The Big Misconception About the Electoral College


The Electoral College has been very much in the news lately, with many people passionately calling for its eradication or staunchly defending it — usually depending on whether their candidate won or lost. There’s certainly room for debate on this matter, but what’s annoying is how frequently supporters of the institution defend it with the same misconception: the EC, they so often say, was designed to provide “balance” in the electoral process. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Electoral College, in fact, was designed to promote imbalance — i.e., to give some states disproportionate representation in relation to other states. Specifically, it was designed to give more clout to slave-holders and to advance the interests of wealthy landowners in general. And although slavery has subsequently been abolished, the EC still is doing an excellent job of keeping certain sectors of the populace “in their place” and skewing elections in favor of agrarian communities as opposed to urban communities, and in favor of wealthy white men over everyone else.

Another common phrase you hear from defenders of the EC is that it protects the country from being dominated by California and New York. So does it make more sense to have the country dominated by Oklahoma and Nebraska? Because that’s exactly what’s happening. Under the present system, many states that depend mostly on agriculture are valued far more highly than some states that thrive on agriculture plus the tech industry, publishing and media, banking, insurance, science and medicine. As an extreme example, a vote in Wyoming carries more than three and a half times as much weight as a vote in California.

And it’s getting even more lopsided. Twenty years ago, it probably would have been unthinkable for a presidential candidate to win the popular vote by nearly 3 million, yet still lose the electoral vote. But as more and more people move into cities, their votes for president will count less and less. If the trend continues, the president ultimately may be selected by a mere handful of voters. (Although technically there’s no limit to the number of votes a state can acquire, there’s a practical limit because the total must be 538.) Among other things, this means it’s going to be increasingly difficult for a Democrat to get elected — which is precisely why the system will never change: the last thing Republicans want is a level playing field. (See mandering, gerry.)

Supporters of the present system — or of the candidates most likely to benefit from it — also like to tout maps of electoral results like the one reproduced above.  This, they declare, is proof that the country overwhelmingly supports Donald Trump, even though most of the voters rejected him. Makes perfect sense, eh?

Sometimes they’ll get even cuter by breaking down the electoral map into counties, resulting in a sea of red with only a few little islands of blue. Where the hell are all the libruls lurking?

2016 election results map

Such maps are bad models because they depict geographic boundaries rather than demographic density.  What we are perfectly capable of producing, and yet you seldom see, is a 3-D map revealing that “blue” voters tend to live in more densely populated areas, and often even in high-rise buildings.


The two-dimensional maps are meant to reassure us that the right guy won, because he’s representing more of the country. But what they actually do is betray the big flaw of the Electoral College: the president is elected by land mass more than by the citizens who live on it. Donald Trump was not the choice of the people, but he had the overwhelming support of cows, coyotes and cacti.

Defenders of the system are fond of comparing the Electoral College to the World Series. Specifically, they often cite the 1960 match, in which the highly favored New York Yankees outscored the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates 55 to 27, and yet the Pirates still won the series — thanks to the storybook finish of a home run by a mediocre hitter in the bottom of the 9th inning of game 7. We accept and even relish this kind of unexpected drama in sports; so why not in elections?

Well, because even though the presidential election has developed into a spectacle in its own right, with its catty debates and October surprises, it was never designed to be entertainment the way baseball was. It was designed to be a way to pick the leader of the nation; and that objective is better filled by honoring what the people want and need rather than honoring where they live. Furthermore, determining a baseball champion with a series of games rather than a single game helps minimize the element of chance; but breaking up a national election into state elections actually heightens the role of chance. In 2000, for instance, the fluke of a confusing “butterfly ballot” was enough to flip the entire state of Florida — which in turn was enough to flip the entire election.

Consider a hypothetical race between 3 candidates. In state A, candidate Jones receives 5 million votes, Smith receives 4 million and Brown 1 million. In State B, Brown receives 5 million, Smith 4 million and Jones 1 million. The totals for these two states then are: Smith 8 million, Jones 6 million and Brown 6 million.  So Smith, the candidate with the most votes, is awarded no electoral votes at all. Repeating this 25 and a half times, we see that it’s theoretically possible for a candidate to win the popular vote, and yet receive ZERO electoral votes for her trouble.

Does this mean the EC should be abolished? Not necessarily. Because there seems to have been another, more honorable purpose for its existence: to serve as a last line of defense against tyranny. The founders explicitly stated that the institution should be composed of individuals better qualified than the general public for selecting a national leader; and should help ensure that dangerous, unqualified demagogues should not sneak into office just because they happen to hoodwink the voters.

But obviously, the system has failed us big time. The Electoral College has become little more than a rubber stamp; some states even have made it illegal for electors to contradict the choice of the voters in that state.

So perhaps it should be abolished after all. Just don’t hold your breath.


