David R. Henderson  

Why the Electoral College Will Not be Abolished

Should the Fed give workers a ... One Last Election Bet...

Steve Chapman, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, has an excellent short article on the electoral college this morning. It explains why the candidates spend a disproportionate amount of time in swing states. Probably most readers knew why, but he does a particularly nice job in a short space.

He ends with this:

Traditionalists regard the Electoral College as a sacred creation of the Founding Fathers, whose genius must be respected. But the Framers really had only the dimmest idea what they were doing. Historian Carl Becker wrote in 1945 that "their grasp of political realities, ordinarily so sure, failed them in this instance. Of all the provisions of the federal Constitution, the electoral college system was the most unrealistic--the one provision not based solidly on practical experience and precedent."

Practical experience has shown that the only possible function of the Electoral College is to deliver the presidency to someone the American people have rejected. Democrats would be happy to abolish it. What would it take to get Republicans to agree? Something that could happen Tuesday.

But it won't be abolished even if a whole lot of Republicans get on board. Why? Because doing so requires an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It's conceivable, though unlikely, that 2/3 of the House of Representatives and 2/3 of the Senate would vote to abolish the electoral college.

Here's the rub: Once they did so, 3/4 of the states--38--would have to ratify the amendment. But take a look at the electoral map. What do you see?

7 states have 3 electoral votes. (I'm leaving out D.C., which is not a state.) 5 states have 4 electoral votes. 3 states have 5 electoral votes. That's a total of 15 states. If 13 of them block the amendment, it's over.

And we can be almost certain that at least 13 of them would block the amendment. Why? Because the electoral college gives disproportionate power to thinly populated states. Unless the country's population shifts substantially to 3 or more of these states, something unlikely to happen in the next 20 to 30 years, there will always be a blocking coalition.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
bill writes:

We should also abolish the Senate. Also not going to happen, but I can dream.

aretae writes:

It's worse than this David,

1. Yes, I agree as to why the system will not be changed.

2. The electoral college was instituted for good reasons...and the good reasons were pretty solid through the early 1900s. But the system fundamentally changed in the early 1900s, and the goal of the electoral college was overthrown 100 years ago.

Everyone knows about the balance of power between the 3 branches of the federal government. But that's not the important balance of power from the constitution. The primary balance of power in the constitution is the balance between the feds and the states.

The feds are responsible for interstate commerce, military, and outward-facing behavior...and the states were responsible for everything else.

Four or five bulwarks built into the constitution, were formed to maintain the balance of power between the states and the feds.

1. The electoral college means that states elect the president, not the people.
2. The Commerce clause means that the feds can't make rules that apply entirely internal to a state.
3. The 9th, 10th amendments exist to prevent the feds from doing much outside the purview of the constitution.
4. The original constitutional prohibition against direct taxes on the people (the feds apply taxes only to the states) exists substantially to maintain the autonomy of the states.
5. The unwritten right of secession, well understood and universally accepted from 1776-1855.
6. The Constitutional Amendment System.

Because of all of these things...we had a balance of power between states and feds. However,
A. The commerce clause has been defanged.
B. the 9th/10th amendments are mere scribblings.
C. The income tax was constitutionally amended.
D. Lincoln rewrote the right of secession

The only things currently standing that keeps the states as part of the real power discussion are
(A) The electoral college
(B) The amendment rules.

Peter Gerdes writes:

The fact that certain states get a disproportionate number of electoral votes relative to their population isn't proof they have more power under the electoral college. The actual power held by these states is a tough matter depending on just how many (and how plausible) voting patterns result in that state making a difference.

For example suppose that only 1 state, say Montana, had 3 electoral votes and every other state had a number of electoral votes divisible by 5. In such a situation there would be no possible way for Montana to ever affect the outcome of the presidential race so even if it had electoral votes vastly out of proportion to it's population it would actually wield more power if the electoral college was abolished.

Of course the real situation isn't so simple but the point stands. Just because you have a disproportionate number of electoral votes relative to population doesn't mean you are relatively more powerful under the electoral college.

More generally, practically speaking political power (and political influence) isn't actually about the amount of votes your state contributes to the presidential election. Most low population states are never in play in presidential elections and that means party leadership won't bother to spend resources in a state. Switching to a popular nationwide vote could very well benefit such states by increasing the amount of pork they can attract.

While I also believe a change is unlikely (simply because 3/4 is such a high fraction) power and benefits/losses can't be so easily reduced to percent of electoral votes.


