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Should We Abolish The Electoral College?

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
By Gary D. Halbert
October 12, 2004

Should We Abolish The Electoral College?

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Why We Have The Electoral College

2.  Past Impact Of The Electoral College

3.  Big Changes In The 2004 Election

4.  Is the Electoral System Outdated?

5.  Why Nothing Is Likely To Change

Introduction

In my August 24 E-Letter, I discussed how a possible change in the way Colorado allocates its nine Electoral College votes could affect the outcome of the 2004 election.  Colorado will have an initiative on its ballot on November 2 to split the state’s electoral votes based on the popular vote, rather than the current winner-take-all system. 

That E-Letter in August prompted more than a few reader responses about the Electoral College in general, and questions about its relevance in the “information age” we now live in.  So, with only three weeks until the election, let’s revisit the Electoral College and how it works.  This will be a very good article to share with your kids and/or grandkids that probably haven’t been taught much about the Electoral College in school. 

With the presidential election still a close race, there is a chance we could see a repeat of what happened in 2000 when George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won the electoral vote, and thus became president.  As a result, both the Bush and Kerry campaign strategies are based more on capturing the number of votes needed to win the Electoral College more so than winning the popular vote.

Given the possibility of a 2000 replay once again, let’s briefly review the history of the Electoral College, how it has evolved over the years, and whether or not the Electoral College is still viable today. 

Background

Let’s begin with the question, why do we have an Electoral College?  Why not simply use the popular vote as a method for determining the next President of the United States?  The Electoral College has been around since our country’s founding, and to fully understand, we have to go way back to when the Constitution was written. 

There were only 13 states back then, and they were spread over a wide geographical region.  Some of the states were large and others were small.  So naturally, there was concern about the balance of power between the large and small states.  If the presidential elections were determined based solely on the popular vote, then the larger states would always have the advantage. 

Also, there was a concern that many voters would not have sufficient information to make an informed decision. Remember, back then there was no radio or television, and no AOL or Yahoo connections to log onto for instant access to the latest news.  The founding fathers knew that most people would simply vote for the candidate from their state or their region.

So the founding fathers realized they needed to create an alternative to the popular vote as a way to level the playing field (large states versus small) and to hopefully make sure that presidential candidates campaigned in all the states rather than just a handful of large ones.

Many ideas were presented and discussed.  Among them were having the US Congress or the state legislatures select the president.  Yet these two ideas (and others) were rejected both because they removed the voters from the process, and because of the undue influence these groups could hold over the new president.

The College Of Electors

The founding fathers ended up settling on a plan using “Electors” and what would later be referred to as the “College of Electors.”  This plan was actually based on a similar system used by the Romans called the “Centurial Assembly.”  Under this system, male citizens were separated into groups of 100, and each group had a single electoral vote.  The original design allocated Electors for each US Senator (two per state), and one for each US Representative (which varies as the population of the state changes).

Over the years, there have been changes made in how the electoral process works, but many of the basics such as the allocation of the number of Electors have remained the same. 

Under our current system, people are grouped by congressional districts, and each district elects a single Elector to represent them in the vote for the president.  Currently, each political party submits to their state’s top election official a roster of individuals that are pledged to their candidate for president.  The number of individuals submitted is equal to the number of Electors allocated to their state.  These individuals are generally party officials, leaders or persons who have some kind of affiliation with the candidate.

Then, on the Tuesday following the first Monday of November in years divisible by four, the voters cast their ballots.  In reality, voters are not casting their vote directly for the president, but rather for the party slate of Electors that represents their choice for president. The ballots usually do not list the individual names of the Electors, but instead say “Electors for” and then the name of the candidate.

The candidate that wins the popular vote in each state receives the votes of all of the Electors in that state, with two exceptions.  Currently, the two exceptions are Maine and Nebraska.  In both of these states, the winner of the popular vote gets two Electors, and the rest are determined by the popular vote in each district.  As I wrote in my August 24 E-Letter and above, Colorado may join Maine and Nebraska if the current proposal to change the way its Electors are allocated receives voter approval in November.

Then, on the Monday following the second Wednesday of December, the Electors meet in Washington D.C. and actually cast their votes.  They cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.  Their votes are then sealed and sent to the President of the Senate.  On January 6, they are opened and read before both houses of Congress.

