Monday, November 28, 2016

What's the Point of the Electoral College?

There's been a lot on about the Electoral College, lately. What is it even for, right? I mean, why don't we just elect our President directly? One vote is one vote and all of that. People usually default into thinking that it's about State representation because it uses the same kind of system as the House of Representatives, but that's not it.

The conflict was over whether there should be a popular vote at all. Some wanted the President to be chosen by popular vote of the masses while others wanted the choice for President to be handled by Congress. The obvious issue with the President being chosen by Congress is that it could lead to the President just being a puppet for Congress, negating the whole checks and balances of the Executive branch from the system all together.

So what was the problem with the President being chosen by a general election of the people? Well, the possibility of a Trump being elected was the problem.

Basically, many of the Founding Fathers didn't trust the general population to make the best decisions; after all, the vast majority of them were uneducated to the point of not being able to read and write. They were concerned that the "people" could be taken in by someone with the "talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity," someone who was ultimately unqualified for the job but, for whatever reason, popular with the people. The Electoral College was created as a buffer between the "will of the people" and Congress.

The general election, then, was done to produce a pool of candidates for the Electoral College to look at, and the task of the Electoral College was to independently choose the best person for President from the pool of candidates. Basically. The main thing, though, was that the Electoral College was there to make sure that someone qualified got the job, not just someone who was popular.

To state it plainly:
The purpose of the Electoral College, as the Founding Fathers saw it, was to prevent people like Trump from becoming President. Period.

Of course, then parties developed, which complicated everything, and, because each State was given the power to choose its electors, etc, we have ended up where we are now, a system which undermines the purpose of the Electoral College. A system which, because the electors are no longer allowed to deliberate and choose the candidate they feel best suited for the job, has, ironically, given us the one thing the Electoral College was designed to prevent: a Trump.

So... do I think the Electoral College should "rebel" and not support Trump for President? Well, yes, if we are going to have an Electoral College, I feel that they should do exactly that. They should fulfill their function and act as a buffer between the "will of the people" and the most powerful office in the United States. They should look at the potential candidates (that used to be the top five vote getters; I'm assuming it still is, but that may not be true anymore) and choose the person most qualified to assume the role of President of the United States.

If they are not going to do that, if they are not going to serve the purpose for which they were created, we should abolish the Electoral College, because they have no point and, in this instance, have wrecked the country by both ignoring the will of the people and delivering to us the most unqualified person in history as the President. Yes, I'm saying "in history," and you can take that however you will, but I'll stand by it. You will be hard pressed to find someone more unqualified. My cat is more qualified, and he's a certified asshole.

I'm sure some of you are wondering if I understand the ramifications of what I'm saying here. Yes, I do. Yes, I realize that if the Electoral College was to actually not confirm Trump as President that it could lead to violence. However, I also believe that any violence that would take place because of that will be far less than what results from a Trump presidency.

And, sometimes, you just have to stand up for what's right. Actually, that should be always, but there are moments when it is especially called for, and this is one of them.
(And it shouldn't go to Pence, either, because he's possibly worse than Trump.)


  1. Thanks for the explanation Andrew. I have never understood how your system worked and why the Electoral College existed. But it seems they have let you down badly this time.

    1. Jo: Well, it's not the first time. In fact, Hamilton was already upset about the parties co-opting the electoral college system even in his day.

  2. We've needed electoral college reform (or elimination) for years. It's obvious because this is the second time in our lives that the person with more votes didn't win. It's also happened in the past. Donald Trump himself said in the past that the electoral college is a mess. He probably doesn't feel that way now.


    1. Janie: He still doesn't like it because he didn't win the popular vote. He's now trying to say that he really did win the popular vote but, you know, rigged system and all.

    2. In TrumpFantasyLand, everything is rigged.

    3. Janie: Yeah, unless it favors him overwhelmingly.

  3. I love your blog, Andrew. This post does a great job of explaining the EC... and its shortcomings. Yes, their whole purpose is precisely to make sure the most qualified candidates make it into office, and I'm having the hardest time understanding why they're not doing their job now. Definitely not Pence, either; where Trump may be a clueless bigot, Pence is a clue-ful one, and he will do a lot more damage, in more lasting and ineradicable ways.

    Thanks for this. I'll be back often.
    Guilie @ Quiet Laughter

    1. Guillie: They're not doing their job, because the individual States started corrupting the system even before Hamilton died.

      And, no, not Pence, either. He'd be even more horrible than Trump. If that's even possible.

  4. I'm hoping and praying the Electoral College does the right thing next month! We should've abolished it long ago, before the shenanigans of 2000 or the tragic events of this Election Day had a chance to happen. It's an archaic holdover from the days of slavery.

