People have raised questions about the American method for electing a president for over 200 years. But the system has been under particularly intense scrutiny since the 2000 election. What are the origins of the electoral system and some of the problems it has exhibited? How appropriate is the system for today? Should the system be changed? And if so, how? The student reading and activities below probe these questions.
The Unique US Electoral System
Part I: The US Electoral System: Origins and Problems
"Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of senators and representatives to which the state may be entitled in the Congress...."
With these words in Article II of the Constitution, the Founders of the United States set up a system for the election of a president.
It is a unique system that not only foreigners but also many Americans have a hard time understanding. It still comes as a surprise to some Americans when they learn that what they think is a vote for a presidential candidate is actually a vote for "a number of electors" who will then vote with electors from other states in the so-called "Electoral College" to determine the next president.
As Article II states, each state is given the same number of electors as it has senators and representatives. Under our Constitution, every state has two senators; the number of a state's representatives depends upon the size of its population. Which means that Delaware, with a relatively small population, has three electoral votes while California, with the largest, has 55.
The Founders did not want the nation's chief executive to be chosen directly by all the people but indirectly by electors, who—at least in theory—would be the most enlightened and unbiased citizens. The Founders fashioned a republic, not a pure democracy, even though they regarded the consent of the governed as the bedrock of the system. They divided the power of the national government among three branches and divided power also between the national and state governments. This separation of powers and the federal system, James Madison wrote (No. 51 of The Federalist ), provided a "double security" for the rights of the people.
Madison, of course, was not considering slaves, who had no rights. The electoral system was partly a concession to Southern slaveholders who wanted the electoral power their slaves could provide. They got it with a Constitutional provision that each slave would count as three-fifths of a person in any population tally and thereby contribute to the number of electors each slave state would be entitled to. The result in 1800 was John Adams' defeat by Thomas Jefferson, whose electoral vote was eight more than Adams'. But, as historian Garry Wills has pointed out, at least 12 of Jefferson's votes were based on slaves owned by Southern masters. Without the three-fifths provision, Adams would have been reelected president. ("The Negro President," New York Review, 11/6/03)
Nor was Madison thinking about women, who did not get the right to vote until 1920.
In establishing an electoral system, the Founders were also influenced by a number of practical considerations. Four million Americans were spread across many hundreds of miles along the Eastern seaboard. At a time when travel was only as fast as a horse, the founders thought it would be hard for presidential candidates to reach all the voters, as a national campaign for the popular vote would require. The Founders also believed that any gentleman qualified for the presidency would not mar his dignity by campaigning for office. Given such difficulties, it seemed impossible that most ordinary citizens would inform themselves well enough to cast an intelligent vote. The Founders thought an electoral system would solve this problem.
Alexander Hamilton was very pleased with the electoral system. It "affords a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications. It will not be too strong to say, that there will be a constant probability of seeing the station filled by characters preeminent for ability and virtue." (No. 68, The Federalist )
But within a few years of the Constitution's adoption, electoral system problems began to appear.
Among those problems:
- The system could produce a president and vice president who were political enemies (in 1796, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson)
- Unexpectedly, political parties emerged and nominated presidential and vice presidential candidates
- The electoral system did not require separate ballots for president and vice president, a loophole that produced a tie in 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, requiring a decision by the House of Representatives (Jefferson was elected president).
- There was a growing demand for the direct popular election of electors instead of their selection by state legislatures.
In time, most of these problems were resolved by a Constitutional amendment (Article 12). And states gradually adopted the direct popular election of electors.
But the most serious problem with the electoral college system continues to this day: A candidate can be elected president despite losing the popular vote.
In 1824 no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote, throwing the election, as the Constitution provided, into the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams was elected president over Andrew Jackson, who had won more popular votes than Adams. Something similar occurred in 1876 when Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote but not an electoral majority and was defeated in the House by Rutherford B. Hayes. Only 12 years later Benjamin Harrison, with a minority of the popular vote, was elected over Grover Cleveland.
And then in 2000, Democrat Al Gore defeated Republican George W. Bush by more than 500,000 popular votes, but lost the electoral vote by 271 to 266 in a disputed election decided by a 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court. The Founders never dreamed of that possibility.
Part II: The Electoral System's Critics and Supporters
The biggest problem of the electoral system is a winner-take-all method that, in 48 states, awards all of the state's electoral votes to the candidate who gets the highest number of popular votes in that state. In the other two states, Maine and Nebraska, two electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote; the rest of the electoral votes go to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district. In the 2004 election, Colorado has a measure on its ballot that would provide for a proportional division of the state's electoral vote. If it passes, it goes into effect immediately and could affect the presidential contest. It will almost certainly be challenged
The winner-take-all method means that:
- The democratic principle of one person, one vote is violated. Votes for the loser in a state simply don't count. In the 2000 election, for example, all of California's electoral votes went to Al Gore even though 4,567,429 Californians voted for George W. Bush. And even if Bush had won 5,861,202 votes, he still would have received none of California's electoral votes because Gore won 5,861,203 votes.
- Candidates pay little attention to states they are sure of winning, since all the state's electoral votes are already assured. They also pay little attention to states they think they have no chance of winning, since they know they will get no electoral votes, even if they win support from a significant minority of voters. Thus, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush didn't need to campaign in Texas, where he was almost certain to win. Nor did he have much reason to campaign in New York, where he was almost sure to lose. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry didn't spent much time in Texas or New York either, since he expected to lose Texas and win New York.
