The Electoral College of the United States of America was a brilliant 18th Century political institution that solved a cluster of 18th Century political problems. But now a slew of 21st Century problems has appeared, and the Electoral College and the question has arisen: is the Electoral College the appropriate way to solve them. To fully understand this 200-year-old intitution, you must first understand why the Electoral College was devised. It also helps to know the relevant part of the consitution*.
The framers of the constition of the United States faced a very difficult question during the period of the early confederacy of colonies (that is, States), the revolution and subsequent War for Independence. How should the power be entrusted with the people, the new legislative representatives and each state? In summary, how could the new confederacy keep its hard fought-for independence without becoming subjected to a new remote, tyranical overlord in the new capital?
The framers chose to create a lawmaking Congress with very limited powers, the branches of which were chosen directly by the people, that was, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The executive of the government, that is, the part that made the things authorised by the laws of Congress happen, still needed a leader, someone who would preside over the life of the Congress and the nation. There were three systems that proposed that could have been used to select this President: an appointment by the houses of Congress; a direct election by citizens of each state; or election by a committee of experts, that is, by an Electoral College.
The Electoral College system was chosen over a direct vote system for many reasons. Notably, the founders believed people were generally misinformed and easily misled. There was the problem of the tyrany of distance and the problem of communications (remember this is prior even to the invention of public railways). Also, the founders wanted to avoid disrupting the delicate balance of power between the states and between the executive power of the states and the executive power of the united states. If a general election were held where each person's vote had an equal value to the next person's, a state could increase it's clout by recklessly extending it's franchise: for example, a state could double it's weight in a general election by allowing women to vote. Instead, each state received a number of electoral votes proportional to its (white male) populatation, making the number of electors indepentant to whether it's franchise is broad or narrow. This made it the far safer system and it has remained in place for over 200 years. The theory behind the Electoral College is important, but so is how it actually works.
Today the Electoral College works like this. Every ten years after the Census, the number of representatives a state has in the House of Representatives is adjusted (the number or Senetors for each state is fixed at two). This number plus two (for the two Senators) equals the number of electors in the Electoral College a state has. Washington D.C. has three electors. How the electors are chosen is for each state to decide.
All states use a system of voting rather than, for example, appointment by the state's legislature. Forty-eight states use a winner-take-all system, where a popular election is held statewide between tickets of electors identifying themselves with a Presidential candidate. The electors on the winning ticket of the state wide vote receive all the electoral college positions for that state. Maine and Nebraska use a district system, where a popular election for an elector is held in each congressional district, and the winner of the district receives that district's electoral votes.
For those states in which the popular vote is cast towards a presidential candidate's ticket, there is a problem with the faithless elector who, when it comes time to vote for the president when the college meets, votes for a different presidential candidate. In twenty-four states electors are mandated to vote as pledged. But in the remaining twenty-six states, the electors can vote for whomever they want, with no penalty! Since the people of a state vote for a president, it would be expected that the electors would vote to the candidate they are pledged to represent. Although this has only happened three times at the time of writing (2006): 1948, 1960, and 1976, defecting electors in a close race would cause a crisis of confidence in our electoral system.
One of the main problems is the Electoral College System is fundamentally unfair to voters and presidential candidates. Ever since Kindergarten we have been taught the one person, one vote principal, and the idea that everyone has an equal voice in our government. For the people, by the people, right? That is an utter and complete lie. For three reasons.
Firstly, untaxed Indians are explicitly excluded from counting towards the number of electral college representatives and slaves were counted towards two thirds of a male citizen. Women were implicitly excluded (they are now explicitly included) but children are still don't count towards the number of electoral college positions.
