Monday, July 27, 2020

The Electoral College for beginners

The (in)famous electoral college

We're coming up to the US Presidential election so it's time for pundits and real people to discuss the electoral college. There's a lot of misunderstanding about what it is, its role, and its potential to undermine democracy. In this post, I'm going to tell you how it came to be, the role it serves, and some issues with it that may cause trouble.

(Ohio Electoral College 2012. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons. Contributor: Ibagli. License: Creative Commons.)

How it came to be

The thirteen original colonies had the desire for independence in common but had stridently different views on government. In the aftermath of independence, the US was a confederacy, a country with a limited and small (federal) government. After about ten years, it became obvious that this form of government wasn't working and something new was needed. So the states created a Constitutional Convention to discuss and decide on a new constitution and form of government.

Remember, the thirteen states were the size of European countries and had very different views on issues like slavery. The states with smaller populations were afraid they would be dominated by the more populous states, which was a major stumbling block to agreements. The issue was resolved by the Great Compromise (or Connecticut Compromise if you come from Connecticut). The Convention created a two-chamber congress and a more powerful presidency than before. Here's how they were to be elected:

  • The lower house, the House of Representatives, was to have representatives elected in proportion to the population of the state (bigger states get more representatives). 
  • The upper house, the Senate, was to have two Senators per state regardless of the population of the state
  • Presidents were to be elected through an electoral college, with each elector having one vote. Each state would be allocated a number of electors (and hence votes) based on their seats in congress. The electors would meet and vote for the President. For example in 1789, the state of New Hampshire had three representatives and two senators, which meant New Hampshire sent five electors (votes) to the electoral college. The states decided who the electoral college electors were.

Think for a minute about why this solution worked. The states were huge geographically with low population densities and often poor communications. Travel was a big undertaking and mail was slow. It made sense to send voters to vote on your behalf at a college and these delegates may have to change their vote depending on circumstances. In short, the electoral college was a way of deciding the presidency in a big country with slow communications.

Electoral college vote allocation is and was only partially representative of the underlying population size. Remember, each state gets two Senators (and therefore two electoral college votes) regardless of its population. This grants power disproportionately to lower-population states, which is a deliberate and intended feature of the system.

Early practice

Prior to the formation of modern political parties, the President was the person who got the largest number of electoral college votes and the Vice-President was the person who got the next highest number of votes. For example, in 1792, George Washington was re-elected President with 132 votes, and the runner-up, John Adams, who got 77 votes, became Vice-President. This changed when political parties made this arrangement impractical, and by 1804, the President and the Vice-President were on the same ticket.

Electoral college electors were originally selected by state legislators, not by the people. As time went on, more states started directly electing electoral college electors. In practice, this meant the people chose their Presidential candidate and the electoral college electors duly voted for them. 

By the late 19th century, all states were holding elections for the President and Vice-President through electoral college representation.

Modern practice

Each state has the following representation in congress:

  • Two Senators 
  • A number of House of Representative seats roughly related to the state's population.

The size of each state's congressional delegation is their number of electoral college votes. For example, California has 53 Representatives and 2 Senators giving 55 electoral college electors and 55 electoral college votes.

During a Presidential election, the people in each state vote for who they want for President (and by extension, Vice-President). Although it's a federal election, the voting is entirely conducted by each state; the ballot paper is different, the counting process is different, and the supervision is different.

Most states allocate their electoral college votes on a winner-takes-all basis, the person with the largest share of the popular vote gets all the electoral college votes. For example, in 2016, the voting in Pennsylvania was: 2,926,441 votes for Hilary Clinton and 2,970,733 votes for Donald Trump, and Donald Trump was allocated all of Pennsylvania's electoral college votes. 

Two states do things a little differently. Maine and Nebraska use the Congressional District method. They allocate one of their electoral college votes to each district used to elect a member of the House of Representatives. The winner of the statewide vote is then allocated the other two electoral college votes. In Maine in 2016, Hilary Clinton won three electoral college votes and Donald Trump one.

