Darryl Paulson: Voters don’t understand or like the Electoral College

Mays (Large)

Here are a few basic facts about the electoral-college system. First, very few voters understand how it works. Second, most voters hate the system. Third, the system is almost impossible to change.

Those who drafted the Constitution had little trust in democracy. James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, wrote that unfettered majorities tend toward “tyranny.” John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and second President, noted that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Reflecting their distrust of democracy, the drafters of the Constitution wanted to create a process where the president would be indirectly selected. Direct election was rejected because they believed that most voters were incapable of making a wise choice. Voters would likely vote for a well-known person, especially one from a voter’s home state.

A Committee of Eleven was appointed and they recommended a compromise where each state would appoint presidential electors equal to the number of representatives and senators. The electors would cast a vote for president and vice president. The candidate with the most votes would be president and the candidate with the second highest vote would be vice president.

The compromise was accepted and Alexander Hamilton described the electoral-college plan “if the manner of it be not perfect, it is at least excellent.”

The compromise worked until the 1800 presidential election when electors cast an equal number of votes for Thomas Jefferson, who the Anti-Federalists wanted to be president and Aaron Burr, who they wanted as vice president. After 36 ballots, the House selected Jefferson as president. The 12th Amendment, adopted in 1804, separated the electoral vote for president and vice president.

There is little doubt that Americans hate the Electoral College system and prefer the direct election of the president. The system has allowed the election of four presidents who lost the popular vote, but won the electoral vote.

In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote, but lost when the House selected John Quincy Adams. In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote by a quarter million votes, but lost the electoral vote to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1888, Grover Cleveland received more popular votes but lost to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Finally, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the election when Florida’s electoral votes were awarded to George W. Bush.

Another complaint about the electoral college is that the winner-take-all feature does not reflect the popular will. A candidate with a plurality of the popular vote would win all of a state’s electoral votes in a three or four person race.

Critics contend that the system discourages candidates from campaigning in states that they are sure to win or lose. No sense wasting time and money campaigning in those states. Instead, all of the attention is focused on a half-dozen competitive states like Florida and Ohio.

If no candidate gets a majority of the electoral votes (270), the election is thrown into the House of Representatives. Each state, regardless of population, gets one vote. The least populated state has one vote; the most populated state gets one vote. If a state delegation’s vote is equally split, they get no vote until the deadlock is broken.

Although reforms of the system have been pushed, the likelihood of reform is small. Small states, which have disproportionate power under the plan, are not likely to give up that power to support direct election.

Supporters of direct election argue that it is the most democratic, which is precisely why the drafters of the Constitution dismissed it. Supporters also argue that it would force candidates to conduct national campaigns since every vote would matter.

Critics of direct election argue that it would create gridlock in close elections. Imagine having to review over 100 million votes in a close election to see if they should be counted or dismissed. Would voters have confidence if a candidate won by a few thousand votes?

What does the electoral-college system tell us about 2016. Hillary Clinton is a flawed candidate seeking a third consecutive win for Democrats, something that is difficult to do.

However, we know that Republicans are not happy with either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. The possibility of a contested convention further muddies Republican chances.

A look at the electoral-college maps shows that Democrats usually win fewer states than Republicans, but they win the states with large numbers of electoral votes. While the electoral-college map of America looks overwhelmingly red, it is likely the Republicans will end up feeling blue.

Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, projects that in a Clinton-Trump election, Clinton is likely to win 347 electoral votes to Trump’s 191. If so, an easy Clinton victory means there will be no pressure to reform the electoral-college system.


Darryl Paulson is Professor Emeritus of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

Darryl Paulson

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.


  • otto

    April 14, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    Support for a national popular vote is strong in every smallest state surveyed in recent polls among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group

    Among the 13 lowest population states, the National Popular Vote bill has passed in 9 state legislative chambers, and been enacted by 4 jurisdictions.

    Now 80% of states and voters are ignored by presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits. Their states’ votes were conceded months before by the minority parties in the states, taken for granted by the dominant party in the states, and ignored by all parties in presidential campaigns.

    State winner-take-all laws negate any simplistic mathematical equations about the relative power of states based on their number of residents per electoral vote. Small state math means absolutely nothing to presidential campaign polling, organizing, ad spending, and visits, or to presidents once in office.

    In the 25 smallest states in 2008, the Democratic and Republican popular vote was almost tied (9.9 million versus 9.8 million), as was the electoral vote (57 versus 58).

    In 2012, 24 of the nation’s 27 smallest states received no attention at all from presidential campaigns after the conventions. They were ignored despite their supposed numerical advantage in the Electoral College. In fact, the 8.6 million eligible voters in Ohio received more campaign ads and campaign visits from the major party campaigns than the 42 million eligible voters in those 27 smallest states combined.

    The 12 smallest states are totally ignored in presidential elections. These states are not ignored because they are small, but because they are not closely divided “battleground” states.

    Now with state-by-state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), presidential elections ignore 12 of the 13 lowest population states (3-4 electoral votes), that are non-competitive in presidential elections. 6 regularly vote Republican (AK, ID, MT, WY, ND, and SD), and 6 regularly vote Democratic (RI, DE, HI, VT, ME, and DC) in presidential elections.

