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Constitution Day: Electoral College Edition!


election-map-viewed-by-candidates(photo credit)

Each year on September 17, federal law requires schools, colleges and universities to observe Constitution Day.  Over the years, we have done this at Trinity by posing questions about the Constitution and soliciting community opinions for public inclusion on this blog.  This year’s question:  Should we amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish the Electoral College?  Why or Why not? 

We took a straw poll of the Trinity community and these are the results:


Below are some well-formulated arguments Pro and Con abolishing the Electoral College:

From Dr. Dennis Farley, Economics

Proposals to eliminate the Electoral College come up from time to time.  So far, our republic has been lucky enough to dodge them.  The framers of the Constitution wanted a republican form of government, but they had a healthy distrust of the people at large as decision makers for the nation.  The whole thrust of the Bill of Rights, for example, was to limit the power of a majority to dictate the rights of individuals or groups in the minority.  The method of selecting the chief executive, in Article 2, Section 1, was similarly influenced by a suspicion that direct election might not produce very good results.

There are two reasons I see why the Electoral College, arcane though it may be, is worth retaining. 

  1. The Electoral College is a potential bulwark against the election of someone truly not fit to be President.

Hamilton (in Federalist, No. 68) thought that the mere existence of the Electoral College would assure that scam artists and criminals would not be able to make it through the process.  The people would express their preferences by voting, but States would then appoint electors.  These electors would give the preferences of the people great weight but would then use their good judgment in casting their votes.  Direct election would have no such filter to prevent a popular scoundrel from coming out on top.  Our impending election suggests that Hamilton may have been too optimistic. 

It may seem a low probability event, but suppose that, after the popular vote in November but before the College would meet in December, a candidate for President were revealed to be a serial murderer.  In such a case, the electors would be able to vote for someone else, since they are free to vote their consciences, regardless of any pledges made during the popular vote.

One can argue that impeachment is the remedy for such a situation, but impeachment is a long and costly process.  In the meantime, do you want the serial murderer to be making decisions?

  1. The Electoral College maintains a winner-take-all structure for the popular vote State by State.

States are free to set up the rules for how electors are appointed.  Most States have chosen to appoint all the electors associated with the candidate who gets the most votes in that State.  Thus, each State contest is basically winner take all.  (Maine and Nebraska do this by Congressional district, with adjustments for Statewide results).

This is a good thing.  It maintains the perception that presidential winners are favored by a majority of the people.  Most of the time the winner of the popular vote also wins the most electoral votes.  Anomalies like Gore vs. Bush in 2000 are rare.

“Winner take all” also prevents the further fragmentation of our body politic.  Imagine for a moment what proportional allocation of electors, or direct election via the popular vote, would mean for future elections.  Knowing that one could get achieve notoriety on a national stage by capturing a few percent of the popular vote, splinter parties would proliferate.  There might never again be a majority President. 

Sorry to be so long-winded, but I have some strong views on this question.  The Electoral College should be retained.  You may view it as an outdated block on the will of the people.  I view it as a potential safeguard to the republic’s very existence.  And, in fact, most of the time the will of the people will be reflected in the Electoral College result.

At a time when the major parties’ methods for selecting candidates have broken down (the system of primaries is to blame here), I am loath to even discuss eliminating a safeguard that could protect us from a real disaster.

From Martha Molina, Assistant Director of Financial Aid:

Yes.  I believe that we should amend the U.S. Constitution to abolish the Electoral College because I believe that the people should elect the new president not a handful of states. 

I am basing this assertion on the following:  The truth is that all people that are elected to higher offices cannot do it with the help of certain groups of people that can influence other voters as well.  This doesn’t mean that these candidates are not honest or do not have good character (although some can’t disguised who they really are).  It’s just a fact that you need votes in your favor to win and a good campaign strategy (as in any strategy) is to get people to think that your ideas are better than your opponent. People will always think “what’s in it for me?”  Therefore, for a candidate to win the support of the people or groups he/she desires, the candidate must demonstrate (usually by official/unofficial/subtle/inferred promises) that he/she is the candidate that will make the elector’s desire come true.   