    1. Carrie-Anne: We should have, but people love their traditions. And the Republicans have been gerrymandering the system for long enough that they want to keep it.

  5. Ugh, I know, right? People should be demanding their electors follow the popular vote and not hand us a racist, sexist moron as a president. And all that talk about being "sore losers"...what do they think would have happened if the electoral college had gone the other way? I'm guessing a lot more violence than now.

    1. Jeanne: The problem with that is that the popular vote in those states was for Trump. It's just messed up.

  6. I'm all for a revolution, but not one that simply puts Hillary into office.

    The problem with your Electoral College fix -- vote their consciences! -- is twofold. First, in most states the laws set up a person who is an elector, and that elector then casts the actual electoral vote. Those people are generally pre-set and in most cases are going to vote for the candidate their popular vote was for anyway.

    The Electoral College was to do a couple things. It was a bulwark against popular sentiment by having people vote for a few smart folk rather than one popular guy. They were to meet in their own states rather than as a group, to avoid popular passion, as well. It was to avoid foreign involvement, as well, because nobody was supposed to know who the electors were in the first place, so nobody could tamper with them.

    The system was also to make the President appeal to someone other than current government officials, and to appeal to a broad spectrum of society.

    We changed things considerably when we allowed for electors to be bound by popular vote, and some states can fine or punish 'faithless electors.'

    But we have also changed things by letting parties select 'slates' of electors who are then chosen (sometimes in secret, as we don't know who they are) and requiring that electors go to the popular vote. For better or worse, people now think that electors must go to the popular vote-getter, and that's the system we've created.

    The problem with having electors act like electors isn't that they could, technically, do that, it's that it seems like it's a lawless act at this point, and that's why people wouldn't get it. We've had several elections now where a distinct portion of society felt like it was stolen from them or somehow illegitimate, and in each case the people have generally played within the rules afterwards: Democrats didn't set up their own government in 2001, and Republicans didn't in 2008 and 2012.

    Besides, like many fixes proposed, the system you're setting up doesn't fix this problem. Right now the idea most people want is to let Hillary, who won the popular vote, win the election. That's specifically unconstitutional, at this point, but also, it's no guarantee that in the future a Trump wouldn't win the popular vote if we abolished the electoral college, and we'd end up back here again.

    In your system, there's no guarantee that the person the Electors picked this time would be better than Trump (what if we got Rick Perry? Or Carly Fiorina?), but even if this time it turned out to be who you wanted, next time in might not.


  7. Systems can't be set up to avoid a specific person, or type of person any more than they can be set up to allow a specific person or type of person. I was opposed to Obama having the right to drone-strike US citizens for just this reason: while I might trust HIM, now TRUMP has that power.

    If I let the electoral college just this once get rid of someone I don't like, who's to say they won't do it in 2020 to President-Elect Elizabeth Warren?

    The electoral college has, in the past century, produced some hits: both Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, and Obama. It produced Clinton, JFK and LBJ, who had their merits. It also produced Nixon, W Bush, Reagan, and Warren G Harding, who were incompetent or criminals, and now it's produced Trump. Hard to say it "never" works.

    One good thing about our system is that it allows for peaceful revolution. That's what the GOP has been doing: they've been overturning the system using the rules we set up (and the rules they then set up using the rules we set up).

    The losing side always wants to blame outside forces for losing: Russians rigged the election, fake Facebook news rigged the election, James Comey rigged the election, the electoral college rigged the election.

    But Democrats ignored a motivated base in their party to nominate a candidate that even hardcore Democrats like me didn't necessarily want to support, and Democrats should not have been swayed by overblown email scandals or the negative tone of the campaign.

    Democrats rigged the election by not bothering to get up and go vote. Story after story after the election has focused on the outside forces that supposedly affected that, but there weren't any James Comeys, email servers, Russian presidents, or other forces preventing Democrats from actually going to vote for the candidate their party nominated. They just didn't do it because they cared less than the Republicans cared.

    The founding fathers were worried that interested partisan factions would take over the government. They never bothered to ask what would happen if one of the factions just didn't care enough to even vote, but now we know.

    Before we talk about a quixotic push to change the electoral college, we should focus on changing how candidates are nominated, how people vote and why they don't vote, and on educating everyone -- including the red states -- on why the social issues they worry so much about don't matter. But there's a reason that Democrats, too, push those social issues, and that is because the economic policy differences between Hillary and Trump are minimal, and they would not want to focus on that portion of the policy arguments any more than the general electorate does.

