Every four years I have people ask me if I understand the Electoral College, and if I can explain it to them. I do not write about religion, politics, or money here and I am not going to change that policy now. However, I think everyone should understand how the Electoral College works and why we have it.
First, the Electoral College was created during the constitutional convention in 1787. In the 1700’s, just like today, different regions of the country were very different from other regions of the country. New England was more densely populated and had the majority of the commercial concerns of the country. Most of the financial institutions and large commercial and shipping businesses were in New England. The rest of the original thirteen colonies were more sparsely populated and more agriculturally oriented. So, it stood to reason that in a straight democratic vote New England’s concerns, desires, wants, and needs would be the concerns, desires, wants, and needs of the federal government at the expense of the rest of the country. Alexander Hamilton, from New England, wanted a straight democracy with a strong federal government. Thomas Jefferson, from agriculturally oriented Virginia, wanted a weak federal government with strong state governments. Thomas Jefferson always described a democracy as, “Two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” Some things never change; we are still having these arguments today. The founders agreed to a compromise, which seemed to preserve the influence of the more densely populated New England states, while preserving the voice of the rest of the nation. The most important compromise was that the United States of America would not be a democracy, but a republic. A republic whose representatives would be democratically elected; a democratic-republic. Another compromise was the Electoral College (one of many compromises in this ongoing debate.)
Each state would have a specific number of electors in the Electoral College based on their number of representatives in congress; one elector for each senator (two each state) and one for each congressperson (which is based on the size of the population of the state). The 23rd amendment to the constitution gave Washington District of Columbia the same number of electors as the least populated state. The state with the most electors is California with 55, and the states with the least electors are Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Wyoming, and Washington District of Columbia, all with three each.
In the 1700’s this kept New England from dictating to the rest of the country who the president would be. In the 21st century, it keeps the huge metropolitan cities (New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit & etc.) from dictating to the rest of the country who the president will be.
In most cases, the presidential candidates usually spend their time campaigning in the larger states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) and a combination of smaller states that they believe will give them victory.
We all know about the infamous 2000 election, but there was something else different about that election most people forget (I will not comment on the controversial aspects of that election or approve ANY comments on the controversial aspects of that election … no arguments here, there are too many arguments in the rest of our lives). This election did not follow the usual campaign strategy. Candidate Al Gore put his effort in the largest states and Candidate George Bush put his effort in the smallest states. If a candidate wins only California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia (just 11 of the 50 states, 22%) that candidate wins 271 electoral votes and the election, only 270 votes are need to win. Candidate George Bush’s campaign strategy was to put the most effort in the smaller states, 25 of the 50 states have seven electoral votes or less. In the end, the official verdict was that candidate Al Gore narrowly won the popular vote, and candidate George Bush narrowly won the electoral college vote. This was not the first time (nor will it be the last) that a candidate will win the popular vote and lose the election.
In 1824 John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson (108,740 to 153,544). But no one had a clear majority of the electors. Then the third candidate Henry Clay dropped out of the race, giving their votes to Adams even though he trailed Jackson by more than 15% of the popular vote. In 1860 Abraham Lincoln had the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, but Stephen Douglass had the second most popular votes (right on Lincoln’s heels) and was fourth of the four candidates in electoral votes. Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by more than 10% of the vote, but beat Samuel Tilden electoral vote to become president. As you can see this is not that rare an event. Also (usually because of three or more candidates) sometimes the winner of the popular vote and the electoral college does not get 50% of the vote. (There are more unusual elections I could add, but you get the point.)
Many people think this is not fair and the election should be a straight democratic vote. If it was a straight democratic vote, a candidate would only need to worry about the majority; win them and win the election, the minorities in this country could be safely ignored by the candidate.
However, the way the system is now, catering to the majority is no guarantee of victory. A candidate must also address the concerns of the minorities as well because the candidate may need them to win. In a straight democracy it does not matter what the law is, the majority is the law, the mob rules. In a republic the law rules and no one is above the law. The law applies equally to all citizens. “Wait” you say, “I can give you many examples of people not treating everyone equal under the law.” Yes you can, and so can I. In each of those cases, if you do the research, you will find that those instances came about because of a flawed democratic process. Take the Jim Crow laws, the bigots had large numbers of people on their side to pass laws in elections and to elect politicians who would legislatively pass laws creating the Jim Crow laws but they did not have enough people to insure victory for their side. So, they used illegal tactics and groups like the Klan to intimidate voters opposed to their plans.
In the end, our system is not perfect; but it is the best system devised so far to insure that the voice of all the people has influence, and not just fifty percent of the people plus one with all the power. Another way to say this is that in a straight democratic vote, fifty percent of the people minus one always loses every time. No need for compromise, just the majority with all the power at the expense of the minority, every time. So much for the fairness so many people seek.
- Is Obama Headed for an Electoral College Blowout? (politicalwire.com)
- Why there is an Electoral College and how it works (seattletimes.com)
- 2012 map could be deja vu for Obama (politico.com)
- Al Gore calls to end Electoral College (politico.com)