The Electoral College Explained

This revised article was inspired by the March 21, 2019 NPR Politics Podcast where they once again repeated the myth that the EC was not designed to reflect the popular vote. That is simply not the truth of the matter. The story is far more complex than that.

Elizabeth Warren Calls for Ending Electoral College

The electoral college has a long and troubled history; in fact, the electoral college wasn’t even in the first draft of the Constitution. In the original document, penned by James Madison, congress was to select the president. This mechanism was deemed too prone to intrigue by the members of the constitutional convention, and was seen as crippling the independence of the executive branch by making it reliant on congress. At least two of the original attendees of the convention favored direct popular election of the executive, including the author of the document himself. This idea was sacrificed even before the writing of the first draft of the document in order to make inclusion of the slave states palatable to the Northern states.

There was one difficulty however of a serious nature attending an immediate choice by the people. The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes. The substitution of electors obviated this difficulty and seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The historical fact of American slavery is something that the defenders of the electoral college should take heed of. The numerous slaves in the Southern states, slaves that the Southern slave owners and state representatives wanted counted as people for the purpose of apportioning representation, would have skewed the college and congress towards the South, which the North objected to. The South wanted slaves counted as people, for the purpose of representation, but not counted as people, for the purpose of profiting off of their slave labor. The impasse over the problem of representation in the legislature and at the voting booth threatened the entire constitutional convention, much like the problem of slavery threatened the possibility of American independence.

It was the invention of the three-fifths rule, a rule that counted each slave as three-fifths of a person, that allowed for a compromise on representation; and through that, a compromise on the election of the office of president. Changes have been made to the electoral college along the way, but the essence of the college itself remains the same as it was back in 1787; that essence being a safeguard against factions having undue sway over the selection of the executive for the government.

Not the people but the factions, the parties, were to be guarded against. This was the paramount fear in the minds of the crafters of the Union. The electoral college was part of the whole package of division of powers, allowing for the will of the voting population of each state to be carried directly to the then new capitol. The preservation of state power was what the electoral college was designed to protect, enhancing the ability of sectionalism to thwart the corrupting influence of faction.

Faction almost immediately took hold, anyway.

Some states reasoned that the favorite presidential candidate among the people in their state would have a much better chance if all of the electors selected by their state were sure to vote the same way—a “general ticket” of electors pledged to a party candidate. So the slate of electors chosen by the state were no longer free agents, independent thinkers, or deliberative representatives. They became “voluntary party lackeys and intellectual non-entities.”Once one state took that strategy, the others felt compelled to follow suit in order to compete for the strongest influence on the election.

When James Madison and Hamilton, two of the most important architects of the Electoral College, saw this strategy being taken by some states, they protested strongly. Madison and Hamilton both made it clear this approach violated the spirit of the Constitution. According to Hamilton, the selection of the president should be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station [of president].” According to Hamilton, the electors were to analyze the list of potential presidents and select the best one. He also used the term “deliberate”.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The 1800 election saw the fears of faction take form for the first time. The Jefferson/Adams split and the resulting confusion of a tie vote for Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in that election lead to the first changes in the electoral college and to the running mates system that is still in use today.

The 1824 election, the first election in which the popular vote mattered, was the second time the electoral college failed to produce a president. Once again the House of Representatives was forced to debate and vote on presidential candidates, eventually electing John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, to the presidency. This so infuriated the winner of the popular vote in 1824, Andrew Jackson, that he broke with the party of Jefferson (Democratic-Republicans) to create the Democratic party, a version of which still exists today.

The formation of the other half of the two-party factional control of the United States government came about with the election of Abraham Lincoln. It was with the election of Lincoln that the regional Republican party graduated to the national stage. Lincoln is one of four presidents who won the office while not being on the ballots in every state, and the only president to win the office while not being on the ballot in more than 5 states (he was not on the ballot in ten of the eleven slave states) he did win the electoral college successfully, probably because the slave states of the deep South were already pulling their support from the union and actively engaging in dissipating federal power to the several states so as to strengthen their own hands in the coming war that they were actively conspiring to start.

The electoral college is the only one where they choose their own masters.

Abraham Lincoln, Team of Rivals pg. 630

However, the electoral college was set up to reflect the population of the United States as a whole. It achieved this through tying a majority of the electors from each state to the number of representatives from each state in the House of Representatives. Each district of the House being determined through the arcane process of census and redistricting, the seats apportioned based on populations within geographical regions. One elector for every seat in the House of Representatives plus one for every Senator. Add in the three electors for Washington D.C. and you have the number of electors in the current version of the electoral college, 538. It is supposed to return results that roughly equates to the vote of the majority of the population of the United States, and has done its job pretty admirably right up until the twentieth century when Congress short-circuited the representation metric that the founders set up.

How did the House upset the metric? They crafted the last in several sequential measures that set the number of seats in the legislature. The membership of the House of Representatives has been kept artificially low for most of the modern age. the number of representatives was fixed at 435 in 1911 and has remained at 435 as the population of the United States has grown exponentially. This has lead to an ever-increasing number of people represented by a single seat in congress, a ridiculous number of people that the framers would never have envisioned as acceptable. The original minimum population per house seat was 30,000; but the current representatives for the House each represent about half a million people, at least, with the higher population districts containing about three-quarters of a million people.