Also, studies show that people don't vote out of self-interest but for what they genuinely believe is in the best interest of the country (through their eyes of course). So even if their state is a relative loser it's not clear that people wouldn't support such a change and thereby encourage their state legislature's to do so as well.

foosion writes:
Because doing so requires an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

It does not. There could be an interstate compact.

"The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact (NPVIC) is an agreement among several U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The compact is designed to ensure that the candidate who wins the most popular votes is elected president, and it will come into effect only when it will guarantee that outcome."

Max writes:


The link between states being a balance to the federal government and the electoral college seems pretty slim. In that sense the "state" is just a geographical unit, not an institution.

I'd add the direct election of senators to your list of things that tipped the balance of power to the federal government. Before then, the senators more or less represented the interests of their state government as an institution; after, they represented only the will of a geographically defined set of voters.

BC writes:

I'm not sure that the Electoral College favors (voters in) the small states. I think it favors (voters in) swing states, and the fact that presidential candidates spend most of their effort in swing states is evidence of that. If we think in terms of marginal value rather than average value, the marginal voter in a swing state has more value than the marginal voter in a non-swing state. Hence, presidential candidates will promise more favors (ethanol subsidies, industry bailouts, trade protections, etc.) to voters in swing states than in non-swing states. The point stands, though, that there is a constituency of states that have an interest in preserving the Electoral College.

To @artae's point, I think the desire to abolish the Electoral College is a *symptom* of the overall movement away from federalism or, more precisely, to revise history to deny that federalism is even a fundamental value of our democratic system. So, I'm not sure that the fact that the Electoral College is one of the few vestiges of federalism will help save it. I wish opponents of the Electoral College would be honest and say that they want to become less federalist and more nationalist rather than hiding behind arguments that popular vote is more "democratic". No one (reasonable) argues, for example, that representation in the United Nations should be based on population or that it's "undemocratic" for each country to choose its representative in a winner-take-all fashion. Nations, not individuals, are represented in the UN and, similarly, the federal government is a federation of sovereign states. We literally call it the *federal* government, not national government, and the difference between UN and US is literally the substitution of "states" for "nations". The underlying issue behind the Electoral College is one of federalism vs. nationalism, not one of popular representation.

JK Brown writes:

Nothing would stop the states from allocating their electoral votes by who wins the Congressional districts to reflect the will of the people. But the populous states would then be giving power to their rural districts.

foosion writes:
I'm not sure that the Electoral College favors (voters in) the small states.

It does. States with tiny populations still get at least three electoral votes, giving the more electoral votes per capita than larger states.

BC writes:

@foosion, my point is that average value (electoral votes per capita) is not the relevant metric because winner-take-all is a non-linear operation, which makes marginal value different from average value. If one wanted to maximize the value of one's vote, one would move to a swing state, not a non-swing small state.

Hana writes:

One way to reduce the power of small states would be to increase the number of Congressmen. The magic number of 435 is an arbitrary number. As the population grows the average voter is less likely to either know their Congressman or be able to impact him directly. Tripling the number of Congressmen would reduce the impact of the 2 Senators counted in the electoral college and therefore the mythical power of small states. Congress, by the way, has the ability to change the number of Representatives on its own. On a side note, while Montana might have 'power' in the electoral college, it is the least represented state in the House of Representatives.

Danno writes:

The only states that have incentives to get rid of the Electoral College are California and New York. In the controversial 2000 election, a majority of voters in 30 out of the 50 states voted for Bush. Nationwide,Gore won the popular vote by approximately 750,000 votes, thanks to winning California by 1,200,000 and New York by 1,700,000.

Why would the legislators in other states want to let California and New York anoint the president?

foosion writes:

@BC - there's no inherent reason a swing state will always be a swing state, so the voter interested in maximizing electoral college impact could have to move frequently.

Voters is small states always have disproportionate impact, both on the electoral college and also on the Senate and House. Two Senators per state is especially beneficial to small states. The filibuster increases the impact.

I doubt that there are many people who choose where to live based on these voting issues.

foosion writes:

@Danno - more states than NY and Cal have adopted the national vote interstate compact and more are considering it. Perhaps they believe in democracy, in which the majority rule. See my post above on the subject.

aretae writes:


I usually include direct election of senators in that list...but got distracted here. Thank you for calling it out.


Well said, and more concisely than I did. Preventing Tyranny was a major goal of the constitution. To that end, there were 2 separations of powers:

The major separation of power was Fed vs. State.
The minor separation of power was Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the Fed.

Somehow that has escaped most modern discussions. Because of their anti-federalist, pooh-pooh-ing of the anti-tyranny position.
Federalism as a founding feature of the country, with good reason, is inimical to the progressive cant of human betterment through legislation.

otto writes:

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Hazel Meade writes:

Unless the people in those states can be convinced vote for what is right rather than their state's self-interest.

