W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 2, 2000 -- Political hypochondriacs again are urging Americans to fear and be offended by the system of choosing presidents by electoral votes.
Criticism of this system recurs whenever a close contest poses the possibility that a candidate might win an electoral vote victory while receiving fewer popular votes than his opponent. It is said, with more passion than precision, that this happened three times — 1824, 1876, 1888.
Even if that is true, it means that in 50 of 53 elections since 1789 — in 94 percent of elections, and in 27 consecutive elections — the system has not produced the outcome that troubles the sleep of its critics. Besides, the assertions about those elections can be true without being pertinent.
In 1824, before the emergence of the two-party system, all four candidates appeared on the ballots in only six of the 24 states. Six states, including New York, had no elections: their state legislatures picked the electors. Nationally, only about 350,000 of the 4 million eligible white males voted. Andrew Jackson received 38,149 more votes than John Quincy Adams, but neither received a majority of electoral votes. So the House of Representatives decided, picking Adams. In 1888 fraud on both sides may have involved more votes than the victory margin (90,596).
There never has been an Electoral College victory by a candidate who lost the popular vote by a substantial margin. And only simple-minded majoritarianism holds that “the nation’s will” would be “frustrated” and democracy “subverted” (this is the language of Electoral College abolitionists) were an electoral vote majority to go to a candidate who comes in a close second in the popular vote count. In such a case, the framers’ objective — a president chosen through state-by-state decisions — would be achieved.
System Ensures National Campaigns
The Electoral College has evolved, shaping and being shaped by the two-party system, which probably would not survive abandonment of winner-take-all allocation of electoral votes. Direct popular election of presidents, or proportional allocation of states’ electoral votes, would incite minor parties to fractionate the electorate. This might necessitate runoff elections to guarantee that the eventual president got at least 40 percent of the vote — and runoffs might become auctions in which minor parties sold their support.
The electoral vote system shapes the character of winning majorities. By avoiding proportional allocation of electoral votes, America’s system — under which Ross Perot in 1992 got 19 percent of the popular votes and zero electoral votes — buttresses the dominance of two parties, and pulls them to the center, producing a temperate politics of coalitions rather than a proliferation of ideological factions with charismatic leaders.
Furthermore, choosing presidents by electoral votes is an incentive for candidates to wage truly national campaigns, building majorities that are geographically as well as ideologically broad. Consider: Were it not for electoral votes allocated winner-take-all, would candidates campaign in, say, West Virginia? In 1996 Bill Clinton decisively defeated Bob Dole there 52 percent to 37 percent. But that involved a margin of just 93,866 votes (327,812 to 233,946), a trivial amount compared to what can be harvested in large cities. However, for a 5-0 electoral vote sweep, West Virginia is worth a trip or two.
Founders’ Intentions Realized
Some Electoral College abolitionists argue that a candidate could get elected with just 27 percent of the popular vote — by winning the 11 largest states by just one vote in each, and not getting a single popular vote anywhere else. But it is equally pointless to worry that a candidate could carry Wyoming 220,000 to 0, could lose the other 49 states and the District of Columbia by an average of 4,400 votes, and be the popular vote winner while losing the electoral vote 535 to 3. Serious people take seriously probabilities, not mere possibilities. And abolitionists are not apt to produce what Madison was too sober to attempt, a system under which no unwanted outcome is even theoretically possible.
Critics of the Electoral College say it makes some people’s votes more powerful than others’. This is true. In 1996, 211,571 Wyoming voters cast presidential ballots, awarding three electoral votes, one for every 70,523 voters, whereas 10,019,484 California voters awarded 54 electoral votes, one for every 185,546 voters.
So what? Do critics want to abolish the Senate as well? Delaware, the least populous state in 1789, understandably was the first to ratify the Constitution with its equal representation of states in the Senate: Virginia, the most populous, had 11 times more voters. Today Wyoming’s senators’ votes can cancel those of California’s senators, who represent 69 times more people. If that offends you, so does America’s constitutional federalism.
The electoral vote system, like the Constitution it serves, was not devised by, and should not be revised by, simple-minded majoritarians.