The Electoral College Flunks Again
Not since Tom Dewey beat Harry Truman has the Electoral College come under such scrutiny. After sinking nearly 2 billion dollars into the election, it all boils down to a few hundred votes from the beaches of Florida. No wonder this 18th Century anachronism is coming under fire. What is the Electoral College, how did it come to be, and do we really need it in the 21st Century? Just what were those Founding Fathers thinking?
It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
Representatives to the Constitutional Congress in 1787 faced a tough audience. They were under tremendous pressure to give smaller states a big voice in who would be elected President. They also lacked any faith in the general public. Elbridge Gerry, a representative from Massachusetts, worried that "The people are uninformed and would be misled by a few designing men". The trick was to give "We the People" the power, but make sure the "We" remained wealthy white businessmen and plantation owners.
Deadlocked between popular vote and election by the Congress (which many feared would make the President subservient to the Congress), Gerry and his fellow lawmakers came up with a messy compromise known as the Electoral College.
Wizards Behind the Curtain
When you enter a voting booth and flip the little lever, you're not really voting for a
Presidential candidate. Who you are voting for is a slate of "electors", people chosen by a political party who are pledged to vote for their candidate in the "Electoral College". No ivy covered walls or football games for this college. Electors are local party members chosen for their prior service and reliability. Reliability is important, since, incredibly, electors aren't legally bound to vote for their candidate. In 1968 a North Carolina elector pledged to Nixon voted for George Wallace, and in 1988 a Dukakis elector from West Virginia voted for Lloyd Bentsen. So we're not just looking at ancient history here.
Each state is granted electoral votes equal to the number of representatives and senators, from 3 for low-population states like Vermont and Wyoming to 54 for California. Giving greater power to the smaller states was vital in getting them to join the Republic, and remains the main argument for retaining the College.
The Constitution requires that state electors vote as a "plurality" - the votes from each state must all be cast for a single candidate. This winner take all process explains why candidates pay so much attention to undecided states offering the highest potential electoral vote, like Florida. New York (safely Democratic) and Texas (safely Republican), while high in electoral votes, rarely tilt the other way and are usually ignored.
Because each Federal Legislative District gets its own electors, local ballots used to carry the actual elector names rather than candidates. In the confusion, people might vote for a Gore elector named Bush, or visa-versa. For this reason most states no longer place elector names on the ballot. Doing away with individual electors also ended the problem of split tickets. Electing a split ticket would spread that state's electoral votes across several candidates. Long and bitter squabbles then followed, as the electors fought over which candidate to unite behind.
Although the Constitution requires that states choose their electors, it doesn't specify how. At first, state legislatures picked their slate of electors. By 1840, however, only
South Carolina ignored the popular vote, and they finally came around in 1866. Problems with the popular vote forced Florida to go to its legislature for electoral votes in 1868 and Colorado did the same in 1876. State laws now prevent this from happening again.
After the popular vote is tallied, winning electors meet at their respective state capitals on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their own ballots. This weirdness allowed for the long horseback ride from the elector's district to the state capital. In a world before telephones, keeping electors from different states separated prevented them from making deals with each other to circumvent the popular vote.
Nowadays we just have to trust them.
Once cast, electoral ballots are transmitted by employees of the General Services Administration (its original task) to the president of the Senate. Finally on January 6th, a joint session of Congress opens the ballots and they are counted. Then it's official. Usually.
The Voice of the People? Guess Again
Don't get comfortable yet. In order to win, a candidate must get a majority of electoral votes. Our big national parties were unforseen in 1787. It was possible and even expected that several candidates would get substantial votes but none a majority. To deal with this, the House gets to pick the President if no candidate garners an electoral majority vote. If a third party picks up enough electoral votes to deny any of the candidates a majority, the final decision lands in the House of Representatives.
As unfair as this seems, it gets worse. Once in the House, each state gets only one vote.
Populous states like California and New York lose all their power. Wyoming and Vermont get an equal single vote each. Your hundred million or so votes no longer matter. This unnatural result fuels the fears of the two big parties, and encourages smaller parties to keep trying.
A Few Bugs in the System
The original intent of the Constitutional Congress was to make the top electoral vote winner President and the second place finisher Vice-President. This often put people of opposite political leanings into the two offices, with disasterous results. Then the
Jefferson-Burr race of 1800 ended in an electoral tie. After nearly a month of debate, the House chose Jefferson for President. Out of this came the Twelfth Amendment, specifying that only the top 3 finishers were eligible for the Presidency, and that the Senate would now elect the Vice President. Leaving the Vice Presidential decision to the Senate is still the law. We could someday have a President and Vice President from different parties once again.
Near Misses Again and Again
Although the fiasco in Florida seems like a unique event, Electoral College squeakers are common. Woodrow Wilson beat Charles Hughes in 1916 with the help of only 3,800 (out of more than a million) California voters, tilting those 13 electoral votes his way. Truman beat Dewey by 2.2 million votes, but a shift of only 29,000 votes in California, Illinois and Ohio would have shifted the win to Dewey. As recently as 1976, Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford by 1.7 million popular votes, but a measly 9,300 more votes in Ohio and Hawaii would have given the race to Ford.
Confusion and Corruption
Winning the popular vote but losing the election is also nothing new. In 1824 Andrew Jackson won 99 of the 131 required electoral votes. John Quincy Adams had 84, and the third place finisher had 41. Ignoring public demand, the House made Adams the President. Jackson kept plugging though, his persistence paying off with a win in 1828.
Then in 1876, New York Governor Samuel Tilden beat Ohio Governor Rutherford Hayes by 250,000 popular votes, but Hayes won the Electoral College and the Presidency. Corruption being nothing new in politics, Congress had adopted in 1865 a rule that disputed electoral votes could be rejected by either house for any reason. The Tilden-Hayes race was beset with reports of massive corruption in the votes from four states: Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana and Oregon. Twenty questionable electoral votes were thrown out by the Republican Senate, handing the election to Hayes. It seems Florida is no newcomer to electoral hanky-panky. And in 1888, Grover Cleveland won by 95,000 popular votes but lost to Benjamin Harrison anyway. One hundred and twelve years later, here we go again...
Time to Go?
Has the Electoral College flunked out? Remnant of a time when only white men with property were considered worthy enough to vote, it sure seems so. Legislation to abolish the College appeared as early as 1816 and as recently as last year, but to no avail. Eliminating it threatens to reduce the now amplified voice of low-population states, who would lose some or all of their current 3 votes.
Changes to the Constitution require ratification by both houses of Congress as well as 38 states, some of which stand to lose much power if Presidential elections move to a popular vote. Any solution will have to be carefully crafted to maintain the small states' leverage yet satisfy the public's demand for equal representation and fairness. For 213 years, the Electoral College has endured attack after attack. Perhaps its time has passed.