That's always possible.
In fact the research shows that most people don't simply vote their self interest. They vote for ideology. It's *possible* most of those 13 small states can be convinced to pass it because it's the right thing to do.

AMW writes:
And we can be almost certain that at least 13 of them would block the amendment. Why? Because the electoral college gives disproportionate power to thinly populated states. Unless the country's population shifts substantially to 3 or more of these states, something unlikely to happen in the next 20 to 30 years, there will always be a blocking coalition.

You're ignoring Coasean bargaining. Make an amendment that abolishes the electoral college but gives some carrot(s) to small population states. The small states have very little impact on who is elected president, despite the fact that their votes have a disproportionate impact. I suspect they'd give up their advantage for a modest price. Maybe transferring a chunk of federal land to state governments? That could probably sway Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Then only small population states would be holdouts.

MikeP writes:

I for one am a big supporter of the Electoral College.

Most obviously, it forces candidates to spread their campaigning and interest outside of just cities or outside of just a few states since, once the state is won, there is no more gain in pandering to them any more. But the Electoral College also eliminates the opportunity for corrupt state elections officials who might stuff the ballot box for their party: that too is useless once the state is won.

However, the most important attribute of the Electoral College is that it prevents a Florida 2000 situation from going nationwide.

If there were no Electoral College, but the popular vote were a few thousand apart, instead of all the lawyers and all the attention going to finite Florida and Florida's recounts and Florida's laws and Florida's Supreme Court, they would have scattered across the country recounting ballot after ballot, chad after chad, among a hundred million ballots in thousands of counties.

When the vote is that close, does it really matter who wins? No. But what does matter is that the winner is determined quickly and peacefully. The Electoral College forms a firewall against the nightmare of a nationwide recount. It's hard to imagine that the complaints about the Electoral College outweigh the benefits of that firewall.

The probability of the popular vote being within a questionable fraction is about the same as the probability of the vote within a state being within that questionable fraction and that state being a deciding state in the Electoral College.

The only reason for the lengthy postelection court battle in 2000 over how to count the votes in Florida was the Electoral College.

Florida was a case study in why you want an Electoral College. The alternative would be disastrous.

MikeP writes:

All that said, it is true that all of the real benefit of the Electoral College would be preserved if it were made more fair by dropping the two senators from the per-state elector counts.

But the argument from the original article would hold: three-fourths of the states wouldn't agree to that.

Andrew_FL writes:

David, you write this like a jaded cynic who opposes the Electoral College. I hope that's not true?

Danno writes:

@Foosion --

Perhaps they believe in democracy, in which the majority rule.

Please look up the phrase "tyranny of the majority." That's why many non-Anglo Saxon countries believe that a once past the post system is undemocratic.

David R. Henderson writes:

David, you write this like a jaded cynic who opposes the Electoral College. I hope that's not true?
Sorry to give that impression. No, I like the electoral college. Partly for the reason MIkeP gives above.
One mistake a lot of people make in understanding me is to attribute normative views to me based on my positive analysis. It’s an understandable mistake because I have such strong normative views.
The reason I focused on this issue is that I think it’s futile to think about reforms that have a tiny, tiny probability of happening when there’s not a clearcut principle at stake.
I do think, though, that AMW makes a good point above about Coasian bargaining.

Adam writes:

The Electoral College changes who the median voter is, and since politicians mostly court the median voter, it affects in that way the average politician's average policies (or whatever it is that politicians optimize).

I suspect that if the presidency were decided by a strict popular vote, a right-of-center New Yorker or Chicagoan would be the median voter. With the Electoral College, the median voter is the median voter in states like Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The disproportionate impact of small states comes into play because they shift the median state and thus the median voter disproportionately, even if they themselves are far to the left or right of the median state. For example if Wyoming and Montana had less influence in the EC, then it would have been less decisive for Trump to win Pennsylvania, and it would have been more important for Trump to concentrate in Michigan for example.

LD Bottorff writes:

A question for those who want to elect the president by direct popular vote; if you believe so fervently in democracy, can we start electing Supreme Court justices by popular vote? How about confirming all Supreme Court decisions by popular vote?

The electoral college was a compromise between the parliamentary system and a democratically elected president. Rather than retaining the Congressional system that we have and electing the president by popular vote, I would rather move towards the parliamentary system and let the administration reflect the composition of Congress. That way, there would be no question about which party was responsible for policy.

Nick writes:

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lenny writes:

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