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Section IX
The Electoral College
 

The President of the United States is selected by an “indirect popular election” which relies upon the Electoral College to execute the will of the electorate.
 

In a Presidential election, voters in each state vote for a specific list of Electors who have pledged their vote to a particular candidate. Though this is the method specified by our Constitution, it has long been a source of controversy (especially every four years).
 
The fundamental concern with the Electoral College is its representational unreliability; i.e., the risk that the electoral vote will contradict the popular vote. The primary purpose of this section is to show that the EC’s representational unreliability is a direct consequence of our undersized House of Representatives.

As is shown in this section, the best solution to this problem is to implement both of the following reforms:

  1. At the federal level, significantly increase the the size of the House of Representatives. The corresponding increase in the number of Electors ensures that the Electoral College will be more representative of the general population.
     
  2. At the state level, the winner-takes-all model currently used by 48 states should be replaced with the proportional method for allocating electoral votes that is used by Maine and Nebraska.
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 “...although generally they are the mere mouths of their constituents, [the Electors] may be intentionally left sometimes to their own judgment, guided by further information that may be acquired by them ... which may not be till a late hour, that the first choice of their constituents is utterly hopeless, to substitute in the electoral vote the name known to be the second choice.”

James Madison, 1823
 

 
CONTENTS

In This Section:

A. Why are there 538 Electors?
Each state is allowed a number of electors equal to the total number of their Congressional delegation.
 

B. The Neubauer-Zeitlin Analysis
The larger the Electoral College, the more likely that it will correctly reflect the popular vote.
 

C. Making the EC more Representative
How the Electoral College can become representationally reliable.
 

D. What is the Electoral College?
The 12th Amendment to our Constitution outlines the process for electing the President.

E. Electoral College Pros & Cons
A summary of arguments supporting and opposing the EC.

 
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 A.  Why are there 538 Electors?
 

The Constitution, and amendments thereto, explicitly defines how the number of Electors is to be determined. Each state is allowed a number of electors equal to the total number of their Congressional delegation (i.e., House plus Senate representatives). In other words, the size of a state’s delegation to the Electoral College is equal to the number of its House Representatives plus two. For example, Delaware has one House Representative and two Senators; this entitles them to three electors.

In addition to the states’ electors, the District of Columbia (D.C.) is allowed a number of electors equal to that of the smallest state (Delaware) giving them a delegation of three. The result is an Electoral College which currently totals 538 people (illustrated in the pie chart to the right).
 
Looking at the pie chart to the right, it is easy to see how increasing the size of the House of Representatives results in a larger Electoral College. As explained below, this increase also ensures that the Electoral College will better reflect the popular vote.

 
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 B.  The Neubauer-Zeitlin Analysis


The larger the Electoral College, the more likely that it will correctly reflect the popular vote. This is the conclusion reached by two California State University mathematicians in an analysis of the 2000 Presidential election (in which Al Gore received a higher percentage of the popular vote, but George Bush won the majority of the electoral votes).
 
The Neubauer-Zeitlin analysis observes that “the winner of the 2000 presidential election was determined in 1941 when the House size was fixed at 435. Had the House size been set at 500 ... then Gore would have won the 2000 election!” Focusing on the 2000 Presidential election, the principal observations made by the Neubauer-Zeitlin Analysis are as follows:

  • The larger the Electoral College, the more likely it will reflect the outcome of the popular vote. In the case of the 2000 election, for all House sizes less than 492, the Electoral College goes to Bush. For all House sizes greater than 654, Gore would have been elected President.
     
  • For House sizes between 492 and 654, a troubling scenario is created: the results fluctuate (seemingly randomly) between Bush, Gore or a tie.
     
  • The smaller states — which favored Bush in the 2000 election — are over-represented in the Electoral College. The 22 smallest states had a total of 98 Electoral votes, though their combined population was roughly equal to that of California which had only 54 Electoral votes. Of their 98 Electoral votes, 37 went for Gore while 61 went for Bush.

Referring to the current composition of the Electoral College, their conclusion is that “... our present method not only goes against the popular vote in the recent election but this instability further highlights the fact that the election of our president by a supposedly fair and trustworthy method depends capriciously on the choice of the House size. We believe that this is a major flaw in the current method of electing a president.”

The authors suggested three possible solutions that could ameliorate these problems. The first two proposals (below) would require a Constitutional amendment, which greatly limits their potentiality.

  1. Replace the Electoral College with the direct election of the President (with the winner determined by a plurality of the vote). One concern with this method is the risk of third-party candidates drawing disproportionately from one candidate.
     
  2. Modify the Electoral College so that each state’s delegation is equal only to its representation in the House (eliminating the additional two delegates). This would substantially eliminate the small state bias.
     
