Friday, January 13, 2017

Electoral College - Like It or Lump It

In the United States, we have the peculiar and most unique institution known as the Electoral College which sole function is to elect the president. In fact, the actual presidential election is when the Electors meet in their respective state capitals on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, at which time they cast their electoral votes on separate ballots for president and vice president. For the 2016 election this occurred on December 19, 2016.

Electoral College Results in 2016:

Trump 306 (304 after vote of Electors)
Clinton 232 (227 after vote of Electors)
Others 7 (votes cast by faithless Electors)

Some background:

Electors are allocated via a very simple formula:

EV (electoral vote) per state = the number of congressional reps in that state plus the two senators. So Massachusetts has 9 representatives yielding a total of 11 EVs. Vermont with 1 representative has 3 EVs. Florida with 27 congressmen has 29 EVs.

A presidential candidate needs to win a simple majority of the 538 total EVs available. The magic number is 270 or more to win.

Thoughts of the Founders:

Alexander Hamilton in Federalist #68 "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated tasks"

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution states:
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: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 4 of the Constitution states:

The Congress may determine the Time of chusing [sic] the Electors, and the Day on which they shall give their Votes; which Day shall be the same throughout the United States.

Since the election of 1824, most states have appointed their electors on a winner-take-all basis, based on the statewide popular vote on Election Day. Maine and Nebraska are the only two current exceptions, as both states use the congressional district method. 

Love it or hate it this is the constitutionally enshrined system of electing the US president. Let's look at the pros and cons of this system as its supporters and detractors would frame them.


  • The EC ensures that the states have at least some say in the selection of president. States can allocated EVs by winner-takes-all as 48 currently do; winner by congressional district (the Maine and Nebraska model) or can allocate them by other means such as popular vote percentage if they so choose. Needless to say, the federal nature of the Constitution is preserved by the EC.
  • The EC ensures that candidates must campaign and appeal to multiple interests and geographies. If the election was strictly popular vote, states with large populations and major urban centers would receive the lion's share of candidate attention. Smaller states and rural areas would receive limited or no attention to their issues. In 2016 with Hillary Clinton winning by nearly three million votes nationwide, California proved her with a cushion of over 4 million votes. In fact, LA County alone contributed more than 1.8 million additional votes to Clinton over Trump. Why would a candidate want to campaign in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, or Maine (all swing states in  2016) with so few votes to be harvested from these areas? Focusing on turnout in a small number vote-rich urban counties would reduce the "hinterlands" to an afterthought. In essence, the EC forces candidates to run truly national elections instead of competing for urban votes only.
  • Much less chance of recounts with the existing system - even with a close election. The EC usually (with 2016 being a glaring exception) amplifies the victory of the popular vote winner and establishes a clear winner on election night thus forestalling the need for recounts, challenges, and the inevitable lawyering-up post-election. Imagine a scenario of the 2000 recount debacle in Florida being played out for weeks or months all over the nation...
  • 2016! The EC is simply an undemocratic mechanism. Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 48% to 46% (nearly 3 million votes over Mr. Trump) and still "lost" the election. No other nation in the world (including nations with a federal framework) have an equivalent to the EC.
  • While it may have made sense in 1787, times change. The original theory was to have an august body of wise men selected by elites in the state legislature who would debate and select the man with the best temperament, education, and abilities to discharge the office of the Presidency. This made some sense with an uninformed and ill-educated population (by the by only white males had suffrage at this time), but with an educated population citizens can make informed decisions.
  • Under the current system a Republican voter in Massachusetts or a Democratic voter in Utah has little incentive to vote in a presidential election as there is little doubt as to which party will win those states. However, under a popular vote, citizens nationwide would have incentive to vote and help their candidates, even citizens residing in states that are not competitive. How many Republicans in California and Democrats in Kentucky stayed home due the the EC? 
  • Piggybacking on the previous point, candidates focus most of their campaign in the 15 or so swing states every four years thus ignoring a major portion of the nation at least in terms of active campaigning.
  • As states have different standards regarding voter registration and eligibility (felons voting rights vary from state to state) arguably the voting franchise is variable. Having a national election with on standard would remove any potential disenfranchisement.
  • Seven electors in 2016 were faithless electors thus potentially giving just a few individuals the ability to overturn an election.
So what does the Prof think? I believe that that nation ought to retain the EC, but establish modifications to address some of the very legitimate concerns outlined above.
  1. Eliminate the role of individuals being voting electors and make it a mathematical construct. This removes the unlikely, but real possibility that faithless electors could overturn an election result. The EC would just be a numerical count based on the electoral vote tally as allocated by the states.
  2. Encourage some mechanism to avoid wasted votes in the non-swing states - be it using the aforementioned district plan nationwide (although that is fraught with potential issues as well, i.e. numerous recounts in closely contested districts) or possibly an allocation of EV per state by the candidate's vote percentage in a given state. For example, if a candidate receives a floor of at least 40% of the vote in a state, they would get at least some proportion of EVs from that state, even if they lose the state overall.
I think it is important to keep the federal character of electing a president while acknowledging and correcting some of the undemocratic elements of it. 

Remember, changing or eliminating the EC would require a constitutional amendment which would need to be passed by at least 38 states. This is very unlikely to occur as small states benefit disproportionately from the EC and would be quite loathe to give away the limited sway over presidential elections that they currently enjoy under the EC. Thus much of the above argument is purely academic...
*By the way, if the entire nation had used the District Plan for allocating Electors in 2016, the results would be similar. 

Trump 290
Clinton 248


The Prof

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