    Similarly, the 25 smallest states have been almost equally noncompetitive. They voted Republican or Democratic 12-13 in 2008 and 2012.

    Voters in states that are reliably red or blue don’t matter. Candidates ignore those states and the issues they care about most.

  • Hendrik Hertzberg

    April 14, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Professor Paulsin writes that small states “have disproportionate power” under the Electoral College status quo and therefore “are not likely to give up that power to support direct election,”

    True in theory, untrue in practice. The only states that have “disproportionate power” are the ten or twelve battleground states. The other 40-plus “spectator states,” regardless Paulson writes.

    True in theory, untrue in practice.

    In the general election campaign, the 10 or so “battleground” or “swing” states get literally 100 percent of the candidate visits and 98 percent of the campaign spending. The 40 or so “spectator” states, where one or the other party is guaranteed to win, get zero—and it doesn’t matter whether they’re small, medium, or large.

    Believe it or not, this ridiculous situation can be fixed by the 2020 election without changing a word of the Constitution. Don’t believe me? Go to http://www.NationalPopularVote.com and see for yourself.

  • otto

    April 15, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Prior to arriving at the eventual wording of section 1 of Article II, the Constitutional Convention specifically voted against a number of different methods for selecting the President, including
    ● having state legislatures choose the President,
    ● having governors choose the President, and
    ● a national popular vote.
    After these (and other) methods were debated and rejected, the Constitutional Convention decided to leave the entire matter to the states.

    . Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in Article II, Section 1
    “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors….”
    The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    The Constitution does not prohibit any of the methods that were debated and rejected. Indeed, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors using two of the rejected methods in the nation’s first presidential election in 1789 (i.e., appointment by the legislature and by the governor and his cabinet). Presidential electors were appointed by state legislatures for almost a century.

    Neither of the two most important features of the current system of electing the President (namely, universal suffrage, and the 48 state-by-state winner-take-all method) are in the U.S. Constitution. Neither was the choice of the Founders when they went back to their states to organize the nation’s first presidential election.

    In 1789, in the nation’s first election, a majority of the states appointed their presidential electors by appointment by the legislature or by the governor and his cabinet, the people had no vote for President in most states, and in them, only men who owned a substantial amount of property could vote, and only three states used the state-by-state winner-take-all method to award electoral votes.

    The constitutional wording does not encourage, discourage, require, or prohibit the use of any particular method for awarding a state’s electoral votes.

  • otto

    April 15, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    No recount, much less a nationwide recount, would have been warranted in any of the nation’s 57 presidential elections if the outcome had been based on the nationwide count.
    The state-by-state winner-take-all system is not a firewall, but instead causes unnecessary fires.
    “It’s an arsonist itching to burn down the whole neighborhood by torching a single house.” Hertzberg

    The 2000 presidential election was an artificial crisis created because of Bush’s lead of 537 popular votes in Florida. Gore’s nationwide lead was 537,179 popular votes (1,000 times larger). Given the minuscule number of votes that are changed by a typical statewide recount (averaging only 274 votes); no one would have requested a recount or disputed the results in 2000 if the national popular vote had controlled the outcome. Indeed, no one (except perhaps almanac writers and trivia buffs) would have cared that one of the candidates happened to have a 537-vote margin in Florida.

    Recounts are far more likely in the current system of state by-state winner-take-all methods.

    The possibility of recounts should not even be a consideration in debating the merits of a national popular vote. No one has ever suggested that the possibility of a recount constitutes a valid reason why state governors or U.S. Senators, for example, should not be elected by a popular vote.

    The question of recounts comes to mind in connection with presidential elections only because the current system creates artificial crises and unnecessary disputes.

    We do and would vote state by state. Each state manages its own election and is prepared to conduct a recount.

    Given that there is a recount only once in about 160 statewide elections, and given there is a presidential election once every four years, one would expect a recount about once in 640 years with the National Popular Vote. The actual probability of a close national election would be even less than that because recounts are less likely with larger pools of votes.

    The average change in the margin of victory as a result of a statewide recount was a mere 296 votes in a 10-year study of 2,884 elections.

    The common nationwide date for meeting of the Electoral College has been set by federal law as the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December. With both the current system and the National Popular Vote, all counting, recounting, and judicial proceedings must be conducted so as to reach a “final determination” prior to the meeting of the Electoral College. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the states are expected to make their “final determination” six days before the Electoral College meets.

  • otto

    April 15, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    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.

  • otto

    April 15, 2016 at 12:57 pm

    From 1992- 2012
    13 states (with 102 electoral votes) voted Republican every time
    19 states (with 242) voted Democratic every time – DE – 3 (electoral votes), DC – 3, VT – 3 , HI – 4, ME – 4, RI – 4, OR – 7, CT – 7, MN – 10, MD – 10, WI – 10, MA – 11, WA – 12, NJ – 14, MI – 16, IL – 20, PA – 20, NY – 29, CA – 55.

    Many states without large numbers of electoral votes.

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