  8. Hey, to follow up on Twitter: I wasn't saying you were blaming anyone in the Tweet. Democrats are blaming everyone but Democrats, and your post offered a solution rather than blame, but that's hard to say in a tweet. Hope I didn't offend.

    1. Briane: First, no, I wasn't offended. I just thought maybe I'd done a poor job with the post and it had come off sounding like I was blaming the EC.

      I understand what you're saying about the EC but, at the moment, it's a pointless institution that gives inordinate power to geography over population. The EC was set up for a specific purpose that was then taken away from it by most States. My point is that if it's not going to be used to fulfill its purpose, then it shouldn't exist to begin with. Sure, we might get a Trump who wins the Presidency by the popular vote but, right now, he won it without the popular vote BECAUSE OF the EC system, the very thing they were designed to prevent. Either they should be a firewall or they shouldn't exist. Right now, they're like having out of date virus protection on your computer. It slows your computer down and makes it run like crap while still letting all the viruses through.

  9. It actually gives power to population. The electoral votes are: 2 per state, plus an additional set of votes equal to how many reps you have. Reps are apportioned (somewhat) by population: every state must have at least 1, but beyond that it's population only.

    Right now each state gets about 1 rep per (roughly) each 708,000 people. That means that Wyoming (with just over 500000 people) gets a bit MORE weight than population would allow, while California gets a bit LESS. (The Senate electoral votes, 2 per state, don't matter because every state gets them. If you eliminated the extra 100 electoral votes, the power would remain the same among the states.)

    Right now, California (mostly liberal) has 55 electoral votes. Texas (mostly conservative) has 38. They're numbers 1 and 2, and they fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. A person could win the popular vote by 1 in each of the top 12 states and get 270 electoral votes, so the majority of the country would be out of luck. But those top 12 are pretty evenly divided, politically.

    But in 1980, California only had 46 electoral votes, and Texas had only 26. Texas' influence has increased by 50% in 36 years; California's has gone up only 16%.Florida and NY each have 29 electoral votes now; in 1980, NY had 41 and Florida 17, so essentially New York's former influence transferred partially to Florida, increasing Florida's voice by nearly 100%, and reducing New York's. Illinois and Pennsylvania are both less powerful now than in 1980, as is Ohio.

    So saying the electoral college favors geography is only partially accurate; in 1980, the Electoral College paid less attention to Texas, Florida, and California than it does now, while paying more attention to New York, Illinois, and Ohio. (I picked 1980 because it was a Reagan year, and Reagan is possibly the closest analogy to Trump I can think of.)

    5 presidential elections have elected by electoral votes the popular vote loser, including two this century (W, and Trump). But Kennedy won the popular vote by 0.17%, which is the slimmest margin of any elected popular-vote winner.

  10. In 19 elections, the victorious candidate actually got less than 50% of the popular vote (5 of those were the 5 in which the winner lost the popular vote outright.) So 19 presidents have served despite NOT being the choice of the majority of the people. Nobody was arguing the electoral college was screwed up when Lincoln or Kennedy got elected, despite both of them being the choice of less than 1/2 of all voters.

    Winning the popular vote is no panacea. The person who won his election by the biggest popular vote margin was Warren Harding; Nixon was in the top 4 of that group. The popular vote was exactly what the founding fathers feared.

    Your solution: to have electors vote for whoever they want, would restore us to where the founding father started -- some of them, anyway. Almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified, some states began awarding electoral votes on a general slate, as we do now. Some founders disliked this, but other states did it so as to compete electorally; this was when states had a much bigger role as entities than they do now. A proposed amendment to avoid winner-take-all electoral votes failed, so you could argue that the founders didn't intend for that method to be prohibited and that the early people making up our government thought winner-take-all was acceptable.Since 1836, winner-take-all has been the method, and only two states now don't use that (both of them started in the late 20th century.)

    So the method we use is the one that was openly picked up by the people who drafted the electoral college plan in the first place, and rejected any attempt to limit winner-take-all. The method we use has led to great presidents being elected by less than a majority of the people, while popular votes have led to Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon. That's what I mean when I say that switching methods may not work, and why you can't blame the system for the people running it.

    The electoral college does allow candidates to focus on states where they have a chance of winning, and so arguably marshalls their resources better. The candidates spent a combined 31 days in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida in the close of the election.

  11. Briane: Actually, what I really think is that we should have greater restrictions upon who can become President. I don't think being a born-in-the-USA citizen and being 35 years of age are enough. When you can look at Trump and say, "He's completely unqualified" (because he is), that means there needs to be some kind of definitive statement about the qualifications of who can run for President.

    And I get that no system is perfect, but the current state of affairs has gone into unacceptability.