November 7, 2012

In defense of the Electoral College, briefly

Every four years, there's a proliferation of critiques against the Electoral College. I have a few thoughts on this, followed by a brief explanation of how the current system works.

In parliamentary systems, the head of government (usually the Prime Minister) and often the head of state (President or Chancellor) are determined not by direct election but by a parliamentary vote. The most direct form of democracy operates in Switzerland, where most major policy questions are decided by plebiscite (basically the same as a referendum). That works, as long as there's no need to account for minority rights or legislative and policy expertise.

If we got rid of the Electoral College, most likely Congress would fill that intermediary role, and given gerrymandering and incumbency factors, that vote would be significantly more skewed from the popular will than a state-by-state winner-take-all system. Last week's hurricane has meant that many thousands of would-be voters were not even counted in the popular vote, introducing another advantage of the Electoral College as is. I think our current system works best.

ELECTORAL COLLEGE -- in brief: The EC mechanism awards each state one vote per Congressional seat (i.e., two for the Senate and however many for the House of Representatives), totaling 538 (including three for Washington, DC). In nearly all the states, whichever Presidential candidate wins the majority in that state wins all the electoral votes from that state.

In rare cases, the candidate who wins the majority of total votes across the country fails to win the Electoral College vote. Additionally, the major party candidates tend to ignore the states where they enjoy guaranteed majorities and focus on the handful where the vote could go either way. People feel left out...


  1. why would there need to be an intermediary role?
    you win more votes then anyone else and on Jan 20 you get sworn in. no need to involve Congress in the process at all

  2. Thanks, Jeff, for making this very valid point. The U.S. President is probably the most powerful and invulnerable chief executive of any democratic state on the globe. What if a hurricane hit right before Election Day and Mitt Romney had won the popular vote because 2 million Obama voters in the liberal East Coast couldn't get to the polls? What balance of power would there be between a directly elected President and district-based Congressional representatives? The Founders had something in mind here, and I believe it goes deeper than just getting all 13 original states to ratify the Constitution.