Get Rid of the Electoral College!

It is time for America to stop choosing its president by an archaic, confusing, and undemocratic method.  As the 2000 election has shown, using the Electoral College lets a candidate win the presidency even if a larger number of voters prefer -- and vote for -- someone else.  Al Gore, who leads in the popular vote, did not have an absolute majority; but even if he had, he would not have been elected unless he won Florida by at least one vote.

[This editorial was written in late November. At that time even I was not cynical enough to imagine that Gore could get more votes in Florida and still lose!]
Why did the founding fathers give us this ridiculous institution?  There were several reasons, but none of them was good.  The founders were not much in favor of democracy anyway, and hoped that an indirect election would keep popular majorities from threatening the privileges of the rich--see Federalist Paper #10, or Charles Beard's classic work, An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.  More directly, though, the Electoral College was meant to protect slavery.

If the president had been chosen by popular vote, only the slaveowners would have been run the risk of being outvoted.  The free and slave-based areas of the country were roughly equal in level of development and population density; but since slaves could not vote, there were more voters in the free states.  But the Electoral College is not apportioned by the number of voters; it is based on the size of each states representation in Congress.  Under the infamous three-fifths rule, slave states got to increase their representation by three-fifths of the number of slaves in their state.  Think how horrible it must have felt, not only to be disenfranchised, but to know that they tyrant who claimed to "own" you was using your vote to keep you in slavery! (Lani Guinier makes a similar argument in next week's issue of The Nation, as does Akhil Reed Amar last year in The New Republic.)

The stories about harassment of African American and Haitian voters in Florida brings this memory vividly back to life.  With direct elections, a state's influence on the outcome would be increased as more people voted.  But under the Electoral College system, a state gets the same number of Electoral Votes even if no one votes.  Consequently, a state's power structure has a strong incentive to try to prevent voting by the oppressed.  Once again, the wealthy seek to base their power on the disenfranchisement of black people.

It is time for this racist institution to go!

Defenders of the Electoral College make two arguments, both of them bogus.  First, they say that it is appropriate because it is a "federalist" institution, and the US is federalist.  No one can even say what this argument means.  The presidency is the same office, with the same powers and role, however the president is elected.  The only impact of the Electoral College is not to make the presidency federalist, but to make it undemocratic.

Second, it is claimed that the Electoral College helps small states.  This is a pragmatic argument, not a principled one.  Small states will never accept direct elections, we are told, so an amendment will not be able to win the required approval of 3/4ths of the states, and we should not waste our time trying.  This is just plain wrong.  Under the Electoral College system, small states are ignored.  With direct elections, a vote in Wyoming and a vote in California have exactly the same value; but under the Electoral College system, a vote in California is worth as much as 15 votes in Wyoming -- so candidates conclude that campaigning in Wyoming would be a waste of time.

However, the big states do not have it so good either. In 2000, the Gore campaign spent no money on TV advertising in New York or California, because they believed that they would win those states anyway.  They had no incentive to increase turnout there, because the extra votes would not have affected the outcome.  Under the Electoral College system, the only states that count are those that are both large and competitive.

There is only one potential disadvantage to direct election of the president, and this problem is easily fixed.  If we chose the president the way we do governors, by plurality vote, a president could be elected without any majority -- either of the voters or of the Electoral College.  This system would encourage the cynical and corrupt strategy (by candidates) of placing "straw" candidates in the election to take votes away from your opponent, and the equally cynical practice (by voters) of "strategic voting" -- voting for the candidate you think will win, rather than the candidate you believe in.

The answer to this problem is to require election by a majority of the votes.  This could be done expensively, by having a second election, limited to the top two candidates, a week after the first.  But it could be done cheaply by using the Instant Runoff Vote.   With the Instant Runoff--used in Australia, for example--voters mark their first, second, third, etc. choices on the ballot.  A candidate with a majority of first-choice votes is elected.  If no candidate has a majority, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated, and his or her votes redistributed to whoever was the second choice on those ballots.  (This can all be done electronically and fast).  This process continues until one candidate achieves a majority, and is elected--and eveyone knows that an absolute majority preferred that candidate to whoever finished second.

Let's do it!  Amending the Constitution is not easy -- but if the US is to retain any semblance of democray, it has to be done.

An editorial by John C. Berg.  Your comments are invited.

For similar opinions by John Anderson, Rob Richie, Stephen Hill, and others, see the Center for Voting and Democracy's site.

For more study of this issue, see my pages of books about election law reform.

For background on the Electoral College, see  The Electoral College Primer 2000 by Lawrence D. Longley and Neal R. Peirce, who agree with Jefferson that the Electoral College is "the most dangerous blot on our Constitution."  The Primer is drawn from their earlier historical study,  The People's President: The Electoral College in American History and the Direct Vote Alternative.

For a detailed history and analysis from a more conservative point of view see When No Majority Rules: The Electoral College and Presidential Succession, by Michael J. Glennon -- click here for a free online version of this book.

Other books on the Electoral College include:

Back to John Berg's homepage
Revised December 16, 2000.