of the Electoral College

  • November 11, 2016 at 2:07 am
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    Send to my email.

    Reply
    • November 13, 2016 at 8:21 am
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      This is pure genius. (Not just the subject matter, but the clear and concise way that you framed it.) I shared this on FB and hope it inspires and educates others as they reflect on the last week or so.

      Keep up the good work!

      Chris Yang

      Reply
      • November 13, 2016 at 3:01 pm
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        Thanks much, Chris!

        Reply
  • November 14, 2016 at 9:42 am
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    May I suggest a revision of the sentence: “The president and vice president are not elected by popular vote, but by 538 electors — which is essentially the sum total of the House of Representatives, Congress and the District of Columbia.”

    Electors are delegated based on a state’s representation in Congress. Congress is an inclusive term that refers to both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. (Even though House members are generally referred to as Congressman and Senate members as Senators. Senators are still members of Congress). The House is not separate from, as the above sentence indicates, but a part of Congress and the bicameral makeup of the body. As a result, any given state earns two electors for their two Senators, and one elector for each member of the House of Representatives. A state’s House representation is based on the population of that state.

    Thus, the least number of electors a state could have is three. Two U.S. Senators and at minimum one House member.

    Also, because Washington DC is not a state, DC does not have Senators nor do they have voting members in the U.S. House. DC has a non-voting delegate to the House (Eleanor Holmes Norton), and that is all the representation they have in Congress. However, the 23rd Amendment , which was ratified in 1961 granted DC three electors to the Electoral College.

    Thus a revision to the sentence might read: “… which is essentially the sum total of the membership of the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, and three electors from District of Columbia (Granted by the 23rd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

    Reply
    • November 14, 2016 at 10:58 am
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      Done. “Congress” was supposed to be “Senate.” Thank you for catching it.

      Reply
      • November 14, 2016 at 1:04 pm
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        Awesome. I was a High School government teacher some time ago, but I learned their the struggle some have in grasping the concept of the EC. Thank you for your explanation of it, and I concur with your conclusions. It is a protective measure for smaller states.

        Reply
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  • December 3, 2016 at 6:33 pm
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    This is simply wrong though. Also, you confuse “pure democracy” with a democratically elected representative bound by laws. Pure democracy would be each citizen voting on every issue, which does not work in a setting like ours. A democratically elected president in our system would still have to contend with the Senate (small states get a bonus there) and a legal system that ensure minority rights.

    It sounds nice in concept, but the electoral college benefit you give (of forcing politicians not to ignore regions for too long, etc.) also comes into play with a direct vote mathematically. Think about it.

    Supporters of the electoral college always say that “if we just went with a popular vote, the East Coast and California would decide everything!”… but that’s false as well. If you had every (and I mean EVERY) citizen in those regions vote for one party, with the same turnout as previous races… well, you’d have less than 50% of the vote. That’s with the entire East Coast + Cali. This ignores the significant numbers of conservative voters who are silenced each year in places like California, where they could contribute to totals (in large amounts) but are eclipsed. No state is a monolith.

    Now for the small states. While they get the odd visits during the primaries (when the election is spread out and “flow” matters) not a single general candidate visited the smaller states like the Dakotas that you claim are supported by the EC. In reality, all of the visiting and campaigning goes to the perceived swing states.

    Your examples of the impact of smaller states really are just examples of times politicians didn’t properly judge which states were swing states… but it still boils down to a system that props up a few random states with close races. In truth, the EC creates such an unbalanced system that (if played theoretically) can lead to a presidential candidate winning with roughly 25% of the cast vote, if they win in strategic states. That’s right. The other candidate could theoretically get above 70% of the vote and still lose.

    The EC is not about representation. That is the Senate. The EC was more balanced by state when it first came out (States out west and our current 50 now lead to a more imbalanced system, where some voters have 4x the power of others). It has warped over time to cause a system where there is an imbalance that was not originally intended. All men are supposed to be created equal, right?

    So what is it really about then? The EC is about having an educated political group that could shoot down “dangerous” candidates. Read the Federalist papers, the logic is presented there. The EC is designed to prevent direct rule by a mob, which the framers (who only wanted propertied white males to vote) feared.

    So in short? The EC doesn’t do what you claim it does, and the Founders (in their own writing) gave a very different explanation for it than you present.

    Reply
  • December 3, 2016 at 9:27 pm
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    It was not so brilliant to allow political parties to hijack much of our electoral process. It was also not very brilliant to stop the original selection of U.S. Senators by our state legislatures, switching that to popular vote in each state. Thus our Ninth and Tenth Amendments get discarded, in effect, because state population centers can often outvote the more rural areas in many states. Bringing back that process would restore the election of U.S. Senators to the same character demonstrated by the Electoral College.

    There is much more that can be restored than most folks realize, including our larger history as it relates to all of human history. If we fail to see how far we have already strayed from the Vision of our Founders, even the Electoral College could quickly become a thing-of-the-past! Yes, we still barely have a republic, IF we are diligent enough to keep it.

    Reply
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