In some ways this article is different from what I usually write about.
But in many ways, it’s about the exact same stuff I always talk about.
If you’ve followed my work for any length of time, you know I’m obsessed with organizational systems. Typically, we’d probably use this phrase to talk about systems that are related to “organizations,” by which we mean “businesses.”
But I’d request we expand our thinking around that phrase.
You see, organizational systems are really just systems that help us organize. And at the “DNA” level, these kinds of systems are remarkably similar in functionality, no matter what their purpose is — organizational systems essentially make choices for us, many times without us being aware they are doing that.
So today, let’s talk about a remarkably peculiar organizational system…
It’s a system called the Electoral College.
Why I Wrote This
After the 2016 election, I decided to do some research on this uniquely-American thing called the Electoral College.
For everyone alive today, the Electoral College (“EC” in many places moving forward) has really only been truly relevant twice: in 2000 and again in 2016. So in most of the elections I’ve seen, I have — quite successfully I might add — simply pretended it didn’t exist.
This time though, in 2016, something felt different.
I knew I now needed to:
- Figure out what the Electoral College actually IS,
- Figure out why it was designed the way it was, and
- Figure out what I thought about it.
With another impending election on our doorstep, I thought perhaps my research could help others understand the EC better, too, so here you go…
What The Electoral College Is, And Why It Was Designed The Way It Was
Let’s start with a quick, and slightly simplified, version of how the EC came to be.
You’re probably aware that the Electoral College is the system the United States uses to choose a new President.
But you may not know that, as so many things do in American history, the story of why the EC was created starts with slavery.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, our famed framers met in Philadelphia to do a number of things, including to determine how to elect an American President.
Some delegates, including James Madison, preferred a popular election of the President, but it was quickly determined that the southern states wouldn’t go for this as a huge part of their population were slaves that weren’t allowed to vote.
Something called the Three-Fifths Compromise plays into this, as well. This was basically a way to count slaves for the purposes of both state taxes and representation, and in which the framers settled on counting 3 out of every 5 slaves as people (again, yes, really). In practice, this gave states with slaves increased representation in the House Of Representatives and therefore increased representation in the Electoral College, as well. More on this big, and not-talked-about-enough, topic here.
So Madison and Alexander Hamilton (primarily) designed a different solution — one that utilized “electors” instead of a majority popular vote.
In The Federalist Papers #68, Hamilton described his take on the electors that would be chosen: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks].”
These electors, once chosen, were intended to then independently deliberate, analyze, and choose the best candidate for the country.
While the design was clearly for electors to make autonomous decisions, states quickly figured out that if they pooled their electors to all pledge toward ONE candidate, it would put their chosen person in a much stronger running position.
Of course, the other states had to rapidly follow suit with this tactic to keep their candidates competitive.
Hamilton and Madison were violently opposed to this approach, saying that a pre-pledged winner-takes-all “general ticket” approach violates the very spirit of the Constitution. Hamilton specifically viewed this problem as a gross error, and even drafted an amendment to the Constitution in 1802, but it was never passed (obviously).
So, fast-forward 200+ years and we’re still utilizing an presidential electoral process that was:
- In many ways put in place because of slavery, and is also
- A system which the very people who designed it wanted desperately to reform when they saw how it was being abused in practice.
Other Initial Thoughts
The notion that the framers didn’t really trust the common voter is a bit contested — I’ve read arguments on both sides, though it feels to me like it’s slightly more true than not; there’s really no denying the “elitist” quality in Hamilton’s description of electors.
But even if we assume only the highest in positive intent in their design of elector selection, the concern of being able to properly disseminate information to the common voter, while a valid point then, isn’t relevant at all today. Getting information to every corner of the country is no longer a remotely difficult problem.
It’s also worth noting that today, all states but two (Nebraska and Maine) have adopted a winner-takes-all electoral system that has replaced analytical, deliberative, free-thinking electors with “potted plants” who simply vote the party line. And the Supreme Court just reinforced that they basically have to (as of July 2020).
(Side note: I can only imagine the rap battle that would ensue today were Hamilton still alive to see that this “violation of the spirit of the Constitution” is still in place over two centuries later.)
Are There Any Good Reasons For Keeping It?
The most interesting and viable arguments I’ve seen for keeping the EC intact revolve around statements like “we are a nation made up of states” and “the EC ensures that no one becomes President without the support of many states.”
I find this angle to be compelling at some level, but I think it’s more compelling to argue that we are a country made of individual citizens, and that every single person’s voice deserves to be heard.
The “state” logic, while somewhat interesting, elevates some kind of vague, conceptual “state identity” over the actual voices of the people who live in all parts of our country, and to me that seems fundamentally inappropriate.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s something inherently democratic and equitable about one person = one vote.
It also seems reasonable to say that state boundaries might not be as relevant today as perhaps they once were. Our similarities and differences don’t break cleanly along state lines — it’s more accurate to say that our most prominent divides happen between cities and rural, coasts and center, North and South, etc.
Most importantly, in a national election, shouldn’t it be such that ALL the voices in the nation, no matter their geographical location, have an equal say in who leads them?
What I Think About It
In short, the Electoral College needs to go away.
A primary reason it exists at all is because of slavery, which is just an embarrassment (to literally say the very least), and from the very beginning it wasn’t used as intended. And it’s never been fixed.
From what I can tell, the primary reason it still exists is inertia — and because in the vast majority of elections we’ve had, it has simply reinforced the results of the popular vote, thereby allowing it to remain mostly invisible. There have only been five (5!) instances since George Washington was elected in 1789 where the EC winner did not also win the popular vote: the two times mentioned at the beginning of this article (2000 and 2016) and three others that all happened in the 1800s: 1824, 1876, and 1888. (And 1824 was a fascinating election in a number of ways.)
