fighting the lack of good ideas

why the electoral college matters

This year’s election results seem to – again – be confusing a LOT of people.

The incumbent presidential candidate, Mr Obama, won ~51% of the popular vote. His main opponent, Mr Romney, won ~48% of the  popular vote.

However, when you look at the electoral votes (the only ones that really matter), you see a different picture: 332 vs 206, which puts Mr Obama’s electoral victory at 61% of the Electoral College, and Mr Romney at 39%.

For some reason, and I have my personal theories on this, civics and American History is no longer actually taught in schools. No one today knows what the Connecticut Compromise was about. Let’s do a little history lesson to bring everyone up to speed.

In 1787 there was no “United States of America” – folks were still trying to figure out what to do with the nascent country that just won its independence from the British Empire. Virginia representatives proposed having a two-house structure for Congress (the Senate and House). However, they wanted both houses of Congress to be apportioned based on population – at the time, that would’ve meant a disproportionate level of influence from the more populous states over lower-populated ones (irony: New Jersey in 1787 was one of the smallest states by population while Virginia was one of the largest: NJ has almost a million more people today than does VA). For obvious reasons, the smaller states felt this was a Bad Ideaâ„¢ – their voice would never be heard.

The Compromise brought the ideas that New Jersey wanted (a unicameral representation based on the concept of one vote per state) and the one Virginia was lobbying for (bicameral, but both houses based on population) into the system we have today: a bicameral Congress with one house based [loosely] on population*, and the second a flat number per state (ie, our House of Representatives and Senate).

With Congress out of the way, let’s look at how the President is actually elected. Article II of the Constitution covers this (along with Amendment 12). This is where things get interesting: to help mitigate the disproportionate effect of large states on small ones, each state votes for Electors who will then “really” vote later for the President (and Vice President).

Why is this important?

First, it is an evidence of the fact that we do not live in democracy – we live in a representative republic.

Second, it allows every state to have at least minimum voice in an election – which means that it views every state as important.

Third, it means that pure favoritism shouldn’t be the exclusive basis for why any given candidate becomes President. Being President isn’t supposed to be a popularity contest in the way a beauty pageant is, it is supposed to be a race to determine the best leader for the country (of course, “best” is subjective, and few actually seem to campaign because they want to ‘lead’ – they seem more to run for the thrill of being “in charge” .. but that’s another post entirely).

How are electors apportioned? Most states distribute electors in a winner-take-all form: if a candidate receives a simple majority of the popular vote in the state, they get all the electors of the state (eg a 51% win in CA gets all 55 electors even though 18.4 million of the state’s population of the state may disagree with the 18.6 that elected a given candidate). Hypothetically this shows that the States are joining together to vote for the President rather than merely the populace.

Not all states follow that model, however – Nebraska is a notable exception which awards Electors based on the vote percentages of its population.

Some argue that this system inherently creates “swing states” which lead to disproportionate campaign expenditures and focus instead of spending approximately-equal time in every state.

Personally, I think this is a fantastic system because pure democracies devolve into anarchy and/or split into multiple groups upon reaching a given size.

The Founders of our country were a lot smarter and forward-thinking than most are willing to give credit for. Were they perfect? No. Did they have flaws in the initial proposals? Absolutely. But this is one artifact of our founding that needs to stay.

*“The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand” – Article I, Section 2. If we followed this minimum today, we would have >10,000 representatives in Congress (2012 US population ~310,000,000)