Electoral College Mumbo-Jumbo

The electoral college is a barnacle on American democracy. I argued this point in The Summer of 1787, and in a piece in the Los Angeles Times last year.
The delegates to the Philadephia Convention liked the electoral college for the reason I don’t: it defeats democracy. They hoped that the electors would be wise men who would have perfect freedom to choose the best man (not person, but man) to be the nation’s president. Instead, it now is an aggregation of Just Plain Folks who vote as their state laws tell them to vote, under winner-take-all rules in each state other than Nebraska and Maine.
Because electoral votes equal a state’s congressmen plus senators, small states have disproportionate power in choosing the president. Under this system, one person definitely does not equal one vote. Voters in Wyoming and Alaska have much more influence than voters in California and Texas.
I have always been most flummoxed by one argument in favor of this thumb-on-the-scales-of-democracy: that the electoral college promotes domestic tranquility by taking a narrow popular vote win and making it seem like a thumping victory. Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute peddles this twaddle in a recent essay. He explains: “The electoral college regularly produces a president with a clear and immediately evident claim to the office, in part because it exaggerates the margin in the popular vote. (In 1996, for example, Bill Clinton’s 49 percent of the popular vote became 70 percent of the electoral vote.)”
Hillary and Barack, not thinking about the electoral college
Now this frosts me. This non-democratic system of choosing our Maximum Leader is good because it deceives the (presumably stupid, fat, and lazy) American people into thinking the new president actually won by a landslide, rather than narrowly? Really?
To be clear:
1. I don’t see the virtue in deceiving the American people.
2. I fear the effect on our Maximum Leaders, who might actually start to feel like they have won thumping victories when they have not.
3. I have just enough faith in our fellow humans to think they they will support and respect a president who is elected by a narrow majority, without being deceived. Heck, nobody took to the streets over the election of 2000, which was a pretty terrific opportunity for civil unrest over bad election practices.
Because of the dare at the end of this post, I also want to address the other defense of the electoral college I most often hear: that it has the positive effect of giving attention to small states that otherwise would not get attention.
Huh? When was the last time a presidential candidate went to Wyoming or Alaska or Idaho during the general election campaign? Under the electoral college system, the key consideration for attention in a presidential campaign is whether your state is “in play.” If the state is reliably Republican or Democratic, the no one is going there, period.
And a corollary of this argument is that it is more “fair” to give a little extra power to people in small states because they, well, live in small states where (presumably) no one else wants to live. A woman hit me with this one, plus two follow-up questions, at a recent speech.
Please. One person, one vote. What’s so hard about that? If no candidate has a majority, then you have a run-off between the top two vote-getters. Easy. They do it in France. And Louisiana.
Okay. Now the dare. Please give me the best arguments in favor of the electoral college. What am I missing?


  1. Mateo on April 8, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    What about tradition? By golly, if it was good enough for George Washington and the subsequent 200+ years of the greatest country ever, it’s good enough for us now. If we change, the terrorists win!

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