David R. Henderson  

Why We Won't Eliminate the Electoral College

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Co-blogger Garett Jones has an interesting post making his case for the electoral college. I don't have a strong view either way, but I can tell you why it's extremely unlikely that the electoral college will ever be eliminated.

The reason is basically that to eliminate the electoral college would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. How is the Constitution amended? Here's Article V:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

Whichever means is used, therefore, 3/4 of the states must agree. That's 37.5, which means 38. So all you need is 13 states to block.

Let's look at the allocation of electoral votes.

Number of states (including D.C.) with the minimum of 3: 8--Alaska, D.C., Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.
Number of states with 4: 5--Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island.

That's a total of 13. Of course, D.C. is not a state, so we really have 12, which is not enough to block. But there are three states with 5 electoral votes: West Virginia, Nebraska, and New Mexico. So the total number of states with 5 or fewer electoral votes is 15. They are clearly a blocking coalition. All of them would lose power in deciding the presidency if the electoral college were eliminated.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Tim writes:

That's true insofar as it applies to abolishing the institution itself, but because states determine the manner in which their delegates to the EC are appointed, the EC can be converted into a rubber stamp for the popular vote simply if 270 delegates worth of states pass laws appointing their votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Heck, if merely California and Texas gave their votes to the popular vote winner, the loser of the popular vote would require a landslide of the rest of the delegations to cause the outcome of the Electoral College to differ from the popular vote. It must be considered very near to a statistical impossibility for a loser of the popular vote to not only eke out a win in the EC, but do it when 55 or 38 electoral votes that would have been his under the old laws are now assigned to the winner of the popular vote.

Sonic Charmer writes:

To expand on Tim's point, there already is a movement among states to sign pledges to throw their electors to the popular-vote winner. The way the pledge works is that it goes into effect if/when enough states (i.e. to add to 270 EVs) sign on. And several states (including California) have signed on already. So, it's not in effect this year, but it could have been, and if the movement picks up, could theoretically be in effect in 2016, making the EC a dead-letter.

I'm in favor of the EC over the popular-vote, but the spectacle and freakout over solid-blue California throwing its EVs to Romney this year would almost have made it worth it.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tim and Sonic Charmer,
I don't see how that would work without a really good enforcement device. As you both probably know, some electors already feel free to vote for whom they want regardless of the vote in their own state. I knew one of them: Roger MacBride of Virginia, who voted for Libertarian John Hospers in 1972.

The Beaver writes:

So who my electors cast their votes for should be decided by votes cast in New York or California and not by us voters here in little old Oregon? I think not.

There is a far superior way that doesn't require a constitutional amendment, or a deferral to the largest states. Here it is. First, the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district gets one electoral vote for that district. Second, the winner of the statewide majority vote would get the two additional electoral votes.
This would make everyone's votes meaningful and dilute the influence of the so-called battleground states.

All it would take is an interstate compact with enabling legislation in each state. Just like the Uniform Commercial Code, which has worked well for generations.

ChevalierdeJohnstone writes:

[Comment removed for ad hominem remarks. --Econlib Ed.]

Jeremy N writes:

The commenters all make good points. I also wanted to point out, though, that even though small states are over-represented in the electoral college, that doesn't give them the most influence.

The real winners from the system are the swing states. It's Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida who would be less willing to see the end of the electoral college, not the small states.

David R. Henderson writes:

I can see that you're a careful reader.

John David Galt writes:

It seems to me that the largest unfairness in the present EC system is not the greater weight given to voters in the lowest-population states. The largest unfairness is the way the large states effectively disenfranchise nearly half their voters.

For example, California, with 58 electoral votes, is split fairly evenly in voter registrations (38% D, 31% R, 5% other parties, 26% unaffiliated), but the plurality winner (nearly always the Democrat) gets all 58 votes.

In a fair system the electoral votes would be parceled out in direct proportion to the popular votes. But currently only one small state divides them at all. Ask a legislator why and he'll tell you "It would dilute our state's importance in the election." Clearly this guy's idea of what's important is unfair, to say the least.

This is why I support the NPV movement.

toto writes:

[Comments removed for policy violations. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Sailer writes:

The Electoral College localizes vote fraud. Everybody in every cemetery in Chicago can vote, but it doesn't defraud people in New Hampshire or Oregon from having their votes counted honestly.

Tim writes:

RE: enforcement device.

I am not a lawyer, but it seems probable to me that states would not be impeded from requiring their electors to sign pledges swearing to vote for the winner of the popular vote under penalty of law. But even without that, if faithless electors haven't made the difference in any election thus far, even those which have been close, I feel justified in presuming they will have as little influence under this system, which as I see it can only dramatically increase the margin by which the candidate who wins the popular vote carries the EC.

Consider: if a nailbiter election resulted in a 270-268 vote in the EC, a faithless elector could conceivably send the decision to the house of representatives. But if 270 votes worth of states had signed laws giving their votes to the winner of the popular vote, the winner of the popular vote would now have 270 votes off the bat, plus any of the remaining 268 which he won conventionally. Assume he takes more or less half of them, and now he's got roughly 400 votes in the electoral college. It would take about a hundred and thirty faithless electors to change the outcome of the EC, instead of merely one beforehand.