This is important, because this is how you get to the point where a candidate can win by well over a million votes in the popular election, and yet lose the election by electoral count. The electoral college is rigged against the popular vote being reflected in the makeup of the college, because the electors are not properly apportioned to the populations of the various states. For that matter, the House of Representatives no longer serves its function as a direct representation of the people, because it too is not apportioned correctly even though it was set up specifically to serve this purpose.

If the House of Representatives was allowed to grow again, as it did throughout the history of the United States, we would end up with a House that was made up of several thousand people. This may sound like a radical change to you, increasing the size of the house, but we’ll get a better representational cross-section of America if we do this and thereby end a lot of the talk about disconnected Washington politics in the process. Will it be more difficult to get important work done? I doubt that it can get more difficult than it is already. I think we will have to find that out first hand. Keep this point in mind.

The 2016 election travesty is not even the first time since 2000 that a candidate for President received more popular votes and yet lost the election as it is calculated in the electoral college, and still I run across statements from apparently well educated people who insist that these kinds of outcomes are to be expected. If the system worked as it was intended, then as a general rule the electors would reflect almost perfectly the will of the people, provided that the will of the people is not being swayed by factions with too great a control over the system.

Factions with too great a control over the system.

It is patently obvious to anyone looking at the election results for 2016 that the election was flawed on many levels. From black box voting machines in some districts to questionable primary practices to interference on the part of the FBI in how the Democratic candidate was viewed. However, the presumptive winner was unquestionably the least fit person ever to be put forward as the next president, and he was erroneously called the president-elect before the electors had even cast their votes. 2016 was the election that the electoral college was created to prevent, and it failed to prevent the farce we are currently living through, not to mention the hanging chad bullshit of the 2000 Florida recount and eight years of Bush II.

Just read back over the posts on this blog. Authoritarianism vs. Humanism. The Orange Hate-Monkey (OHM) The various MAGA posts (there are more of those still in the edit stages) The article On Presidential Tax Returns. The facts in that article alone being enough to exclude the OHM from the office of president if reasonable people had been in charge of the 2016 election. However, the Republican party has apparently gone over to the magical thinkers, and magic doesn’t exist. If the Republicans in 2020 nominated someone who accepted science, wasn’t knee-jerk opposed to immigration, accepted that women have a right to medical care including abortion services, if they nominated someone who didn’t espouse belief in Reaganomics, I might have to revise my opinion of them. Might have to allow for the corruption of our system represented in their factional control of parts of our government. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think they would be so stupid as to nominate a lunatic as their candidate in 2016, and they are liable to do it again in 2020 even if the OHM goes to jail before that election is held.

But they did nominate a lunatic in 2016, and they are one-half of the two-party factional control of our government that has been allowed to calcify in place over the last century. The entire legislative system is set up to cater to party authority and one of the parties is demonstrably insane, being led by someone who either does believe or pretends to believe insane things.

The electoral college has failed to do its one and only job in the one election in U.S. history that could possibly have proved its worth. It has failed to justify its inclusion in the fabric of American society, three-fifths compromise notwithstanding. With the 2016 travesty in the rear-view mirror it becomes painfully obvious that we must amend the constitution to remove the electoral college, legislatively render it toothless in every state legislature in the US or modify the structure that dictates its size and representation. One of these things must occur. Several states have already passed the legislation mandating the popular vote outcome.

Video from National Popular Vote! National Popular Vote! What It Is – Why It’s Needed

If we cannot render the electoral college toothless, If we cannot amend it out of the constitution, replacing it with the direct election of the president by the population of the United States, then what we have to do is the easier thing that I alluded to earlier. We influence our representatives to do the one thing they can do for us and themselves, and it’s part of the job we send them to Washington D.C. to do in the first place. They should legislate an increase in the size of the House of Representatives, and through that increase negate the corrupting influences of faction and money.

What the study and report above shows is exactly what I said. The imposed limitation of 435 members placed on congress by congress itself is the limiting factor for gaining more influence over our representatives, for gaining an equitable voice in electing our president. This is one of the easiest things to fixed, and it would fix the electoral college at the same time. With one simple bill introduced in congress we could increase the size of the congress and reduce the numbers of us per representative. Make the representatives more focused on communicating with their much smaller groups of constituents, and be much more replaceable by those same groups.

A constituent base of 30,000 people means that my specific region of Austin would have their own representative in congress. A larger congress would be impossible to control externally by factional politics. It would lead to the formation of regional parties and a dilution of power in Washington D.C. We’d need to build facilities to house the additional several thousand representatives, which will be a windfall for the states and Washington itself. I don’t see how this works out as bad in any real way.

So rather than paying more money to influence my congressman I propose we pay the congressmen less money and multiply their number by about a magnitude. Require them to listen to us if they want to keep their jobs. As a bonus, the electoral college will increase in size and we won’t see a repeat of this last election again. 

An update to the 2016 piece that I wrote anticipating that the electoral college could be made to do its job.

2 thoughts on “The Electoral College Explained”

    1. …yes, dear reader. This is probably spam. He probably didn’t even read the article he’s commenting on. Yes, I stripped the website from his spam comment before posting his praise here. So sue me. 😉

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