What does this have to do with the Electoral College?  A lot! Because the candidates will campaign and try to seek the favor of the states that will bring them the most electoral votes. I believe that the responsibility has to be with the people as a whole, not with some states.  For example, we have candidate X and Y. 

If a state “A” has a population of 10 million and 10 electoral votes and state “B” has a population 6 million and 6 electoral votes. Let’s say that only 3 million people vote from state A (1.7 million for “X” and 1.3 million for “Y”) so state “A” declares X the winner.  Now for state “B”, let’s say that 5 million people vote (1 million for “X” and 4 million for “Y”). 

If we total these numbers, candidate “X” will win 10 Electoral College votes with 2.7 million votes in his favor while candidate “Y” will lose since he only would have 6 Electoral College votes even though he won the population vote with 5.3 million votes –which almost double the number of votes for candidate “X”.   To me this is not democracy; democracy is the will of the people.  If this were to be a race between 2 states, then the winner clearly would not be the people that took the time to cast their votes to elect the best person to represent them.  There’s always going to be a good argument for each side; however if the question is does the Electoral College represents “We, the people”, then the answer is a resounding “No!”

From Dr. Carlota Ocampo, Trinity’s Provost:

I am not a political scientist, but I have grasped an important foundational principle of our American system:  checks and balances.  I appreciate checks and balances as an added layer of protections that shore up our democratic processes, and make what could be a fragile system, strong.

The electoral college is a good example of checks and balances.  Though three of the four Presidents who lost the popular vote but won the electoral were Republicans (the fourth being John Adams, our Federalist second President) I do not see this as a partisan issue.  I agree with Jason Brennan, the author of “Opinion: The Electoral College is anti-democratic—and that’s a good thing” which you posted below (2016: that “[America’s founders] worried that democratic polities were prone to fits of passion. They might be overcome by prejudice and swayed by populist demagogues … a series of checks and balances and a multistep process [could] slow down the decision-making process with the hope that cool heads will prevail.”

The hope that cool heads will prevail!  We have seen, in this election, the danger of demagoguery and the chaos of hot-headedness.  Psychology (and history) tells us that group behavior can supercede individual critical thinking when emotions run high.  Group decisions are often poorer than those each member might make individually and outside of the group’s influence.  Hitler’s rise to leadership was the result of democratic processes, after all, Brennan reminds.  The irony here is that a departure from the pure democracy of a popular vote – the electoral college – actually enhances our ability to enjoy the benefits of that democracy.

In endorsing the electoral college, I realize that MY candidate may lose the popular vote and win the Presidency (in fact, this has happened!).  And yes, I was sore.  But the ultimate winner is the continuation of the American experiment – an experiment which, so far, has produced a strong and stable life for many of the world’s citizens.

My vote:  for the electoral college!

And for extra credit, in refusing to hear the Garland nomination, the Senate is not only failing to uphold its sworn duty, it is engaging in exactly the kind of hot-headed political machinations that makes checks and balances necessary.  The Senate is proving my point.

Additional Comments from the Straw Poll

  • Members of the Electoral College can be influenced by wealthy corporations or individuals who would only support the presidential candidate that proposes policies that would benefit them and not the mass population. In the past it may have been a safeguard to select the president, but in current times it is more of a safeguard for the rich to maintain their status and power.
  • The Electoral College, most times, is not a true representation of who the people want in office. It makes me wonder if “freedom”, in its purest definition, was seen as an actuality in the development of our republic, or was the promise of freedom the old ‘carrot attached to a string trick’, used to lure unsuspecting, under-educated, desperate for change, poor people to believe that their voice and opinion mattered?
  • Checks and balances like the electoral college are the foundation of American democracy, and are important to preserving a broader democratic process.
  • In a government for the people by the people every vote should count equally.
  • No, because this is not a TRUE decision made by the American public. Americans should have a role in the presidential decision–the Electoral College disallows this role.
  • The Electoral College is based on populations of each state. While it is not perfect, it does motivate candidates to campaign in most states, and pay attention to the different issues in each state or region. We are a very diverse country in many ways, including by region, and the state-based Electoral College helps ensure that regional differences are addressed by the candidates. I think it also keeps them on a more even keel – if we had a simple majority vote, I think this campaign season would be even more chaotic, reckless.
  • The idea behind democracy is supposed to give the people power to choose their own president. Unfortunately with the electoral college, that power is being taken away from us because we are voting indirectly and the majority vote doesn’t really count. Ultimately, the electors are making a decision for us, which defeats the purpose of democracy.
  • Trump currently has the popular vote and if we were to abolish the Electoral College our country could go into serious turmoil.
  • The Electoral College is far from perfect, but it reflects our system of representation by both states and the people. I am all for adjusting or amending the process for fairness, but we should not abolish the entire system.
  • The Electoral College allows for checks and balances.

