Search This Blog

Friday, January 10, 2014

Time to Fix the Electoral College

The method of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in that state is a product of the American environment after the Revolutionary War. States, not the national government, were paramount.

As presently constituted, the Electoral College disenfranchises millions of Americans every four years. The institution of the Electoral College should be retained, but the method of allocating electoral votes should be revised to apportion them based upon the popular vote in each state. This issue is addressed below, based solely upon sources from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 itself.

A Union of States, Not a Federal Government

In the summer of 1787, some of America’s ablest men met in Philadelphiato devise such further provisions as shall appear to them necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” Recognizing the precarious state of the Union, the attendees developed the United States Constitution, far exceeding their charter, which was merely to amend the existing Articles of Confederation.

 The Constitution was framed in an environment in which individual states were more powerful than the national government. The thirteen colonies had rebelled against Great Britain, securing their independence from the mother country. Successful, they entered “into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare…” Thus reads part of Article III of the Articles of Confederation, establishing the United States of America, the government of which was embodied in a single-chamber Congress made up of two-to-seven members from each state.

But this was not truly a federal government. There was no national executive, nor a national judiciary. Congress could not levy taxes: it had to requisition money from the states, which were not compelled to respond. Frequently, states simply chose not to provide funds to Congress. The states printed their own (often worthless) paper currencies, negotiated their own trade agreements, taxed each other’s commerce, declared war on the Indians and largely did whatever they wanted, ignoring the restrictions of the Articles as was convenient. It also required an all-but impossible unanimous vote of all thirteen states to amend the Articles, ensuring that the welfare of one would prevail over the good of all.

It is possible, from reading the notes of certain delegates to the Convention, to deduce that THE most significant concern facing the delegates was the striking of a balance between the fledgling national government and the established states. A new, federal form of government that stripped too much power from the states was in danger of not being ratified by nine of those very states, as was required by the proposed Constitution. And a government containing a strong executive would awaken still too-fresh memories of rule by a tyrannical monarchy.

So, a document was crafted, containing concessions and compromises that were necessary to gain the approval of both the delegates and also of the state ratifying conventions. Even Alexander Hamilton, who played a key role in the ratification of the Constitution[1] referred to it as “a bundle of compromises.”

Items that today seem hardly worth discussion were vitally important during the Constitutional Convention, such as navigational rights on American waterways and who could negotiate international treaties. These matters were indicative of the important role of states at the Convention. Those who supported ratification of the Constitution were dubbed ‘Federalists:’ Those who opposed, ‘Anti-Federalists.’ It was a contest between those who favored a central government and those who supported state’s rights.

It is true that factions also existed between small and large states, and northern and southern states. But these alliances could shift and change with the issue being discussed. Those who subscribed to federal and state perspectives remained constant in those views.

An ideological concern at the Convention was that of giving the uneducated, uninformed public the power to select the President. There was much debate over the how to elect the members of what became known as The House of Representatives. Roger Sherman of Connecticut said “The people should have as little to do as may be about government. They lack information and are constantly liable to be misled.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts added “The evils we experience flow from an excess of democracy.”

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina said that election by the people was impracticable in South Carolina because the settlements were sparse. It was difficult to get voters together to cast their ballots.[2] He also said that, “The citizens will be free and equal but the States will be unequal, and their sovereignty will be degraded.” If some delegates felt that the people shouldn’t elect the House of Representatives, is it any surprise that they didn’t trust the fate of the Presidential election to the general population as well?

Multiple Proposals for Electing the President

The method of selecting the President was one of the final issues to be resolved and many proposals had been made over the course of the convention. Flaws were identified in each and the issue remained unresolved as the Convention moved towards its final days.

Selection by the National Legislature
On May 29, Edmund Randolph of Virginia unveiled what is now known as The Randolph Plan, which served as the framework for the Constitution. That same day, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina also introduced a plan of government (which was referred to a committee and not discussed). Both plans posited selection of the President by the National Legislature. William Paterson of New Jersey [3] and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut[4] also proposed election by the National Legislature

However, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts said that a President appointed by the National Legislature would show favor to those members who appointed him[5]. George Mason of Virginia agreed, arguing that a President elected by the Legislature could become complaisant to the Legislature in hopes of improving his chances of re-election.[6]

James Madison asserted that it would “agitate and divide” the Legislature, setting it against itself in battle over who should be President. It is inconceivable to us today to imagine the President directly selected by The US Congress, the US House of Representatives, or both, with no input from the people.