Secondly, looking at the weight of an individual vote, a vote whose weight depends on the population of the state you are voting in. For example, each electoral vote in Alaska is equivalent to about 112,000 people. Each electoral vote in New York is equivalent to about 404,000 people. And that is if everyone votes! Moreover, the electoral vote does not does not reflect the volume of voter participation. If only a few voters go to the polls, all electoral college members are still chosen and all of their votes for the president are still cast! How many voters actually select the president? Under the assumption that all states used the winner-take-all system, all electors were faithful, there are only two candidates, and if a candidate lost a state the candidate received no votes, then a president could be elected with only 22% of the national popular vote. If there were three candidates, it would require only 15% of the popular vote. This means a good strategist could ignore 78% of the nation when campaigning. Remembering that only 49% of the nation actually votes, the outcome of an election theoretically could represent only 12% of the nation. That is, about one in eight adults. The Electoral College gives the power to select a president to a few, and gives power to the two major political parties.
Thus, thirdly, voting for a prefered candidate who is not one of the two major party candidates is seen as a wasted vote because it is nearly impossible for a third party to win a majority in a state, let alone a majority of the nation.
The Electoral College is unfair because it doesn't support one voter per person, it disadvantages any candidate that might have widespread, low-level support, and is unfair to the 88% of the nation who can be excluded in the election process.
Yet, even that 12% can misrepresented by the Electoral College. In 1948, a shift of 30,000 votes would have delivered the White House to Gov. Dewey, even though he trailed President Truman by 2.1 million votes. In 1960 a shift of only 13,000 votes would have made Nixon president. And in 1976, a shift of 9,300 votes would have elected Gerald Ford, who trailed Jimmy Carter by 1.6 million ballots. These close calls could never have happened if a general election were held treating the entire country as single electoral. The only real alternative to an Electoral College is to abolish it, and hold a national popular election for the presidency. Yet there are some who defend the Electoral College, and grimace at reform.
There are two real arguments against reforming our voting system, federalism and inertia. Currently the states hold all elections and 'send' their representatives to the capital. The inovation of a national government holding an election is not a grave one, and state's rights would still be intact. The other argument, inertia, is absurd: it hasn't broken down yet, why worry? The same could be said after the third trigger pull in Russian Roulette. Even after disproving these arguments, some still defend the Electoral College, claiming the Founding Fathers could not have been wrong. As I said before, the Electoral College solved many 18th Century problems, but they were just that, 18th Century problems. None of those arguments work today. Slaves, untaxed indians* and women are no longer selectively disenfranchised, and improvements in communications technology result in most voters are no longer misinformed or easily misled, making the Electoral College all the more obsolete.
What, then, should we do to reform the Electoral College? Most people believe the only way to change our voting system is by an amendment to the Constitution. There are thirty-nine generally smaller states in the US. These states hold a majority in the Senate, and likewise hold a majority in ratifying an amendment to the Constitution. The Electoral College gives a proportional advantage to the smaller states. Thus, it would be near impossible to to pass an amendment to abolish the Electoral College and take power away from the smaller states and give it to a national election. There is another way, however, to reform the Electoral College. The Constitution clearly states that the choice of electors is to be made by the states, and court cases have named it constitutional for states to require electors to vote for whom they are pledged. These precedents pave the way for an easier, yet just as effective, method of change called "Allocating the Electoral Vote". In this method, the states hold a popular election, then the candidates receive electoral votes based on percentage. Thus, if a state had ten electoral votes, and Candidate A received 70% of the popular vote, Candidate B received 18%, and Candidate C received 12%, then Candidate A would receive seven electoral votes, Candidate B two, and Candidate C one. In a worst case scenario a president could be elected with a minimum of 42% of the popular vote.
While this is not as accurate as a popular vote would be, it is far better than our current general ticket system. The reason this system does not require a constitutional amendment is because it can be imposed on an individual state basis.
A strategy in getting a change in a 200-year-old system is to test reform out on a smaller basis in single states, and if people like it, it will eventually become national policy. Whatever we change it to, the Electoral College needs to be changed. A system that denies a fair chance to good candidates who are outside of the major two parties, that is based upon outdated problems, that relies upon electors who can vote like they are deaf to your voice, that is molded to 12% of the nation, must be changed. However, there is only one way to get that change. It is to get involved. Every American that believes the system is wrong needs to speak up and be heard. Get involved; get heard; get change.