Thanks for participating in this discussion!  If you would like to add your voice, please offer a comment in the comment box below, or vote in the survey by clicking on this link.

Below is the information and context I posted in my original email message to the campus community about the Electoral College discussion:

What is the Electoral College?

 No, it’s not a degree-granting university.  It is a body created by the Constitution of the United States to elect the president of the United States.

Wait.  Don’t “We, the People” elect the president of the United States?

 Well, yes, indirectly.  Those famous Founding Fathers were actually somewhat conservative men who distrusted the will of the people generally, and were definitely afraid that majority rule could create problems for the then-new nation.  So, among many weird restrictions they created to hedge their bets about the usefulness of full democracy, they created this additional step for electing presidents.

When you go to the polls on November 8 (or earlier if your state allows early voting), you will cast your vote for president of the U.S., but in fact, you will be electing members of the Electoral College from your state.  Each state gets the same number of electors as the number of Senators and Congresspeople in that state.  (DC is considered a state for this purpose, and though we have no senators, we actually do get 3 electoral votes — 1 for our non-voting Congressional seat and 2 as if we had senators — wouldn’t it be great if we had real senators, though?  That’s another question…)

So, bottom line, the Electoral College has 538 votes apportioned in the same way as the U.S. House and Senate members represent the states.  A president must receive 270 electoral votes to win the election.

This is the reason why presidential candidates spend a lot of time in only few states — “battleground states” like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Virginia and others with a lot of electoral votes that might possibly “swing” to one side or the other with intense campaigning.

But what if a presidential nominee wins a majority of the popular vote?  Isn’t that enough to be elected president?

 No.  In the Year 2000, Democratic Nominee Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, giving the presidency to George W. Bush.  That was the fourth time in American history a candidate won the popular vote but lost the election because of the Electoral College.  (Another Constitutional question:  the Supreme Court ultimately decided the disputed 2000 election, showing that a full Supreme Court is very important for the balance of our national governance system.  But right now, the Supreme Court has only 8 members, not the required 9, because the Senate refuses to take action on President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.  Is the U.S. Senate abridging its Constitutional duty by failing to hold hearings on Garland?  I don’t give extra points but welcome comments on this question.)

So, should “We, the People” start a movement to amend the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College?

See The Electoral College is Anti-Democratic — and That’s a Good Thing

See New York Times:  Where U.S. Presidential Votes Really Count – The Electoral College

See Nate Silver’s essay:  Would Al Gore have won in 2000 without the Electoral College?

See the current Electoral Map of the United States

electoralcollegemap2016(photo credit)

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8 Responses to Constitution Day: Electoral College Edition!

  1. Susan Anthony says:

    How the Electoral College Works

    ● Each political party in each state nominates a slate of candidates for the position of presidential elector.

    ● Typically, each political party chair certifies to the state’s chief election official the names of the party’s candidate for President and Vice President and the names of the party’s candidates for presidential elector.

    ● Under the “short presidential ballot” (now used in all states), the names of the party’s nominee for President and Vice President appear on the ballot.

    ● When a voter casts a vote for a party’s presidential and vice-presidential slate on Election Day (the Tuesday after the first Monday in November), that vote is deemed to be a vote for all of that party’s candidates for presidential elector.

    ● Under the “winner-take-all” rule used in 48 states, the presidential-elector candidates who receive the most popular votes statewide are elected. In Maine and Nebraska, the candidate for the position of presidential elector who receives the most popular votes in each congressional district is elected (with the two remaining electors being based on the statewide popular vote).

    ● Each state’s winning presidential electors travel to their State Capitol on the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December to cast their votes for President and Vice President. They are not “influenced.” They are supporters of their party’s candidate.