Also, the only word I can use to describe the math of the EC is “horrendous.” With the EC, a candidate could theoretically win the U.S. Presidential office, arguably the most powerful single position in the world, with only ~22% of the popular vote.
Frankly, anything with this kind of stupidity baked into its arithmetic should not be involved in any kind of democracy — much less be a foundational rule in one of the most influential countries in the world.
Let’s stick with math for one more moment, because the EC itself is also pathetically unbalanced in the way it “represents” our people.
Let me give you an example: Wyoming is a state of approximately 586,000 people and it gets 3 electoral votes. California is a state of 39 million and it gets 55 electoral votes. If California were to get equal representation to what Wyoming voters get in the EC, California would have 199 electoral votes.
One doesn’t have to be a mathematician to see the problems here.
Next, let’s explore a few questions that always seem to come up with this topic…
Q: What about the people who don’t live in high-population states?
A: Yes, what about them? In a world without the EC, their vote would still count — unlike the votes of hundreds of thousands of people from heavily- populated areas whose votes are essentially worthless under the current model.
On a personal note, I grew up in town of 1300 people in seriously-rural South Dakota, and approximately 100% of my immediate and extended family lives in lower-population states.
Am I saying I don’t want the votes of all these people I love to count?
In case my rhetorical question isn’t clear, let me be: I am not saying that at all.
To all the wonderful people who live in lower-population parts of the country (my family and everyone else): I am simply saying that I want your vote to count as much as mine would if I still lived in Los Angeles.
No more, no less.
Q: Doesn’t the EC protect small states from big ones?
A: As mentioned above, our divide isn’t really about “states” as much as other things (like cities and rural), so this argument starts out as misleading, and it’s one that gets passed around a lot.
That said, even if we adjust the argument to talk about protecting “rural areas” from “big cities” (or one of the other more accurate labels), it still doesn’t hold up because in a democracy, one person’s voice should not be “worth more” than another’s, and this is what the EC does: it rewards or penalizes people simply because of where they were born or where they’ve chosen to live in the country.
States don’t vote. Land doesn’t vote. People do.
Q: But we’re a Republic, not a Democracy!
A: First, that’s not a question.
Second, this point is irrelevant to this topic, even though you’ll see it get associated. In a Republic, we elect people to represent us. But how are those people elected…? You got it: with one notable exception, via a popular vote.
Side note: we use a popular vote to elect Governors of our states… why should it not be the same for the President?
Q: The EC ensures the person we elect is “everyone’s President,” right?
A: This is another angle on the above questions: because less-populated states have a weighted-larger voice in the EC (reference the math above), presumably the EC helps to ensure that those states are “represented” in the election, and that those parts of the country feel “counted” in a Presidential choice.
But the problem is that the EC makes those areas unfairly OVER-represented while at the same time UNDER-representing areas with large populations.
So we can end up with literally hundreds of thousands of people — or in the case of 2016, 2.9 million people — whose votes didn’t actually count simply because they live where they live.
That’s the opposite of a candidate being “everyone’s President.”
Q: Without the EC, wouldn’t candidates spend all their time campaigning in major population centers?
A: Maybe…? But first of all, focusing campaign efforts on specific areas isn’t any different from what candidates do now in so-called “swing states.”
And while we’re on this topic, how is it somehow more democratic to spend extra time in areas with less people?
Secondly — and I mean this in all sincerity — is it that much of a big deal if a candidate is campaigning physically nearby? Are we worried that people won’t get enough information to make an informed choice? Seems to me we’re all drowning in more information than we can handle.
And, as we now know more than ever thanks to the pandemic, there are a LOT of things we can do virtually that we didn’t think were even possible a few months ago. I suspect virtual gatherings will be a much bigger player in all things political moving forward.
Q: Doesn’t the Electoral College produce more certainty of results?
A: Even if it could, at what cost? What we know it does is produce results that are potentially wildly out-of-step with the majority vote of our population.
It’s worth noting that an abolition of the EC would require us to thoroughly overhaul our voting systems and processes, but in my view this seems like a far more appropriate course of action (and is frankly necessary even with the EC as-is).
Furthermore, making the Presidential election based on the popular vote would likely ignite all sorts of creative innovation at the state level to encouraging all its citizens to participate and vote, which would be a tremendously good thing.
So What Do We Do?
Let’s say you buy my arguments and agree that the EC needs to go.
To change the rules themselves would require a Constitutional amendment, which is supremely difficult. As much as I’d love to see this happen, it doesn’t seem incredibly likely.
However, there is another option that seems slightly more reasonable — something called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. This proposal shifts the process to align each state’s electoral votes to whomever wins the popular vote, and it’s already almost 73% of the way to becoming successful. (If you’re interested, there’s a super easy way to send a note to your local legislators right on the front page of their site.) I would highly recommend learning more about this effort.
Most importantly, I hope you’ll help spread the word about what the Electoral College is, why it works the way it does, and why it needs to go away.
All organizational systems should be evaluated on their justice, equity, and ability to expand toward more inclusivity. The Electoral College fails the test, and it’s time for us to do something new.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
P.S. While We’re On It, A Related Topic…
Forgoodnesssake, why do we still vote on a Tuesday that’s not a federal holiday? I mean, I know technically WHY (ahem, voter suppression, ahem), but it’s really just absurd. If you want more on the why, here’s a non-kid-friendly video that explains it. Can we fix this, too, please?
P.P.S. A Couple References
As you’d suspect, there are a LOT of articles and videos online about this topic, but this video might be my favorite so far, plus a pull quote: “You know what they call the ‘popular vote’ in the rest of the world? The vote. Alexander Hamilton would be horrified to see the perversion that his Electoral College has become.” This interview is also excellent (and is referenced several times above).