  3. Modify the states’ method of allocating its Electors by replacing the winner-take-all model — currently used by 48 states — with the method used by Maine and Nebraska: give an elector to the winner of each congressional district; the additional two electors goes to the winner of the plurality of the statewide vote. This proposal has the advantage of not requiring a constitutional amendment, but rather could be implemented by the state legislatures.

Any means which utilizes the Electoral College (as do the last two suggestions above) will always be at risk of producing unpredictable electoral results as long as the House of Representatives remains undersized.

For a more thorough understanding of the Neubauer-Zeitlin analysis, read: Outcomes of Presidential Elections and the House Size. (This article first appeared in the October 2003 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics, published by the American Political Science Association.)
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 C.  Making the EC more Representative

 
In order to make the Electoral College representationally reliable, the ideal solution would combine the following two reforms:

  1. Increase the size of the House. The resulting increase in the number of electors ensures that the Electoral College will be more representative of the general population.
     
  2. Implement the proportional method for allocating electoral votes (that is used by Maine and Nebraska) in order to replace the winner-takes-all model currently used by 48 states.

These two solutions are explained below.


 1. Increase the Size of the House


The biggest factor skewing the outcome of the Electoral College is that the smaller states are highly over-represented. The chart below illustrates this point.

The states (and D.C.) are arranged left to right from smallest to largest populations. The vertical bars indicate that state’s Electoral Representation Ratio (i.e., the ratio of its electoral representation to its population proportion). For example, Wyoming (the smallest state on the far left) enjoys an electoral representation ratio of 3.05, while the ratio for California (the largest state) is 0.84.

 
Also shown in the chart above is a graph indicating the cumulative Electoral Representation Ratio. Note that the combined electoral representation of the ten smallest states is twice that of their population proportion (D.C. is also included in that group).
   
The graph below is identical to the one above except that it also shows the election results for each state: the red states were won by Bush and the Blue states were won by Gore. Note that President Bush won a majority of the small states in 2000.
 
 
The reason for the small states’ advantage in the Electoral College is simple. As noted above, every state has a number of Electoral delegates equal to the size of their House delegation plus two. The smaller the state, the more significant is the counter-proportional effect of this two-seat handicap, as can be seen in the table below.
 
The 2-Seat Advantage of a 435-seat House
(the 1990 Apportionment)
State House Seats Electoral Delegation House Seats + 2 =
Number
of Electors
Advantage of the
2-Seat Handicap
in the Electoral College
Delaware 1 3 2 ÷ 1 = 200%
California 52 54 2 ÷ 52 = 3.84%
 
The advantage to the smallest state (Delaware) is 200%, while the advantage to the largest state (California) is only 3.84%.

To further illustrate this point, the table below shows the reduced impact of the 2-seat handicap were the House size significantly larger (a House size of 5,629 is used for this example). Note that Delaware’s advantage is reduced to 12.5%.
 
The 2-Seat Advantage of a 5,629-seat House
State House Seats House Seats + 2 =
Number of Electors
The 2-Seat Advantage
in the Electoral College
Delaware 16 18 2 ÷ 16 = 12.5%
California 679 681 2 ÷ 679 = 0.29%

Therefore, maintaining the smaller House district sizes envisioned by our nation’s founders would substantially reduce the problem of the small states being over-represented in the Electoral College. It is not unreasonable to assume that the creation of the electoral system in the Constitution was predicated upon this very expectation.

 2. Implement the proportional method for allocating electoral votes

The recommendation here is to replace the winner-takes-all method currently used by 48 states with the proportional method for allocating electoral votes used by Maine and Nebraska. Proportional allocation of Electors works as follows:

  1. Award one elector to the winner of the plurality of each congressional district; and,
  2. Award the two additional electors to the winner of the plurality of the statewide vote.

As an example, in the 2000 presidential election Bush would have won 19 of California’s 54 electors since he won the plurality of votes in 19 of California’s congressional districts. Gore would have won the remaining 35 electors; 33 of those as a result of winning the plurality of votes in congressional districts and two of those for winning the plurality of votes in the state. Under the winner-takes-all method, all 54 electors were awarded to Gore.

The maps below help illustrate this concept. The map on the left shows the homogenizing effect of consolidating the state-wide popular vote totals, which is how the 2000 election was determined.

In contrast, the map on the right is a mosaic showing the winner by county (i.e., the winner of the plurality of the popular vote in each county).
 

Election Maps Provided by NationalAtlas.gov
 
 
The county-level results shown above are not exactly the same as what they would be at the legislative district level. For one thing, the legislative districts would be equally sized within each state. However, these maps illustrate how awarding the electoral votes at a smaller district size would ensure a more accurate representation of the will of the people.
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 D.  What is the Electoral College?
This section adapted from VoteSmart.org
   

Summary:
 
Americans elect the President and Vice-president through a method of indirect popular election. On November 2, 2004, voters cast their ballots for a presidential candidate. However, votes actually count towards a group of electors who pledge to vote for a specific candidate when the Electoral College meets in December. The “Electoral College” is the unofficial term coined in the 1800s for the group of citizens selected by the people to cast votes for President and Vice President.