Henry writes:

@The Beaver

You're referring the "Maine-Nebraska" method, which if widely implemented would simply distill the problems of the Electoral College to the district level, but exacerbated by the effects of gerrymandering. For instance, at the moment the median congressional district is about two points more Republican leaning than the nation as a whole, which means that a Democrat would need to win by about that margin to win nationally.

Floccina writes:

I would guess that right about now the people of Ohio are wishing that the electoral college had never invented.

John Fembup writes:

"So the total number of states with 5 or fewer electoral votes is 15. They are clearly a blocking coalition. All of them would lose power in deciding the presidency if the electoral college were eliminated. "

David you may be right and actually I hope you are.

But . . . I recently looked up some history on the 17th Amendment (popular election of Senators) and was shocked, shocked! to find so many "small" states ratified the Amendment early on, in fact ensuring its overall ratification. I think the 17th Amendment significantly diluted states' powers and I don't yet understand why so many small states supported it.

That has me looking at the Electoral College thing with similar uncertainty.

gic writes:

There already is such a compact and its half way to going into effect:


nzgsw writes:

I find the Popular Vote Interstate Compact both amusing and bizarre. If you see which states have signed up, they are, by and large, massively Democratic-leaning states (CA, WA, IL, VT, MA, HI, NJ, DC). Given the apparent partisan split in opinions on the Electoral College since the 2000 elections, the states most likely to pass this are also probably Democratic-leaning states. If this trend holds, it would be a massive swing towards the GOP, as deep-red states would continue to be winner-take-all, while the swing and blue states would apportion EC votes.

Why would the blue states do this without equal buy in from red states?

Yancey Ward writes:

The proposed compact between the states to give their electoral votes to the popular vote winner will dissolve the first time a Democrat loses the popular vote, but can win in the electoral college, which could happen as soon as this year.

I mostly agree with Dr. Henderson that it won't ever change by amendment, but there is no guarantee that the constitution will be adhered to in the future. I could easily envision a Supreme Court of the future declaring the electoral college itself being unconstitutional because it is in conflict with some other constitutional right, however defined.

Glen Smith writes:


Haven't looked at how the pledge they signed is written but my first instinct is that this is a "look we support this while they don't" which is set up so that it is not going to be implemented (unless the red states also sign up). Kind of a standard political game to please a part of your base while not really committing to anything.

ajv writes:

The Electoral College will never be eliminated because that would remove a large portion of the state’s power in determining an election. A state’s representation in the electoral consists of whoever they choose to send. That is a large influence on the election that they can choose themselves. Thirty-eight states would never vote to amend the constitution and abolish the Electoral College that would be nearly the same as giving up there influence over the election. States with the fewest number of representatives in the Electoral College would have the most to lose in deciding the election of a new president. The Electoral College has been around for hundreds of year and the states are happy enough with it that it has not been removed throughout all of the years since its inception. It has withstood the test of nearly 250 years worth of elections and regardless of their outcome whether states are happy with it or unhappy there has never been a move to abolish it that has come close to succeeding. Many of the states with large numbers of electoral votes are unwilling to potentially lose their influence due to the implementation of a new system for electing the president that would replace the Electoral College.

Brandon Hepler writes:

I think that this is a very logic way of looking at why we still have an electoral college. I myself have wondered how such a system could stay in place. I personally, do not vote. It is hard for me to believe that my single vote can make a difference when it is basically liquefied and assimilated thru the Electoral College. I would prefer a more ‘direct-election’ type of deal like the old days of ancient Greece.
Basically, what is being discussed here is that there are states with less electoral power than other states and the only way for them to influence the election is to stick with the Electoral College. Therefore they would potentially block any amendment to abolish the Electoral College. My solution would be to make this a direct democracy. That way it doesn’t matter what the majority of your state votes for, as it won’t be simplified into a few electoral votes. Everyone would cast a ballot and every ballot would be tallied up and the winner should be chosen by whoever has the most votes. That way it wouldn’t be state against state, but more an actual view of the citizen’s opinions.

J.D. writes:

It appears that Vermont and Hawaii have already defected from you supposed block of holdouts, so you're back down to 13. Still enough to block an amendment, for now.

Daublin writes:

I've been pondering Garett's argument that the EC leads to social peace. His argument is roughly that since presidents don't campaign in the solid states, there is overall more peace.

A counterexample is the lead up to the Civil War. In the last election, the winning president had zero--count them--zero electoral votes from the southern states. The winning president took a hard line with the southern states, thus wining support for the ones that voted for him, and ultimately he declared war on them.

The Civil War is a popular war, and the president in that election has gone down favorably in history. That said, "peaceful" is not the right description.

Skeeter Sanders writes:

Those who argue that eliminating the Electoral College will never happen because states would lose power have a valid point, if an amendment to abolish it were passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. State legislatures that would feel threatened by it would likely vote to defeat the amendment.

But what if the amendment was passed by Constitutional Conventions -- something that hasn't been convened in this country since 1791? The legislatures would have little power to stop attendees at the ConCons from voting in favor of the amendment, if public sentiment to do away with the Electoral College is overwhelming.

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