Selection by Election District Electors
On June 18, Alexander Hamilton of New York introduced a plan of government that would institute a President for life (sounds a bit like a monarchy). The states would be divided into Election Districts and delegates chosen by the Districts would elect the President. Hamilton’s radical plan, including the method of executive election, was ignored by the Convention.[7]

Selection by State-Designated Electors
Oliver Ellsworth proposed that the President be selected by delegates chosen by the state legislatures.[8] This is essentially a modified version of the Electoral College method. He apportioned the number of delegates based on state populations, but there was significant debate on the number of electors to be awarded to each state. It should be noted that it was state legislatures, not the people, which would select the delegates. 

Hugh Williamson[9] said that having electors choose the President would be expensive and troublesome. He then supported having the National Legislature pick the President, based on both ease and convenience.

Selection by State Governors
Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed that the President be selected by the state governors. However, Edmund Randolph of Virginia countered that the President would court the favor of the governors and their states. He also mentioned the cost and difficulty of bringing the governors to one place to select a President.[10]

Selection by State Legislatures
Madison spoke against appointment by the state legislatures, pointing out that times might arise when a majority of the state legislatures have a common purpose and select a President sympathetic to that purpose. The National Legislature would then be subservient to the state legislatures through the powers of the President.

Selection by the People
Paterson’s New Jersey Plan featured a weak executive. Supporter Roger Sherman said, “The Executive magistracy is nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the legislature into effect. The person or persons ought to be appointed by and accountable to the Legislature only, which is the depository of the supreme will of the society.” Federalists lined up on the opposite side, arguing for some form of popular election which would vouchsafe the separation of powers among the branches. However, smaller states feared the larger states would dominate popular election and many (most) delegates felt that the populace weren’t ‘qualified’ to select the national executive. Direct election by citizens had few champions.

The Electoral College at Last
The Electoral College was devised as a compromise measure to get enough support to settle the issue. Election of the President was one of the final matters to be resolved before the delegates adjourned.

 The large states were pleased that the number of electors was based on population. Small states were satisfied that the House of Representatives would select the President if no candidate received a majority of electoral votes. Finally, the state legislatures were appeased by being given the right to choose the electors.

People, Not States, Should Elect the President

We are not citizens of a state. We are residents of a state: we are citizens of the United Stares of America. The strictures that bound the Founding Fathers are no longer applicable.  Due to the climate and practical realities of 1787, the government that was forged struck a balance between the Federal and state governments. That distinction is today an artificial one. William Patterson of New Jersey stated that the delegates met as the deputies of 13 independent, sovereign states, for federal purposes. He doubted that they could consolidate the states’ sovereignty and form one nation, annihilating the sovereignties of the states.[11] Common at the time, such a notion is completely unthinkable today. The United States of America is greater than the fifty-two individual states that make it up.

But the President is not elected by the people: the President is elected by the states. Has not America granted voting rights far beyond that granted by the Founding Fathers? Suffrage has long since been extended beyond white, male, property owners.

Yet, due to the exigencies of a time long passed, every four years, millions of voters are institutionally and systematically disenfranchised. In 2004, 5,509,826 voters in California cast their ballots for George Bush Those votes counted for nothing. That same year, in Ohio, 3,583,544 supporters of John Kerry should have just stayed home: their votes did not matter.

The Electoral College need not be abolished. However, state electoral votes should be awarded proportionate to the popular vote. Thus, all votes cast will count towards election of the President. This is in direct contrast to the current system, in which only the votes cast for the majority in a state count.

The Constitution is an enduring document, and its creators included a provision for future amendments as times dictated. But the meeting in Philadelphia did not produce a flawless document. For example, the Founding Fathers declared that the Senate should be chosen by the state legislatures. And so it was, until the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, decreed that Senators would be elected directly by the people. 

And so it is that in 2016 and beyond, the States should no longer elect the President. Electoral ballots should be awarded based on the popular vote within a state, enfranchising American voters not only in name, but in voice.

The popular mantra of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” cannot be followed here. It should not take a crisis similar to the election of 1800 to right a wrong and fix a flaw[12]. In 1824, Andrew Jackson received more popular votes, but John Quincy Adams carried the Electoral College. Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George Bush (2000) received fewer popular votes but carried the Electoral College, frustrating the will of the people in favor of the states.

 In our increasingly apathetic society, those who fulfill their responsibility to vote should be rewarded, not disregarded.  

