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.