Washington D.C. isn't a state and doesn't have Senators; it has a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. However, it does have electoral college votes! Under the 23rd amendment to the Constitution, it has the same electoral college votes as the least populous state (currently 3). 

In total, there are 538 electoral college votes:

  • 100 Senators
  • 435 Representatives
  • 3 Electors for Washington D.C.

The electoral college does not meet as one body in person. Electors meet in their respective state capitols and vote for President.

How electoral college votes are decided

How are electoral college votes allocated to states? I've talked about the formula before, 2 Senators for every state plus the number of House of Representative seats. House of Representative seats are allocated on a population basis using census data. There are 435 seats that are reallocated every ten years based on census data. Growing states may get more seats and shrinking states fewer. This is why the census has been politicized from time to time - if you can influence the census you can gain a ten-year advantage for your party. 

Faithless electors and the Supreme Court

Remember, the electors meet and vote for President. Let's imagine we have two Presidential candidates, cat and dog, and that the people of the state vote for cat. What's to stop the electors voting for dog instead? Nothing at all. For many states, there's nothing to stop electors voting for anyone regardless of who won the election in the state. This can and does happen, even as recently as 2016. It happens so often that there's a name for them: faithless electors.

In 2016, five electors who should have voted for Hilary Clinton didn't vote for her, and two who should have voted for Donald Trump didn't vote for him. These votes were officially accepted and counted.

Several states have laws that mandate that electors vote as instructed or provide punishment for electors who do not vote as instructed. These laws were challenged in the Supreme Court, which voted to uphold them.

On the face of it, faithless electors sound awful, but I do have to say a word in their defense. They do have some support from the original intent of the Constitutional Convention and they do have some support from the Federalist Papers. It's not entirely as black and white as it appears to be.

Have faithless electors ever swayed a Presidential election? No. Could they? Yes.


In principle, it's possible to gerrymander electoral college votes, but it hasn't been done in practice. Let me explain how a gerrymander could work.

First off, you'd move to Congressional District representation. Because the shape of congressional districts are under state control, you could gerrymander these districts to your heart's content. Next, you'd base your senatorial electoral college votes on the congressional district winner on a winner-takes-all basis. Let's say you had 10 congressional districts and you'd gerrymandered them so your party could win 7. Because 7 of the 10 districts would be for one candidate, you'd award your other two votes to that candidate. In other words, a candidate could lose the popular vote but still gain the majority of the electoral college votes for a state.

The electoral college and representative democracy

Everyone knows that Hilary Clinton won the popular vote but Donald Trump won the electoral college and became President. This was a close election, but it's theoretically possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote by a substantial margin, yet still win the presidency.

Bear in mind what I said at the beginning of this piece, electoral college votes are not entirely representative of the population, by design. Here's a chart of electoral college votes per 1,000,000 population for 2020. Note how skewed it is in favor of low-population (and rural) states. If you live in Wyoming your vote is worth 5 times that of a voter in Texas. 

Obviously, some states are firmly Democratic and others firmly Republican. The distribution of electoral college votes pushes candidates to campaign more heavily in small swing states, giving them an outsize influence (for example, New Hampshire). Remember, your goal as a candidate is to win electoral college votes, your goal is not to win the popular vote. You need to focus your electoral spending so you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of electoral college votes, which means small swing states.

Nightmare scenarios

Here are two scenarios that are quite possible with the current system:

Neither of these scenarios is good for democracy or stability. There is nothing to prevent them now.

Who else uses an electoral college?

Given the problems with an electoral college, it's not surprising that there aren't many other cases in the world of its use. According to Wikipedia, there are several other countries that use it for various elections, but they are a minority.

Could the electoral college be changed for another system?

Yes, but it would take a constitutional change, which is a major undertaking and would require widespread cross-party political support. Bear in mind, a more representative system (e.g. going with the popular vote) would increase the power of the more populous states and decrease the power of less populous states - which takes us all the way back to the Great Compromise and the Constitutional Convention.

What's next?

I hope you enjoyed this article. I intend to write more election-based pieces as November comes closer. I'm not going to endorse or support any candidate or party; I'm only interested in the process of democracy!

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