[1] Hamilton is credited with writing at least XX of the Federalist Papers. These were anonymous essays, published in newspapers, supporting and explaining the proposed Constitution. Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote a total of XX essays. 
[2] Rufus King’s Notes for June 4
[3] Rufus King’s Notes for June 13
[4] James Madison’s Notes for June 25
[5] Robert Yates’ Notes for June 9
[6] Rufus King’s Notes for June 3
[7] James Madison’s Notes for June 18
[8] James Madison’s Notes for June 19
[9] William Pierce’s Notes for May
[10] Robert Yates’ Notes for June 9
[11] Robert Yates’ Notes for May 9
[12] In 1800, Aaron Burr, running as Thomas Jefferson’s Vice Presidential candidate, utilized a loophole in the Constitution and actually received the same number of electoral votes for President as Jefferson. It took 36 ballots to break the deadlock. Four years later, Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, who was credited with carrying the election for Jefferson. The XII amendment to the Constitution addressed this flaw, specifying which offices candidates were vying for.


  1. If state electoral votes were awarded proportionate to the popular vote, all votes cast will NOT count towards election of the President.

    To use a fractional proportional method, would require a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, and could be stopped by states with as little as 3% of the U.S. population.

    Without an amendment, the office of presidential elector remains. A presidential elector is a person, and a person’s vote cannot be divided into fractions. Each state would have to use a whole-number proportional approach.

    One of the counter-intuitive aspects of the whole-number proportional approach (which retains the Electoral College and the office of presidential elector) would result in most states being ignored in presidential elections. There would be fewer battleground states under this system than under the current system.

    Campaigning is rarely capable of shifting more than 8% of the vote during a typical presidential campaign. If one considers an average-sized state (i.e., a state with 11 electoral votes), one electoral vote would correspond to 9% of the popular vote in the state. In smaller states, one electoral vote would correspond to an even larger percentage of the popular vote in the state. In a state of median size (i.e., seven electoral votes), one electoral vote would correspond to 14% of the popular vote in the state. In the case of the seven states with three electoral votes, one electoral vote would correspond to 33% of the popular vote.

    If the whole-number proportional approach had been in use throughout the country in the nation’s closest recent presidential election (2000), it would not have awarded the most electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. Instead, the result would have been a tie of 269–269 in the Electoral College, even though Al Gore led by 537,179 popular votes across the nation. The presidential election would have been thrown into Congress. Given the composition of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2001, the whole-number proportional approach would have resulted in the election of the second-place presidential candidate.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person's vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

  2. The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC), without needing to amend the Constitution.

    The National Popular Vote bill would change current state winner-take-all laws that award all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate who get the most popular votes in each separate state (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but since enacted by 48 states), to a system guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes for, and the Presidency to, the candidate getting the most popular votes in the entire United States.

    The bill preserves the constitutionally mandated Electoral College and state control of elections. It ensures that every vote is equal, every voter will matter, in every state, in every presidential election, and the candidate with the most votes wins, as in virtually every other election in the country.

    Under National Popular Vote, every vote, everywhere, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election. Every vote would be included in the state counts and national count. When states with a combined total of at least 270 electoral votes enact the bill, the candidate with the most popular votes in all 50 states and DC would get the needed majority of 270+ electoral votes from the enacting states. The bill would thus guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes.

    The presidential election system that we have today was not designed, anticipated, or favored by the Founding Fathers but, instead, is the product of decades of evolutionary change precipitated by the emergence of political parties and enactment by 48 states of winner-take-all laws, not mentioned, much less endorsed, in the Constitution.

    Unable to agree on any particular method for selecting presidential electors, the Founding Fathers left the choice of method exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution-- "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.

    The bill uses the power given to each state by the Founding Fathers in the Constitution to change how they award their electoral votes for President. States can, and frequently have, changed their method of awarding electoral votes over the years. Historically, virtually all of the major changes in the method of electing the President, including ending the requirement that only men who owned substantial property could vote and 48 current state-by-state winner-take-all laws, have come about by state legislative action.

  3. In Gallup polls since 1944, only about 20% of the public has supported the current system of awarding all of a state's electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes in each separate state (with about 70% opposed and about 10% undecided).

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in recent closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%.

    Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 32 state legislative chambers in 21 rural, small, medium, and large states with 243 electoral votes. The bill has been enacted by 10 jurisdictions with 136 electoral votes – 50.4% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    Follow National Popular Vote on Facebook via NationalPopularVoteInc