Propaganda Prop # 5: Spin

The headline in USA Today was eye-catching: “Obama faces uphill battle for reelection.” But what was even more arresting was the accompanying graphic depicting poll results that matched him up against his potential GOP challengers. It demonstrated that he was in a statistical dead heat with all of them, and he was actually leading against at least one. So why didn’t the headline say “GOP challengers face uphill battle to unseat Obama?”  Well, because of a little thing called spin, which is the next in our series of propaganda tools.

We’ve all heard of spin, and we’ve hall heard plenty of spin. We’re surrounded by it, bombarded by it, saturated with it. And its power to alter perception is very much in proportion with its pervasiveness.

For better or for worse, President Obama almost certainly is headed for a second term. Indeed, it has seldom been in serious doubt. It’s not a definite thing, mind you; never underestimate the effectiveness of swiftboating and ACORNization; but you’d be much wiser putting your money on him than against him. Examine the chart on InTrade, which has become a very reliable predictor of such matters, and you’ll see that the probability of his reelection has hovered at around 60 percent for most of the past year or so, and only briefly dipped below 50 percent. Yet the conventional “wisdom” has always been that he has a better chance of building a cat house on the moon. Why? Because the media have relentlessly pursued the narrative that his electoral glass is half empty instead of (at least) half full, apparently hell-bent on making his November defeat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Spin is  not, strictly speaking, a technique in itself, but a species of technique application. And it isn’t strictly a political activity, but its application to politics certainly trumps any other usage these days – even commercial advertising, which previously was the primary domain of spin.

You also might notice that spin sounds very similar to framing; and in fact, they’re often used interchangeably. But in practice, there are generally certain distinctions between the two. Framing usually promotes one of a number of possible interpretations, while spin generally means reversing the polarity of a given perception — i.e., making an unfavorable result appear favorable, or vice versa. Framing might be thought of as a preemptive strike to mold perception of future events, while spin may be thought of as damage control to reshape perception of past events.  (Even in the example cited, the spin is applied to poll results that already have occurred.) You’ll witness spin in action after just about any election, as the losers and/or their backers try to explain to the public that defeat didn’t really mean what it meant.

One of the most brazen (and most successful) political spin campaigns ever occurred after the 2000 election, when the supporters of George W. Bush — who, at the very least, lost the popular vote — hailed the 5-4 Supreme Court decision that put him in office as a sweeping mandate that reflected the overwhelming will of the people. They sported maps that colored in the “red” and “blue” states and proclaimed, I kid you not, that three-fifths of the nation had voted for Dubya. Fox “News” hawked T-shirts blazoned with such a map, reflecting “Bush’s stunning victory”.  Not to be outdone, the reactionary blog Free Republic zeroed in on California, publishing a map that showed Bush carried more counties in that state, and declaring that he “beat Gore to a bloody pulp” — in a state Gore won by a 12 percent margin!

We should note that spin descends into such grotesque silliness not necessarily by providing false information, but by seizing on the wrong information. What those maps really proved was that Bush voters were spread out among a wider expanse of real estate than Gore voters.  Which is about as relevant as saying that Gore voters tended to live in taller buildings. (Hey, why not a 3-D electoral map that stresses depth rather than breadth of voter distribution?) That vast red territory is occupied largely by cattle, rattlesnakes and scorpions — none of which cast ballots in that election (at least to the best of our knowledge).

But, as in the example of the Obama polls, another way to spin is just to offer a strained interpretation of the facts. For an all-time classic textbook example we turn, as we so often do, to the great Rush Limbaugh. And the topic was not politics but, as you might expect, he did his damnedest to politicize it. It was the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which damaged a portion of freeway around Los Angeles. Here’s how FAIR compares Limbaugh’s comments to events in the real world:

LIMBAUGH: On California contractor C.C. Myers completing repairs 74 days early on the earthquake-damaged Santa Monica Freeway: “There was one key element that made this happen. One key thing: The governor of California declared the [freeway] a disaster area and by so doing eliminated the need for competitive bids…. Government got the hell out of the way.” (TV show, 4/13/94) “They gave this guy [Myers] the job without having to go through the rigmarole…of giving 25 percent of the job to a minority-owned business and 25 percent to a woman.” (TV show, 4/15/94)

REALITY: There was competitive bidding: Myers beat four other contractors for the job. Affirmative action rules applied: At least 40 percent of the subcontracts went to minority or women-owned firms. Far from getting out of the way, dozens of state employees were on the job 24 hours a day. Furthermore, the federal government picked up the tab for the whole job (L.A. Times, 5/1/94).

Unable to wrap his brain around the notion that the big bad guvmint actually might be able to operate effectively on occasion, Limbaugh just blotted it out of the picture altogether. His recipe for turning reality on its ear was (1) Select some actual facts– i.e., that repairs were completed by a private contractor well ahead of estimated schedule; (2) Stir in some made-up facts — i.e., that the government cut corners on affirmative action and other regulatory measures; (3) Extrapolate an interpretation that is contrary to truth — i.e., that the efficiency of the project was due to the government “getting the hell out of the way”; (4) dish it up to the masses (serves several million).

That, folks, is spin at its spinfulest.