I don’t recall ever watching the electoral college voting returns before last week, which I suppose is just another indication of how weird this election, and 2020 generally, has been. Still, the fact that I was watching them bothered me.
Hadn’t America already voted, over a month before? While we didn’t know the projected electoral college results the night of the election, we did roughly ten days later. And, states had certified those results within the next two weeks following that. But, still, we had to go through the additional step of having designated electors cast the final votes for president and vice president, usually in statehouses across the country last week.
Some have argued that the electoral college is an anachronism; a relic of a bygone era, and I tend to agree. Yes, this mechanism of secondary election of the president and vice president is in the Constitution, which means it would be difficult to undo. But, it has been modified twice, by the 12th Amendment in 1804, which stipulated that electors vote separately for president and vice president (rather than the second-place finisher becoming the vice president), and by the 23rd Amendment in 1961, which granted three electors to residents of the District of Columbia (previously limited only to U.S. states). So, it is at least modifiable, and therefore possibly eliminable.
To read more detail about the justifications for what we have come to call the electoral college, a brief history of voting in America, and a summary of our gradual expansion of voting rights, see the box at the bottom. The net result of those changes has been that we now essentially hold a popular vote for president and vice president; but, with intermediate electors involved, voting power is not apportioned equally, and many of our country’s voters are irrelevant in any given presidential election.
So, yes, I think the electoral college is anachronistic, but I will not argue that it should be eliminated or modified from that standpoint. I think a stronger case can be made based upon arguments that the electoral college is unfair and anticompetitive.
Our Declaration of Independence states that we are “created equal”, by which I assume that we also should have an equal stake in who we elect to the executive branch. That ideal of equality was the basis of expansion of voting rights throughout our history, in fact. But, with the existence of the electoral college, all votes are not “created equal”.
Texas, our second most populous state, a Red state, has 38 electoral votes. As a percentage of their population, Texas has the lowest electoral vote power in the nation, which I arbitrarily set at 1.00. California, our most populous state, a Blue state has 55 electoral votes, but is only slightly better in terms of electoral vote power, at 1.06. (The math here is simple; the population per electoral vote in any given state divided by the population per electoral vote in Texas.). At the other end of the spectrum, we have two of our lowest population states, Wyoming and Vermont. Wyoming, a Red state has an electoral vote power of 3.96. The Blue state of Vermont has an electoral vote power of 3.67. The fact that Wyoming and Vermont voters having nearly four times as much influence on the selection of our president and vice president than Texans and Californians seems to me decidedly unfair.
For my fellow Iowans, we enjoy an electoral vote power of 1.45, which is just a tad bit better than middle-of-the pack. We do have an outsized influence based upon the fact that we’re a Swing state and our first-in-the-nation caucus status (for now, at least), but twenty states and the District of Columbia have more electoral vote power than we do.
Beyond these discrepancies in electoral vote poser, I think we need to consider the distribution of voters, particularly in Red and Blue states. I used a generous definition of the in-between Swing states, based upon whether they had ever voted for different parties in any presidential election from 2000 through 2020. However, two of these states, Colorado and Virginia, are likely to be much less competitive in the future; and, some other states, such as Texas, may be more competitive in elections to come.
There are fifteen reliably Blue states, consisting of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, as well as the District of Columbia. Together, they comprise a population of over 120 million and command 196 electoral votes (remember, 270 electoral votes are needed to win a presidential election). Just under 40% of voters in those areas tend to vote Republican (but only 7% in the District of Columbia). How much vote power do those Republican voters have when it comes to presidential elections? That’s right; exactly zero. How many more might come out and vote Republican if they knew their vote actually mattered? No one knows. but I suspect it would be a significant number.
There are twenty reliably Red states, consisting of Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Together, they comprise a population of over 86 million and command 153 electoral votes. Again, just under 40% of voters in those states tend to vote Democratic, yet their votes also mean nothing in a presidential election.
Together, those reliably Red and Blue areas comprise 63% of our country’s population and command 349 electoral votes, nearly two-thirds of the 538 total electoral votes available. But, in each of the six presidential contests over the last twenty years, the results of the election were effectively already decided in these areas before the first ballots were even cast. Biden didn’t need to compete for votes in Hawaii or Massachusetts, and Trump didn’t need to compete for votes in Wyoming or Oklahoma.
Instead, all presidential election outcomes in the last twenty years have been entirely decided in just fifteen Swing states, consisting of Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Their combined population is over 120 million and they command 189 electoral votes. So, just over one-third of our population determines the result of a presidential contest every four years. And, it’s actually worse than that, as the outcome is oftentimes determined by results in only a few Swing counties within those Swing states.
