How can we get rid of the Electoral College?

Aug. 30, 2004
Q: What can we do to change the electoral college?

A: At the national level, not very much - my response on that appears below. But at the state level, we can get rid of the electoral college any time we want, or at least get rid of the bad parts about it. Actually, Maine and Nebraska already have.

The bad part of the electoral college is the winner-take-all aspect. In California, all 55 electoral votes go to whichever candidate wins the popular vote. Even if the other candidate comes in a close second, he gets zero electoral votes. Let's say the vote in California was 51% to 49%-in effect, the 49% get disenfranchised. In fact, it's worse than that, because everyone knows that California will go for Kerry, so neither Bush nor Kerry even bother to campaign in the state. Plenty of voters in Orange County (a conservative region) would love Bush to visit and solicit their votes - but what's the point? Anyone who lives in a state where the result is a sure thing for either the Democrat OR the Republican suffers the same status of being ignored during the presidential campaign.

But Maine and Nebraska have a solution. They split up their electoral votes - it's not winner-take-all. Each Congressional district elects one representative to the Electoral College based on the majority vote in that district. Then the final two "at-large" electors go to whomever wins the statewide majority. Usually it turns out to be unanimous anyway (they're both small states - 4 and 5 electoral votes, respectively) but they COULD be split 3-1 or 3-2.

Let's say that system were applied in California. Let's assume that every district in California voted in the majority for the party that's currently represented by their US Congressional Representative. There are 33 Democrats in California's US delegation and 20 Republicans. With the two "at-large" electors going Democrat also, that'd split the state 35 for Kerry and 20 for Bush. A lot less lopsided than 55-0, and a lot less disenfranchising. The district which includes Orange County, for example, would certainly go for Bush, and would get an Electoral vote that said so.

There is nothing in the Constitution about HOW each state assigns its Electoral vote - that's entirely up to each state. Hence any state can change their Electoral system without any Constitutional Amendment - just by a vote of the state legislature, or a statewide vote, or whatever that state's laws say they have to do. This is actually happening in Colorado right now - see the Aug. 30 edition of Newsweek, George F. Will's column at for an article about it. Coloradoans will vote in November whether to count their nine Electoral votes in winner-take-all or via the Nebraska-Maine system. George Will is against implementing this system on the grounds that no candidate will ever go to Colorado since they know the vote will get split so it's not worth it. But if some big states started doing it, this ongoing question would be resolved permanently.

-- Jesse Gordon, Aug. 2004
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A viewer asked this question on 5/22/2000:

should the electoral college be disbanded

morrisonhimself gave this response on 5/22/2000:

When the Founding Fathers created the federal system, their intent was to provide checks and balances, trying to ensure individual rights would be protected by preventing too much power being concentrated.
They have been proven right.
Today the presidency has assumed all kinds of powers, especially under Clinton with his "executive orders," and the people are losing freedoms on a daily basis.
The Electoral College was meant to strengthen the federal system -- that is, the union of states that is this nation known as "these United States," not "the United States."
In other words, these United States are perhaps united for defense against foreign aggression, but they continue to be sovereign. The states were
* not* submerged into a single entity.
The Founders also wisely wrote that senators would be chosen by the respective state legislatures, not by the people, continuing their attempt at placing obstacles, checks and balances, in the way of concentrating power, at ensuring that power would continue to reside in the states and the people, not in the District of Columbia (the city whose motto is "Don't Laugh: You're Paying For It.")
So, in short, yes, let's keep the Electoral College.
But let's return to the honesty of showing on the November ballot the slate of Electors and not just the party nominees.
When voters cast their ballots, they are
* not* voting for the presidential candidates, but for the Electors.
And it would be nice -- but not likely -- if the "news" media and the schools would inform the people just how the system actually works.
Good question, Hap, and I hope you get lots of responses.
Michael Morrison

madpol gave this response on 5/22/2000:

What? before I finish my degree. There have been occasions, such as in John Kennedy's victory in 1960, where the winning candidate lost by a small margin in the popular vote.

But the inclusion of a state's two senators in the electoral vote total prevents any serious imbalance that would look like a robbery. And the percentages, except in landslides, of electoral and popular votes tend to run pretty close.

Going with a straight popular vote would cause candidates to ignore the small population states entirely, both in the campaign and at budget time. With voter turnouts at record lows, the last thing we need is an excuse to cut more people out of the process.

JesseGordon gave this response on 5/22/2000:

The first question is, "Is the system broken?" I'm not so sure it is -- the guy who wins the popular vote DOES win the Electoral vote, after all. It would be a strange election indeed if it didn't come out that way -- but of course, it COULD. So let's assume there is a POTENTIAL of it being "broken" so it should then be disbanded.

Then the second question is, "What does it cost to fix it?" The way to look at that question is to compare the costs saved (by removing the Electoral College) with the costs we'd have to spend to change it (via a Constitutional Amendment).

