Home > government, politics > W.T.F. Is the Electoral College, Anyway?

W.T.F. Is the Electoral College, Anyway?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016, 22:27 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Electoral MapHave you heard? There was an election yesterday! I’ll post more on that in the days to come, but for now I’ll just point out that if the numbers as certified right now were final, Hillary Clinton would win the popular vote, Donald Trump the electoral vote. Naturally, that has Hillary fans indignant, probably because they have no idea what the electoral vote is and why we have it.

For those who didn’t pay attention in high school history or civics class, as well as my readers from outside the United States, we Americans don’t directly vote for President and Vice President. Instead, we vote for electors, and in almost every state (Maine being the only exception, I think), the candidate whose electors get the most votes ends up winning the votes of all that state’s electors. The number of electors equals the number of the state’s United States Senators (two per state) plus the number of its members of the House of Representatives (proportional to the state’s population), such that larger states get more electoral votes, but no state gets fewer than three. So it doesn’t matter how many total people prefer any given candidate, but rather how many electors each candidate wins. If that sounds un-democratic, that’s because the United States isn’t actually a pure democracy. It’s a federal republic, and even though state and local offices are elected purely democratically, our constitution provides that it is the various states that elect the president and vice president. It’s a bit like the World Series; the winner isn’t the team that scores the most total runs, it’s the team that wins more games in the series.

What’s the point of the Electoral College? Simply put, it exists to prevent the country’s few humongous states from drowning out the voices of the rest of the citizenry. For the sake of convenience, let’s say there are five states, which break down by population and number of electors this way:

State Population Electors
California 12,400,000 55
Florida 6,500,000 29
Ohio 4,075,000 18
Kansas 1,350,000 6
Montana 675,000 3

Now here is a possible presidential election scenario:

State Candidate A Candidate B Electoral Votes
California 5,900,000 (47.58%) 6,500,000 (52.42%) 55 for Candidate B
Florida 3,400,000 (52.31%) 3,100,000 (47.69%) 29 for Candidate A
Ohio 2,120,000 (52.02%) 1,955,000 (47.98%) 18 for Candidate A
Kansas 705,000 (52.22%) 645,000 (47.78%) 6 for Candidate A
Montana 350,000 (51.85%) 320,000 (48.15%) 3 for Candidate A
Total 12,475,000 (49.90%) 12,525,000 (50.10%) Candidate A 56 – Candidate B 55

First, a few points. The elector numbers are real for the five states. The populations are fictitious but proportional to the actual populations of these states. Only a portion of the total population, adult citizens, are eligible to vote, and not all of them actually do so. There are many more than five states. The margins of victory from state to state aren’t that similar. Understanding all that, let’s examine at the results of our hypothetical election.

Candidate A wins Florida, Ohio, Kansas, and Montana by decent margins (3-6%). Candidate B wins California by a slightly larger margin. Because California is so populous, Candidate B gets more total votes, but by a slim margin&meash;only one-fifth of one percent. By popular vote, Candidate B very narrowly wins the presidency, even though four other states in different parts of the country with different concerns and interests preferred Candidate A.

But using the Electoral College, Candidate A—the candidate preferred by four of the five states—wins by one electoral vote. The more populous states got more electoral votes, which is as it should be, but the votes of the citizens in the four smaller states weren’t totally negated by the votes of Californians. It’s a compromise between simple majority rule and the premise, enshrined in our founding documents, of state sovereignty. It’s the same reason why Representatives are apportioned by population, but in the Senate all states are equal.

In only a few instances in our history has the winner of the popular vote not won the Electoral College, but when it has, it’s for reasons foreseen by the framers, when the popular vote was extremely close and the “tyranny of the majority” in a few big states would have essentially out-muscled the voters in the more numerous smaller states.

In a republic such as ours, I believe that compromise is entirely appropriate.

(10/06/2017: edited for clarity.)

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