I think that we should eliminate the electoral college, or at least modify its implications, as has been done in Maine and Nebraska. Doing so would achieve fairness, ensuring that every American had equal vote power, and, it would also dramatically expand the field competition for presidential elections. Together, I am hopeful those effects would lead to greater voter participation, particularly in our largely ignored Red and Blue states, and drive candidates to hone their message to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate, to not take for granted the outcome in reliable Red states or Blue states, and to reach out to each voter, regardless of where they live, to offer a compelling plan for the future.
Would eliminating the electoral college relegate states like Iowa to “flyover states”, unworthy of attention? No, I don’t think so. Swing states like Iowa will still have a significant influence, with their roughly fifty-fifty split between Republican and Democratic voters, so even a popular vote contest will still partly be determined by how we vote. We won’t be ignored, although our impact will be diminished. Still, our goal should be what is best for the America as a whole, and I think that we will still have much to offer.
Finally, for my Republican readers, a reminder that in the last 28 years, there have been eight presidential elections, and Republican candidates have lost the popular vote in all but one those elections, in 2004. Republican candidates managed to secure an electoral college majority in 2000 and 2016 despite losing the popular vote, but I think Republican voters should be concerned whether their current relative advantage in the electoral college system will continue. I don’t think it will, and believe that should make a compelling argument for Republicans to advocate for the elimination or modification of the electoral college.
Best wishes for the holidays! Let us hope that 2021 will be more peaceful and prosperous.
There were three primary arguments in favor of an intermediate body of electors, as set out in Federalist No. 68. First, our founding fathers were admittedly rather elitist, and did not trust in the passions of the general populace, so argued that a more esteemed group of electors, would be “most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations”. This argument presumes, however, that electors might choose to vote for candidates other than those preferred by the people. There have been so-called “faithless” electors throughout our history (though none in 2020), but none have swayed the outcome of an election.
Second, the a body of intermediate electors was supposed to lessen the degree of “cabal, intrigue, and corruption”, and particularly from “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils”. Finally, this system was intended to afford a “moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” But, honestly has the electoral college system really offered protection from foreign interference, or ensured that the most qualified candidates ascend to the highest office in the land?
Another of the rationales for the electoral college initially was the existence of slavery in the southern states. In order to ensure ratification of the Constitution, northern states had to make concessions to the southern states. If election of the executive was by popular vote, the more populous (in terms of property-owning white men) northern states would have a decided advantage. The three-fifths compromise offered a solution. Only white male freeholders would have a vote, but the southern states would have outsized influence in the election of an executive, since slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the allocation of representatives, and therefore intermediate electors.
It’s also important to note that we seem to still accept unequal representation in the Senate, based upon population, with the Red sate of Wyoming, our least populated state, having 68 times more senate seat power than the Blue state of California, our most populous state. We even have less than equitable distribution in the House, which is supposed to be more-or-less proportional, with the Blue state of Rhode Island having two times more house seat power than the Red state of Montana. (Some of these statistics are likely to change as result of the 2020 census.)
Returning to the executive branch, the electoral college offers a seemingly reasonable compromise between the unequal distribution of senate seat power and the somewhat equatable distribution of representative seat power. On the face of it, that seems reasonable, and is one of the arguments often offered in defense of the electoral college. But, the effects of the electoral college are what I’m personally concerned about, not any philosophical underpinnings.
Early in our country’s history, electors were chosen by state legislators, not by the people. A bit later in our history, the public voted for a slate of electors, beholden to a particular candidate, but not always for the candidate, himself. Early voting was a raucous, public affair, usually done by voice vote, with plenty of cajoling and intimidation involved. We then moved to paper ballots, but put out by the separate parties, and violence occasionally ensued if a voter returned with a ballot from a party not in favor in his community. It was not until much later that voters were provided a government-provided private ballot, the “Australian ballot”, the descendent of which we are familiar today.
Further, we have gradually expanded the franchise of who can vote for our executive. Originally, only while male freeholder citizens aged 21 years or older could vote. In 1869, the 14th Amendment extended voting rights to all men born or naturalized in the U.S. (to include former slaves, although discrimination will continue). In 1920, the 20th Amendment extended the voting franchise to women. In 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted voting rights to indigenous Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1954 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 bolstered the rights of black Americans to vote without discrimination. And, in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.