  2. Susan Anthony says:

    There have been 3 small states, out of the 27 smallest, among the 10 recent battleground states. Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, the predictability of the winner of the state you live in, not the size of the population of where you live, determines how much, if at all, your vote matters.

  3. Susan Anthony says:

    Adolf Hitler did not come to power in Germany as a result of a national popular vote. In fact, Hitler was rejected by approximately two-to-one nationwide popular-vote margins when he ran for Presidency of the Weimar Republic.
    In the March 13, 1932, election for President, the results were:
    ● Hindenburg (the incumbent)—49.6%,
    ● Hitler (National Socialist)—30.1%,
    ● Thaelmann (Communist)—13.2%, and
    ● Duesterberg(Nationalist)—6.8%.
    Because President Hindenburg did not receive an absolute majority of the votes, a run-off was held on April 10, 1932, among the top three candidates. The results of the run-off were:
    ● Hindenburg (the incumbent)—53.0%,
    ● Hitler (National Socialist)—36.8%, and
    ● Thaelmann (Communist)—10.2%.
    On July 31, 1932, parliamentary elections were held in Germany and Hitler’s National Socialist Party won the largest number of seats in the Reichstag (230 out of 608); however, these 230 seats were far from a majority.
    On November 6, 1932, another parliamentary election was held, and the strength of Hitler’s party was reduced to 196 seats out of 608 in the Reichstag.
    On January 30, 1933, a deal orchestrated by a coalition of parties and power brokers who (mistakenly) thought they could control Hitler. As a result of this deal, President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Once in power as Chancellor, Hitler quickly used his position of Chancellor (and, in particular, the control over the police that his party gained in the deal) to create a one-party dictatorship in Germany.

  4. Susan Anthony says:

    There have been hundreds of unsuccessful proposed amendments to modify or abolish the Electoral College – more than any other subject of Constitutional reform.

    To abolish the Electoral College would need a constitutional amendment, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

    Instead, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting and divisive red and blue state maps of pre-determined outcomes.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support among voters) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    National Popular Vote

  5. Susan Anthony says:

    With the current system of electing the President, none of the states requires that a presidential candidate receive anything more than the most popular votes in order to receive all of the state’s or district’s electoral votes.

    Not a single legislative bill has been introduced in any state legislature in recent decades (among the more than 100,000 bills that are introduced in every two-year period by the nation’s 7,300 state legislators) proposing to change the existing universal practice of the states to award electoral votes to the candidate who receives a plurality (as opposed to absolute majority) of the votes (statewide or district-wide). There is no evidence of any public sentiment in favor of imposing such a requirement.

    If the current Electoral College type of arrangement were essential for avoiding a proliferation of candidates and people being elected with low percentages of the vote, we should see evidence of these conjectured outcomes in elections that do not employ such an arrangement. In elections in which the winner is the candidate receiving the most votes throughout the entire jurisdiction served by that office, historical evidence shows that there is no massive proliferation of third-party candidates and candidates do not win with small percentages. For example, in 905 elections for governor in 60 years, the winning candidate received more than 50% of the vote in over 91% of the elections. The winning candidate received more than 45% of the vote in 98% of the elections. The winning candidate received more than 40% of the vote in 99% of the elections. No winning candidate received less than 35% of the popular vote.

    Since 1824 there have been 16 presidential elections in which a candidate was elected or reelected without gaining a majority of the popular vote.– including Lincoln (1860), Wilson (1912 and 1916), Truman (1948), Kennedy (1960), Nixon (1968), and Clinton (1992 and 1996).

    Americans do not view the absence of run-offs in the current system as a major problem. If, at some time in the future, the public demands run-offs, that change can be implemented at that time.

    And, FYI, with the current system of awarding electoral votes by state winner-take-all (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), it could only take winning a plurality of the popular vote in the 11 most populous states, containing 56% of the population of the United States, for a candidate to win the Presidency with less than 22% of the nation’s votes.

    A presidential candidate could lose with 78%+ of the popular vote and 39 states.