- Instead, candidates concentrate their campaigning and advertising money in states that are up for grabs, so-called "swing states." This election year, swing states have included Ohio and Pennsylvania, which have significant electoral votes (20 in Ohio, 21 in Pennsylvania). But even swing states with relatively few electoral votes, like New Mexico (5) and Iowa (7) receive repeated visits from candidates, while much bigger states like Texas (34) and New York (31) are virtually ignored.
- People from non-swing states may be discouraged from voting, which can contribute to low voter turnout. Why bother to vote, a Democratic voter in Texas or a Republican voter in California or New York might think. My vote won't count.
- Independent or third party candidates are marginalized, since they can rarely win enough popular votes to get any electors from the states. An exception was Ross Perot in 1992, whose personality, ideas and money got him a good deal of attention. But even Perot, who won 19 percent of the popular vote, received no electoral votes.
- Smaller states get disproportionate voting power because electoral votes are not allocated completely according to population. Wyoming's population, according to the 2000 census, is 493,782; North Dakota's is 642,200. Each receives three electoral votes even though North Dakota has almost 150,000 more people. But the electoral system makes a Wyoming voter's electoral power the equal of a North Dakota voter's. Voters in both those states have significantly greater electoral clout than that of voters in California and Texas, the most heavily populated states.
Critics of the current electoral system suggest a range of alternatives, including replacing the electoral system with a popular vote for president, or making each state's electoral votes proportional rather than winner-take-all. However, most proposals for changing the system would require a constitutional amendment approved by three-quarters of the state legislatures. States that benefit from the current system, like Wyoming and North Dakota, are unlikely to support a reform that would result in a decrease in their own voting power.
But a Stanford professor, John Koza, has come up with an idea that does not require an amendment. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution calls upon each state to "appoint" its Presidential electors "in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct."
Under Professor Koza's proposal individual state legislatures would make an interstate agreement in which, regardless of the popular vote in their state, they would agree to give their electoral votes to the national winner of the popular vote. The agreement would take effect when enough states joined it to elect a President. That requires a majority of the 538 electoral votes, which could be won if as few as 11 of the largest states pledged themselves to the agreement.
Presidential elections would then be won in the same way that all other elections are—by the candidate with the most votes. The Electoral College would still meet. But it could not again elect a John Quincy Adams over an Andrew Jackson or a George Bush over an Al Gore.
Bush's 2000 victory was the first by a candidate who had not won the national popular vote since Harrison's 1888 defeat of Cleveland. So while Professor Koza's plan might not make much difference in who wins, it would make a huge difference in how candidates campaign. For instance, because of the electoral system, the presidential and vice presidential candidates in 2004 attended 268 campaign events during the final month before the election in 13 so-called "battleground states," where the victors were in doubt. They attended 23 in all other states combined. This means that two-thirds of the country—including the three biggest states, California, Texas, and New York—was ignored.
If every vote in every state were worth something, candidates would pay attention to voters everywhere in the country. For 50 years polls have shown repeatedly that 70% of Americans favor direct election of presidents. Late in February 2006 Illinois became the first state to begin consideration of a bill to make that possible. (Source: New Yorker, 3/6/06)
The electoral system has its supporters. They argue that:
- The one person, one vote democratic principle is also violated by the Senate, in which every state, large and small, has two senators. Are Americans ready to change the make-up of the Senate as well as the electoral system? Consistency would demand it.
- Direct popular election of a president would result in elections dominated by large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Dallas, and New York. Less populated areas that now receive attention from candidates would no longer get it, and some national cohesiveness would be lost, columnist George Will contends ( Newsweek, August 2004). As a result, regional conflicts like those in Russia and India might begin to plague the US
- Our federal system has made every state count and is part of the Founders' effort to restrain power. Direct popular election of presidents would counteract this effect and promote instability.
- Direct popular election would invite the creation of third parties and even the splintering of the major parties. This could lead to the kind of divisive politics found in such democratic countries as Italy and Israel.
1. Why did the Founders of the United States decide upon an electoral system for electing a president?
2. Which, if any, of their reasons do you think apply today? Why?
3. What are some of the problems that appeared after the electoral system went into effect?
4. What are major problems with the winner-take-all electoral system?
5. What arguments are there for the continuation of the electoral system?
Resolved, that the Constitution should be amended to provide for the direct popular election of a president.
After the debate and a decision about the winner, the teacher might want to point out that the common adage about their being two sides to every issue is often wrong. Controversial issues are not necessarily either-or. For instance, one might argue for the proportional allocation of electoral votes. For example, in 2000 Al Gore won all of California's electoral vote. A proportional allocation would have given him 29 electoral votes, Bush 23, and Ralph Nader 2. Note, too, that Maine and Nebraska have devised yet another electoral system. Are there still other possibilities?
Write an essay in which you discuss one of the following:
1. "The Electoral College makes sure that the states count in presidential elections. As such, it is an important part of our federalist system-a system worth preserving. Historically, federalism is central to our grand constitutional effort to restrain power."
—John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org), 11/10/2000
2. "The electoral college is unfair, outdated, and irrational."
—Bradford Plumer, editorial fellow at www.MotherJones.com, 10/8/04
- Investigate the operation of the electoral system in one of the following presidential elections: 1796, 1800, 1894, 1876, 1888.
- Study the Supreme Court decision in 2000, unique in American history, in which the court awarded Florida to Bush and thus the presidency.
- Examine a president you suspect might not have lived up to Hamilton's "moral certainty" that the electoral system would only produce presidents who are "characters preeminent for ability and virtue."
William C. Kimberling, Director, Federal Election Committee, "The Electoral College" (www.fec.gov/pages/ecmenu2.htm)