The presidential/vice-presidential pair who wins the popular vote in any given state receives all of the state’s number of Electoral College votes. (The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska.)

In the end, the winner of the race is the candidate who receives a majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The results of the 2004 election won’t be official until the President of the Senate counts the votes out loud at a special joint session of Congress held on January 6, 2005.

 

 

Additional Information on the Electoral College



A More Detailed Description:

The 12th Amendment to our Constitution outlines the process for electing the President of the United States. This indirect method of popular election is known as the Electoral College. While some state laws regarding this process differ, the general method for electing the president is listed below.

  • Before the November election, political parties in each state create lists of potential electors (generally active members of the party) who pledge to vote for the party’s candidate in the Electoral College.
     
  • A state’s number of electoral votes equals the number of the state’s Congressional delegation [the number of U.S. Senators (always 2) plus the number of U.S. Representatives.] The District of Columbia receives three electoral votes, as determined by the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution. See Electoral College Votes per State for your state’s number of electoral votes.
     
  • On November 2, 2004, Voters cast their ballots for a block of electors who, in turn, will vote for a certain presidential candidate. The winner of the popular vote in each state receives the state’s entire number of Electoral College votes. (The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska where a proportional method for allocating votes is used.)
     
    For example, if a Democratic presidential candidate receives the most votes in Texas, the 34 Democratic electors become the voting block representing the Lone Star state. Therefore, the Democratic presidential candidate receives 34 of the 538 total votes in the Electoral College. The winner of the 2004 Presidential Election is the candidate who collects 270 votes, the majority.
     
  • Each state’s block of electors (members of the winning candidate’s party) assembles in their respective state capitol on December 13, 2004. At this meeting, the electors sign the Certificate of Vote, which is sealed and delivered to the Office of the President of the United States Senate.
     
  • A special joint session of the U.S. Congress convenes on January 6, 2005. At this meeting, the President of the Senate reads the Certificates of Votes and declares the official winner.
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 E.  Electoral College Pros & Cons
 
Arguments in Favor of the EC:
 
  • It contributes to the political stability of the nation by encouraging a two-party system and discouraging the proliferation of splinter parties such as those that have plagued many European democracies. The winner-take-all system means that minor parties get few electoral votes, so a president who is the choice of the nation as a whole emerges.
     
 
  • The Electoral College, in recognizing a role for states in the selection of the president, reminds us of their importance in our federal system.
     
  • It enhances the status of minority interests.
     
  • The Electoral College encourages more person-to-person campaigning by candidates, as they spend time in both the big cities and smaller cities in battleground states.
     
  • In close, contested elections, recounts will usually be confined to a state or two, rather than an across-the-country recount that might be required if we had direct election of the president.
     
  • The Electoral College, with its typical winner-take-all allocation of votes, often turns a small percentage margin of victory into one that appears much larger, thus making the victory seem more conclusive and adding to the winner’s perceived legitimacy.
      
  • Finally, the electoral college system has worked. No election in this century has been decided in the House of Representatives. There is uncertainty over whether any other method would be an improvement and that an effort to change the system could lead to the dismantling of the federal system.

Arguments in Opposition to the EC:
 
  • Most Americans believe that the person who receives the most votes should become president. Direct election is seen as more consistent with democratic principles than is the Electoral College system.
     
  • The possibility that a candidate who wins the most popular votes could lose in the electoral college. As is explained above, this can happen primarily because the EC is structured to favor the small states. (See Paradoxical Presidential Election Outcomes for historical examples.)
     
 
  • The risk of “faithless” electors defecting from the candidate to whom they had pledged their vote.
     
  • If presidents were elected by direct popular vote, they would wage a campaign and advertise all across the nation, rather than (as they do in the Electoral College system) concentrating almost all of their time and effort in a handful of battleground states. The Electoral College system encourages candidates to pander to the interests of voters in a few closely contested states.
       
  • The possibility that voter turnout will be depressed (due to perceived concerns regarding the Electoral College itself and/or by the states’ winner-takes-all method).
      
  • Finally, there is the possibility that an election could be thrown into the House of Representatives. In such a case each state has a single vote, which gives the sparsely populated or small states equal weight with more populous states such as California or New York.

 

“The process of election affords 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. Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union, or of so considerable a portion of it as would be necessary to make him a successful candidate for the distinguished office of President of the United States. ”
Federalist Paper No. 68 (March 14, 1788)


“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free ...
it expects what never was and never will be.”

– Thomas Jefferson


Last updated: 18August2004
13-May-2005
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