Neither of the costs here are very high in financial terms -- I think the Electors are volunteers, doing it as a duty of the Party Faithful. And the financial cost of an amendment aren't too high either -- people LOVE to volunteer for that sort of thing! So "disbanding" it wouldn't cost much in terms of dollars.

The real costs here are the political costs, which means this is a question of "political economy." The first rule of political economy is that you can only act when the time is ripe. You can't pass a constitutional amendment without a lot of dedicated people (and even then it's hard!) which means the political cost is very high. To muster up that political will, there has to be that hue and cry based on a BIG reason -- a crisis, or a candidate with a mission who gets a "mandate", or SOMETHING. Then this issue would be ripe for change.

The crisis in this case, I think, would have to be that the winner of the Electoral vote was the loser of the popular vote. People would be disillusioned; politicians would be screaming from soapboxes; the press would be full of the history of the Electoral College; and maybe an amendment would then pass. But not now; not without that sort of crisis -- it just has too high a political cost.

JNo1109860 asked this question on 8/5/2000:

I have never understood the electoral college. How can a candidate win popular vote but lose an election because he is elected by the electoral college. Why vote?

madpol gave this response on 8/5/2000:

The electoral college does elect the president. But the popular vote in each state determines who gets to sits in the electoral college. Whoever wins a state in the popular vote gets that state's electoral votes.

So, what you are actually doing is electing the people who elect the President. And since the electors are committed to vote for the winning candidate in their state on the first ballot, the guy with the highest popular vote has always won the electoral college as well.

There has been a lot of talk about changing the system, but it really does serve an important purpose. Each state casts two votes for it's senators as well as one vote each for its number of representatives.

In a direct popular system, candidates could win the election by focussing on the more populous states, while ignoring the smaller ones. This would weaken smaller states' political voice.

Also, presidential elections are big business. The two major parties are expected to spend upwards of $150 million combined this year, with the Reform Party getting another $25m. Throw in primary spending, merchandising and tourism connected with visits by presidential candidates, etc. And it becomes something that no state can afford to not get a piece of.

morrisonhimself gave this response on 8/7/2000:

The Electoral College exists because the United States is a federal republic.
That is, it is a union of sovereign states.
It is
* not* a democracy; it shouldn't be a democracy.
The Electoral College was designed to protect the premise of a federal republic, that is, that the central government is subordinate to the states.
The premise is being overridden constantly, and the Bill of Rights generally -- except for one Amendment -- and Amendments Nine and Ten especially are ignored or violated on an almost daily basis by congress and the president.
One of the problems with modern politics is that, with the connivance of the "news" media, the people have made of the president an almost-king. He is expected to cure all kinds of ills and solve all kinds of woes -- even those that are not at all the business of any government, and especially not the federal government.
The Electoral College is supposed to help prevent that.
Among other errors or sins, though, is the fact that most people don't even know they are voting for a slate of electors, not directly for the candidate.
When I was a child, the ballot in my home state showed the names of the Electors, right under the name of the candidate, to whom they were more or less pledged.
In the last several years, though, I have not seen any state's listing the Electors. Some must, but I haven't seen it.
Why vote is really another question entirely, and the only answer is, Vote if you want to try to influence which candidate is chosen.
Bear in mind that your vote in a presidential election counts very little but your vote for a local office counts for much more.
Yet, ironically (or something), more people will vote in the presidential race -- where they have far less influence and where they likely have not even met a candidate.
There is a good argument that to vote is to give credence and credibility to an evil system, a system of coercion, a system that says taking from the working people to give to parasites (including governments) is right.
But voting may also be the only way to restore our liberties. May.
Michael Morrison

A viewer asked this question on 2/8/2000:

Hello, I would like to know your opinion on the Electoral College. Is it an archaic system of voting that does not accurately represent the popular vote and should be done away with? Or is it a good system that has worked well in the past and offers advantages, such as individual state representation? Why do you think this? This information is necessary quickly for a pseudo-publication. If you would like to receive credit for your opinion in my pseudo-publication, please include:
Your first name & last initial
Your age

Thank you!

budgetanalyst gave this response on 2/8/2000:

In my opinion, it is a system that should be done away with. The main problem is that the electors are individuals who can do as they wish, not that any other system would not assure the same type of representation. You could have a system that counts the votes in the same way as does the current system (giving representation to states as entities) without the intervening need of having a group of electors meet and cast a vote, perhaps random. A computer program could do the calculation - this is what the TV networks do on election night when they project who will be elected President.

I also see a problem in the state representation because it is essentially a fake concept - a state with half a million people gets two senators (and two extra electoral votes) as does one with 20 million. There is something wrong with a system that gives political decision making value to large areas of desert land and takes it away from people. The concept is based on the fact that the original 13 colonies gave up something when they formed the current country (USA), but this logic does not apply to the rest of the states - they were simply created by the Federal government. There is no reason today to preserve this aspect of the system at all.

Laszlo B., age 58.

A viewer rated this answer:

Thank you! Your opinion is greatly appreciated.

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