Thoughts on the Electoral College

First, just some historical, numerical perspective on the Electoral College, since it’s lately a controversial issue (again):

  • There have been 58 presidential elections in the history of the United States of America (one every four years since 1788), and records of the popular votes have been kept for all but the first nine
  • Out of the 49 elections for which the popular vote was recorded, only four* have been decided by the Electoral College in defiance of the voting public (that is, 8.2%)
  • Of these four, only two have taken place in the last 31 elections (or 6.5%)

The election of a president in which the popular vote is at odds with the Electoral College is a rare event in American history. Given that the data from the last 40 elections indicates no consistent advantage in “swing states” for either party in the Electoral College, I see no compelling reason to believe that it should begin happening more often.

Regardless, the popular vote is a step removed from deciding the outcome of the election of the president under the Electoral College. Individual voters in, say, California don’t cast their ballots for their candidate of choice directly. Instead, their votes choose the way all of California’s electors (which equal the number of California’s Representatives and Senators in Congress) vote on their behalf. Electoral votes are allocated in this “winner-take-all” fashion in every state but two. In other words, electoral votes are allocated by means of the democratic process.

What this means is that inasmuch as critics of the Electoral College take issue with this means of vote allocation, they take issue with the process of democratic decision-making in general—after all, even if the United States were to abolish the Electoral College and institute a system of direct popular election, when 50.1% of the population of the United States chooses the identity of the next president, the dissenting 49.9% doesn’t have the option of being led by their preferred candidate(s). This is functionally equivalent to the “lack of voice” of which Electoral College critics complain.

Of course, if that really is their main concern, the most rational approach would be to limit as much as possible the degree to which political decision-making is operative in our lives, and instead let people register the degree of their preference in the marketplace, where popular majorities can’t directly impose their wills on popular—and socioeconomic—minorities.

Anyway, in all of the contention surrounding the framing and ratification of the Constitution, the Electoral College was among the few parts of the document that was uncontroversial to nearly everyone on both sides of the debate. I conclude with a quote to that effect:

“THE mode of appointment of the Chief Magistrate of the United States is almost the only part of the system, of any consequence, which has escaped without severe censure, or which has received the slightest mark of approbation from its opponents. The most plausible of these, who has appeared in print, has even deigned to admit that the election of the President is pretty well guarded. I venture somewhat further, and hesitate not to affirm, that if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist no. 68

*Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, Benjamin Harrison in 1888, George W. Bush in 2000, Donald Trump in 2016. One other electoral anamoly exists, as well: in 1824, Andrew Jackson won more votes in the Electoral College and won the popular vote over John Quincy Adams. However, Jackson failed to gain the necessary majority of electoral votes to be inaugurated president. This led to a contingent election in the House of Representatives, per the Twelfth Amendment, where he lost to Adams.