Currently, there are a total of 538 Electoral votes, and it takes at least 270 votes to win the presidency.  In the case of a tie in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives determines the winner based upon a majority vote.  It’s a complicated process but it has survived for more than 200 years.

Past Impact Of The Electoral College

In most elections, the winner of the national popular vote also wins the majority in the Electoral College. If you clinch the popular vote, you are most likely also going to win enough Electoral votes to win the election.  Some of the victories have even been very lopsided, as was the 1984 election when Reagan won 525 Electoral votes to Mondale’s 13.

However, the 2000 presidential election was not the first election in which the winner did not receive the majority of the popular vote.  In 1824, John Quincy Adams received fewer popular votes than Andrew Jackson.  In this particular election, neither candidate won the majority of the Electoral College. The tie was broken by the House of Representatives. 

In 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes won by a single vote margin in the Electoral College, even though he received 264,000 fewer popular votes than his opponent, Samuel Tilden. A few years later, Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland, but won the electoral vote.  It would be 112 years before this happened again in 2000 when George W. Bush lost the poplar vote, but won the Electoral vote over Al Gore 271-266 (we all remember what a mess that was).

Big Changes in the 2004 Election

The number of Electors allocated to each state is determined by the number of House of Representative seats they are allocated, plus two for their Senate seats.  Every decade, a census is completed to determine population shifts and to reallocate the number of House seats each state receives.  In the 2000 census, there were many major shifts in the population.  Of the 50 states, 17 had a change in the number of House seats they were allocated, and thus, a change in the number of Electoral votes they received.  This change will be reflected in the November elections.

In the 2000 census, the population of Texas increased, and the population of New York decreased.  As a result, Texas gained two House seats and New York lost two. Other states to gain two seats include Arizona, Georgia and Florida, while Pennsylvania was another state to lose two seats. Several other states gained or lost one seat.

These changes can have a big impact.  For example, in 2000 Bush won Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia.  If he wins these same states again in November, he will get eight extra Electoral votes.  This means he could lose a state like South Carolina with eight Electoral votes this time (he won it in 2000) and possibly still win the election. 

It also means if John Kerry wins traditional Democratic states like New York (-2), California (-1) and Pennsylvania (-2) in November, he will receive five less Electoral votes for carrying these same states this time around.  He would thus need to win another state (or states) with at least five Electoral votes, to make up for the loss of votes in NY, CA, and PA.

2004 Battleground States

Because the election of 2000 was impacted so decisively by the Electoral College, both Bush and Kerry are concentrating their efforts in the so-called “Battleground States.”   Most states have been locked up for one candidate or the other, so both candidates are spending most of their time in the few states where the race is still close.   This means that many states are largely ignored.

For example, let’s look at Texas which is solidly a Bush state.  As a result, President Bush has spent little time or money campaigning in Texas, and neither has Kerry. Whether Bush wins by one vote in Texas or one million votes, he will win the 34 Texas Electoral votes.  So, it doesn’t make political sense for him to spend time or money trying to get additional votes in Texas. California is a state likely to go for Kerry, and so neither candidate has focused very much on California either.

However, in some of the key battleground states like Michigan, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Mexico, both candidates are spending huge amounts of time and money there.  Both Bush and Kerry have made dozens of visits to these key states since they are critical to either candidate in coming up with the magic number of 270 Electoral votes needed to win the election. 

If you live in one of these battleground states, you have been bombarded with television and radio ads, mailings, phone calls, etc. Both candidates are spending a ton of money on these relatively few states.  If you live in a state that is already locked up for one candidate or the other, you aren’t seeing much of the political battle that is raging in the swing states.  This may be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

Many people believe this is the main disadvantage of the Electoral College, since a very few states have a disproportionate influence on who is elected the next President of the United States.  Just remember the tremendous impact the state of Florida had on the last election.  In essence, the voters of these few battleground states will decide who is our next president.

On the other hand, if it were merely a popular vote, then a handful of large states - like CA, TX, NY, FL and PA, for example – could also decide the election, and the smaller states would have little say in the process.

Is the Electoral College Outdated?

Since it had been over 100 years since the Electoral College had such a great impact on an election as it did in 2000, many people simply forgot about it, or really didn’t care whether we have an Electoral College or not.   After the last election, the talking heads went on endlessly about it, and how it impacted the election. 

