On the Electoral College

I thought this breakdown of the electoral college might be helpful.

The numbers are not arbitrary- they are a direct correlation to the total number of Representatives and Senators each state has in Congress, with 3 electors more recently being added for the District of Columbia. That gets us to our 538 number (and 270 required for majority win). When initially introduced, the total was something like 42, with the state of Virginia having 25% of all electors.

How was this possible? The northern states were far more populous- at least in terms of those eligible to vote. But remember at that point, the criteria for eligibility was white, male landowners. But they wanted to have something available in the system to account for total population- women, children, ….and slaves.

Enter the 3/5 Compromise, which most of you are probably aware of, which allowed for the counting of slaves as 3/5 of a single person. Virginia may have only had a couple thousand eligible voters at this point, but they had well over 200,000 slaves when this rule was established.

Virginia, the state which gave us Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, was essentially the backbone of the early American economy. As much as you could say any one state was in a situation where it was pretty much a free-for-all between the states. Many of the northern states were defaulting after the Revolutionary War and unable to pay back their war bonds to their debtors. According the the initial Articles of Confederation, that was a problem for the individual states to figure out, and none of them were beholden to help each other. Those in the north like Hamilton wanted those in the south with surplus to help prop up the other states (partly why there was a push for a federal treasury/bank/reserve).

Anyway, without getting too far off-topic, you have the Senate already established with 2 members per state. In the initial Constitution, this was meant to be the “high” governmental body for the elites and elected by the elites. Prior to the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913, state legislators actually elected US senators, rather than the citizens of that state. This “equal representation” idea favored the smaller states like Connecticut, Rhode Island, etc, whose land sizes and populations made it difficult for a wholly populous-based system to be accepted within their states. They essentially would have no say.

When it came around to discussing the “Lower House” of the unwashed masses (House of Representatives), the Connecticut Compromise gave this larger body representation that correlated with their population. This benefited the larger states such as Virginia and New York. And as both a state who had their economic system figured out (it’s easy for an employer to make money when they aren’t paying their workers) and had a higher population and land area, they felt they had every right to demand special favor for their situation. As is usually indicated by the term “compromise”, they eventually got most of what they wanted in exchange for giving in to the idea of a federal banking system and helping the states defaulting by assuming some of their debt. And with that, the 3/5 Compromise has its place in history.

Why is that important in the discussion of electoral college? Higher population gives more votes. This affects both electors for the presidency and actual representation in the House. All on the backs of proclaiming slaves as 3/5 of a human being. So there’s a big historical push-back on the electoral college on the basis of its direct connection to slavery and injustice.

But there’s far more to it. Because of its intended proportionality, but also wanting to provide a minimum (2 senators + 1 representative) of 3 votes per state, you actually have strange disproportionality.

I’ll spare you the exact details on how this works, but if you follow this line of thinking, Wyoming voters’ “1 vote per one person” actually adds up to being worth almost 3.5x the value of a single voter in California. (Population divided by electors, if the chart hasn’t made that clear.) This argument favors moving away from the electoral college entirely and using the popular vote majority winner to determine the presidential election. The current system, according to detractors, is unfair to states with higher populations, and in particular high population cities within high population states.

If you’re still keeping up and you’re cognizant of what’s been going on in the US in the year 2020, you know that this, in part, also disproportionately affects minority voters, who are most often found in high-density urban cities (Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Chicago, etc). Those in favor of the popular vote argue that this is a much more democratic method of election and would help disenfranchised voters to feel better represented.

Add to this the fact that each state utilizes a “winner take all” format almost exclusively, and there are issues expressed about representation for a state who, say, has a candidate who wins 51% – 49% in the popular vote in their state but is awarded all 9 delegates rather than splitting 5-4, based on actual results of the popular vote, or by the congressional district they actually represent.

So… there’s a lot there. And I fully recognize and acknowledge that it’s a flawed system. Even those who implemented it back in 1787 knew it had issues, but after 5 long summer months of arguing (without air conditioning and while refusing to even open windows for fear of spies and eavesdropping), the constitutional congress was pretty worn out. I really don’t think that they expected that part of the law to ride for a few decades, much less a few centuries. There was certainly sentiment expressed about a number of other issues (including slavery itself) that the delegates honestly and openly punted on, hoping that future generations would find a solution where they could not. So here we are.

Now, here’s where I have to draw the line and at least express some concern over a straight popular vote mentality. I’ll first give you the standard rhetoric (just so you know it exists) about population density and representation.

Map of Precinct Reporting of the 2016 Election - Bloomberg

Above is the actual precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the 2016 presidential election. Most of you know that Red is a Republican-won color while Blue represents a Democrat precinct.

People will show you this map, and indeed, I believe it may have actually been referenced by the Trump administration itself to emphasize how much of the “country” is in favor of him and his policies. What they won’t tell you is how a large plurality of the entire country actually lives within those blue shapes. Or how many of the red ones take up much more square footage per precinct, just to hit a large enough population demographic to be considered its own voting area.

So that, clearly, is a massively flawed argument and I’m not about to support any of it. But it does raise another far more interesting question. Should we go to a purely popular vote mechanic, what’s stopping the candidates from merely focusing their campaigns, funding, advertising, and even political platforming on solely the highest density metropolitan areas of the country?

The top 20 metropolitan areas in the US account for just under 40% of the total US population and spills into only 22 of the 50 states. Should platforms, promises, and politics be adjusted to pander to only this group, it would be far cheaper and simpler for any one candidate to hyper-focus their campaign in an effort to gain traction and buy in from these 20 areas, and for the rest in other cities (or the other 28 states), their vote quite literally would mean nothing.

It’s bad enough that there’s so much time and money spent on swing states, but at least the focus is on the entire state at that point. (There’s a whole different argument to be made about campaign funds, allocations, and the lot that we don’t have time to get into.)

So here’s the pickle we’re in. The electoral college is disproportionate and currently favors Red states. The popular vote mindset would easily become disproportionate and definitely favors Blue states. And without a supermajority (2/3 control of houses) in order to override any presidential veto, the current rule won’t be changing anytime soon.

That’s honestly not a new issue, but it’s not something originally anticipated. The original founders fully expected that their electoral votes would be split quite often and unable to attain a majority of the electoral votes. The voters at the time didn’t align with a political party (there weren’t any yet), so the expectation was that voters selected electors who represented any number of a handful of candidates, electors selected those specific candidates, and more often than not, there would be a tie with the elections. At that point, if no majority winner emerged, the vote would go to the House of Representatives. However, with the advent of political parties, there was a very clear split between two candidates each year and it was not hard to come up with the majority needed. In fact, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincey Adams in 1824, the vote has never gone to the House for decision.

Now, if you’ve followed along this long, you’re hopefully realizing that the issues with the electoral college also bring up problems elsewhere within the system as a whole. There’s clear voter suppression happening in urban areas, not even necessarily to prevent individual votes but to hopefully swing one or two precincts. There’s obvious elitism throughout the original document and writings of those designing the Constitution- do not trust the population to determine what’s best for the country, but give them a taste of the democratic process so they don’t rise up. There’s an emphasis on those in power retaining their power rather than coming up with a better solution, because it benefits them to keep things the same. And there’s definitely the issue of there being no perfect system yet proposed to replace the electoral college, even if you can get people to realize it’s broken.

I don’t have any great solutions either. But I think it’s important that we always address issues holistically and not in a vacuum. So I wanted everyone to be acutely aware of all the sides, objections, and problems related to the electoral college, as well as knowing how and why we got here. All of that said… any suggestions?

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