In defence of the Electoral College

It is US Presidential Election day which sees an analysis of the candidates, of the results, and of the peculiarity of the system known as the “Electoral College”. Asked about this latter cursorily, 62% of Americans apparently call for its abolition – and the Washington Post agrees. But not so fast… it may actually be quite a good idea.

Firstly, the Electoral College has historical value, and that should never be wished away too quickly. It gives Americans a direct link to their history – to an era where distances prohibited each State from notifying its preference for President immediately. In other words, it is an American institution which was formed for good reason and has stood the test of time, given modern-day citizens a direct link to those who lived in the new republic at the end of the 18th century. It is never wise to throw away such linkages without good reason. But surely, the fact the system allows a President to be elected without even plurality support is good reason? Well, no…

Secondly, whatever the precise reasoning behind it at the beginning, the real modern purpose of the Electoral College is to reflect the fact of the nature of the country as evidenced by its very name – the United States. Each State is a separate unit of a federation, and each State rightly demands a say in who becomes their collective President. The College not only offers a direct (if largely symbolic) means of achieving this, but also contains an in-built numerical advantage to smaller States to ensure their interests are not marginalised. In a straight majority vote, it is highly unlikely Iowa or New Hampshire would get a look-in; as it is, sometimes small-town interests determine the winner, and, over a series of elections, for that to happen occasionally in such a vast country is no bad thing. In 2000 it was Florida; in 2004 Ohio; this time it may be Wisconsin; next time maybe Colorado or Missouri – instead of a focus every time on Greater New York City and California (as would be likely if merely an overall plurality were required – I disagree that it is as easy to reach 10,000 voters in Wyoming as it is in New York, it isn’t). In a diverse land, this is not necessarily a problem!

Finally, and perhaps decisively, there is no evidence that it does not work! If, out of over 100 million votes, two leading candidates are both within a few hundred thousand votes of each other, that is as good as a statistical tie. You could determine the winner by seeing which one just happens to have a razor-thin majority; or, in a diverse federation, you could determine the winner by seeing which one has the broadest range of States supporting. The latter, particularly in a Federation of States, may be the better option.

This is not to say that the current system is perfect: for example, perhaps assigning electors proportionately (or, at least, in part proportionately) rather than “winner-takes-all” would be a welcome (and yet still entirely constitutional) innovation; and the system in the event of no candidate receiving an outright majority is bizarre. However, I suspect the Electoral College is here to stay – and that may be no bad thing!


6 thoughts on “In defence of the Electoral College

  1. Electoral college block votes mean that in the current political climate the race boils down to nine or so swing states. Now, there are swing constituencies in any electoral system, but US presidential elections are a particularly extreme example. It would appear to this naive observer that allocating the electoral college by congressional district, with two top-up votes for whoever carries the state as a whole, would encourage presidential candidates to spread their campaigns more evenly across the country. It does seem strange that since four of the most populous states (CA, NY, IL and TX) are foregone conclusions, they are effectively written off. There is a balance to be made between large and small states, but I don’t think the electoral college currently does that – the extra two “senate” votes per state do favour small states, but block voting more than compensates. At the moment it seems to be Florida and Ohio (neither of which is small!) that decide between themselves. Doesn’t this contribute to the hardening of the red-blue divide?

  2. badgerfan1 says:

    Hey Ian,

    Great post today and very fitting for our election day; thanks for giving your insight! Jack is currently studying our election process, and obviously the Electoral College is a big aspect of what he’s learning about at this time.

    There are pros and cons to the popular vote and the EC system. As you stated, the EC is historic at this point, and it hasn’t proven to be “wrong.” I’m just not so sure how well it would work out if we changed to the popular vote. That being said, it is very iteresting that one can not hit the popular vote numbers, but still be elected due to the EC number of 270.

    Today\tonight will be very interesting! I think you know (or at least I hope you do 🙂 ) who I am rooting for! It will be a close one that I believe will come down to the wire.

    • If there’s one thing would force me, if I were an American citizen, to vote for Romney, it would be foreigners telling me to vote for Obama!

      Nevertheless, I know I don’t need to tell you…! 🙂

      If I’m not mistaken, we’re six hours ahead here, so see my latest!

  3. […] other countries, they make some sense because people vote directly for the President (well, ahem, indirectly, but let’s not go there for now). Even there, there is the risk that the winner will be the […]

  4. […] This, of course, does mean there can be occasions where one candidate receives the most votes from the electorate, but another receives a majority in the Electoral College and is thus elected. This has happened four times, most recently in 2000. Here, out of interest, is why I think that remains a no bad thing! […]

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