Some even suggested that the Electoral College had outlived its usefulness and should be abolished, and they have a lot of company.  If you go to the Google Internet search engine and type in “abolish the Electoral College,” you’ll get about 3,500 websites that either support or oppose the elimination of the Electoral College.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that various public opinion polls have shown the majority of the American public would like to abolish the Electoral College.   To-date, there have been over 700 proposals introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College over the last 200 years, yet none have passed.

The reasons given for abolishing the Electoral College are many and varied.  Some believe the simple fact that a candidate can get a majority of the popular vote and still lose the election is reason enough for a change.  Others argue that the Electoral College is outdated because it tends to favor some of the smaller, rural states. 

A 1988 article entitled “The Electoral College” by William C. Kimberling pointed out the advantage for the smaller states.  Kimberling noted that if you took the combined voting age population of the seven least populous states - Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming and the District of Columbia - you would have had a combined population of 3,119,000.  These states had combined total of Electoral Votes of 21 at the time.

By comparison, the state of Florida alone also had 21 Electoral votes, but had a combined voting age population of 9,614,000.  Kimberling concluded that each Floridian’s potential vote only carried about a third the weight of the potential voters in the six least populous states and DC.

Those who argue in favor of the Electoral College remind us that it does require the candidate to acquire an electoral majority in those cases where no candidate receives a majority of the popular vote.  As noted above, the winner must get at least 270 out of the 538 electoral votes available.  In seven different elections in the 19th century, no candidate received a majority of the popular vote, though the winner did win a majority of the Electoral Vote. 

There were three times in the 20th century where the winner actually received less than 45% of the popular vote, including President Clinton’s 1992 victory over George H. W. Bush in which Clinton managed to garner only 43% of the popular vote. Without the Electoral College, a candidate could win the presidency without any type of majority.

If you look at many European governments, their leaders are elected without any kind of clear majority.  As a result, their governments often tend to be coalitions, with different parties uniting to form a ruling majority.  With the Electoral College, our president is required to win a clear majority of the Electoral votes in order to win.

Why Things Aren’t Likely to Change

With so many attempts to do away with the Electoral College and the public’s general apathy toward the institution, you might be wondering how it has survived so long.  As with many things in Washington, at least part of the answer boils down to politics.  The two established political parties want to solidify their power and make it hard for new parties to be formed.

Under the current Electoral College system, third-party candidates generally have a difficult time gaining much traction in national elections. For example, Ross Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, but did not win a single Electoral vote since he didn’t win the majority in any state. This explains why the established political parties have no desire to make it easier for third-party candidates to compete.

Thus, the Republicans and the Democrats would just as soon keep things the way they are.  Just remember how hard it was to get campaign finance legislation passed.  Neither party wants to do anything that might dilute their power. 

That’s why that, even after the 2000 election debacle, the Democrats didn’t make a strong push to abolish the Electoral College and go to a genuine popular vote, for to do so might have undermined their power in the future.

Another reason we’re not likely to see the Electoral College abolished is that getting rid of it is no simple matter. Since it is part of the Constitution, abolishing it would require a Constitutional amendment. This would require that the amendment be approved by a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate.  The amendment would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of the States.  Not an easy task.

Finally, another reason that the Electoral College is likely to survive is that we Americans tend to have short attention spans.  The 2000 election seems like ancient history now.  Unless we have another election where the winner of the Electoral vote is not the winner of the popular vote, there will be little demand for a change.

Conclusions

The Electoral College system was designed with good intentions, based on a country that, at the time, was much different from America today.  Many believe it has outlived its usefulness, and that a handful of battleground states should not have such a disproportionate impact on the election of the president. 

Also, we all know when President Bush was elected in 2000 with fewer popular votes than Gore, it left lots of bad feelings.  Even today, many liberals still can’t seem to get over this, even though it has happened in the past.  And who knows, maybe making it easier for a third party to emerge would shake up the Democratic and Republican parties a little.

On the other hand, we can see the problem with a simple popular vote deciding the outcome of presidential elections.  A handful of large states could overshadow all of the smaller states.  Another problem is, no one has come up with a clear and workable alternative to the Electoral College. 

Given that only three times in our nation’s history did the winner of the popular vote not also win the Electoral College, maybe it’s not such a bad system after all.

I hope this brief explanation has helped.  Class dismissed.

Very best regards,

Gary D. Halbert

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