  6. Susan Anthony says:

    The precariousness of the current state-by-state winner-take-all system of awarding electoral votes is highlighted by the fact that a difference of a few thousand voters in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 15 presidential elections since World War II. Near misses are now frequently common. There have been 7 consecutive non-landslide presidential elections (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012). 537 popular votes won Florida and the White House for Bush in 2000 despite Gore’s lead of 537,179 (1,000 times more) popular votes nationwide. A difference of 60,000 voters in Ohio in 2004 would have defeated President Bush despite his nationwide lead of over 3 million votes.

    After the 2012 election, Nate Silver calculated that “Mitt Romney may have had to win the national popular vote by three percentage points on Tuesday to be assured of winning the Electoral College.”

  7. Susan Anthony says:

    With the end of the primaries, without the National Popular Vote bill in effect, the political relevance of three-quarters of all Americans is now finished for the presidential election.

    Because of state-by-state winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution. . .

    In the 2012 general election campaign

    38 states (including 24 of the 27 smallest states) had no campaign events, and minuscule or no spending for TV ads.

    More than 99% of presidential campaign attention (ad spending and visits) was invested on voters in just the only ten competitive states..

    Two-thirds (176 of 253) of the general-election campaign events, and a similar fraction of campaign expenditures, were in just four states (Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa).

    Issues of importance to non-battleground states are of so little interest to presidential candidates that they don’t even bother to poll them individually.

    Charlie Cook reported in 2004:
    “Senior Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd pointed out yesterday that the Bush campaign hadn’t taken a national poll in almost two years; instead, it has been polling [the then] 18 battleground states.”

    Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledging the reality that [then] more than 2/3rds of Americans were ignored in the 2008 presidential campaign, said in the Washington Post on June 21, 2009:
    “If people don’t like it, they can move from a safe state to a swing state.”

    Over 87% of both Romney and Obama campaign offices were in just the then 12 swing states. The few campaign offices in the 38 remaining states were for fund-raising, volunteer phone calls, and arranging travel to battleground states.

    Since World War II, a shift of a few thousand votes in one or two states would have elected the second-place candidate in 4 of the 15 presidential elections

    Policies important to the citizens of non-battleground states are not as highly prioritized as policies important to ‘battleground’ states when it comes to governing.

    “Battleground” states receive 7% more federal grants than “spectator” states, twice as many presidential disaster declarations, more Superfund enforcement exemptions, and more No Child Left Behind law exemptions.

    Compare the response to hurricane Katrina (in Louisiana, a “safe” state) to the federal response to hurricanes in Florida (a “swing” state) under Presidents of both parties. President Obama took more interest in the BP oil spill, once it reached Florida’s shores, after it had first reached Louisiana. Some pandering policy examples include ethanol subsidies, steel tariffs, and Medicare Part D. Policies not given priority, include those most important to non-battleground states – like water issues in the west.

    The interests of battleground states shape innumerable government policies, including, for example, steel quotas imposed by the free-trade president, George W. Bush, from the free-trade party.

    Parochial local considerations of battleground states preoccupy presidential candidates as well as sitting Presidents (contemplating their own reelection or the ascension of their preferred successor).

    Even travel by sitting Presidents and Cabinet members in non-election years is skewed to battleground states

  8. Susan Anthony says:

    In fact, the Electoral College is Not a potential bulwark against the election of someone truly not fit to be President.

    The presidential election system, using the 48 state winner-take-all method or district winner method of awarding electoral votes used by 2 states, that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers. It is the product of decades of change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by states of winner-take-all or district winner laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    The electors are and will be dedicated party activist supporters of the winning party’s candidate who meet briefly in mid-December to cast their totally predictable rubberstamped votes in accordance with their pre-announced pledges.

    The current system does not provide some kind of check on the “mobs.” There have been 22,991 electoral votes cast since presidential elections became competitive (in 1796), and only 17 have been cast in a deviant way, for someone other than the candidate nominated by the elector’s own political party (one clear faithless elector, 15 grand-standing votes, and one accidental vote). 1796 remains the only instance when the elector might have thought, at the time he voted, that his vote might affect the national outcome.

    States have enacted and can enact laws that guarantee the votes of their presidential electors

    The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state laws guaranteeing faithful voting by presidential electors (because the states have plenary power over presidential electors).

    If an unfit candidate wins the popular vote in states with 270 electoral votes, there is no reason to think that the Electoral College would prevent that unfit candidate from being elected President of the United States

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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