Two weeks ago, I asserted in this space that, in the 2000 presidential election, bad design cost Al Gore the White House. A few of you wrote in to complain that the focus of that post—the misdesign of ballots—was too narrow, and ignored a far more fundamental design flaw in the way Americans pick their president: the Electoral College.
That’s a legitimate gripe. In fact, the Electoral College, cobbled together by a small committee chosen from the men who gathered in Philadelphia to draft the U.S. Constitution in 1787, is a design disaster. It’s complicated, unpredictable, and doesn’t function the way it was meant to.
“Our electoral system is just absurdly complex and distanced from its original design and the political world it was designed for,” says Alexander Keyssar, Harvard historian and author of a book entitled Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
“The Electoral College as it functions today is the most glaring reminder of many that our democracy is not fair, not equal and not representative,” argues Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and author of Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College. “No other advanced democracy in the world uses anything like it, and for good reason.”
Five times in U.S. history, the Electoral College has produced presidents who failed to carry the popular vote. In 2000, the Electoral College enabled George W. Bush to claim the presidency because (with help from those badly designed ballots) he won Florida, a crucial swing state, by 537 votes—even though Gore carried the popular vote by 543,895 votes. In 2016, the Electoral College handed the presidency to Donald Trump even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million.
As Americans go to the polls today, Joe Biden leads Trump by an average of more than 7 percentage points in the 10 most recent reliable public opinion polls, according to NBC News. That’s well ahead of where Clinton stood against Trump in the last days of the 2016 race. But political analyst Nate Silver cautions that Trump could win the Electoral College again because “projected margins in the tipping-point states are considerably tighter than the margins in the national popular vote.”
The Electoral College was unpopular almost from the moment it was adopted, and has been a source of discontent for two centuries. There have been more than 700 attempts to amend or abolish it. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 58% of Americans favor amending the Constitution to require that the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide wins, while 40% prefer to keep the current system.
Trump himself once denounced the Electoral College as a “disaster for democracy.” (He now calls it “genius”).
How did Americans end up with such a convoluted system for choosing the occupant of their most important public office? And can it be redesigned?
The answer to the first question is complex and troubling. As Keyssar told Harvard Magazine, the Founding Fathers couldn’t agree on how to choose the president. There were no models for democracy on the scale they envisioned.
James Madison favored a national popular vote. But others feared ordinary citizens wouldn’t have sufficient information or education to make enlightened decisions about a national leader. A second idea was to let Congress choose the president. But that risked making the executive branch beholden to the legislative branch and defeating the whole idea of separation of powers. A third solution was to let state legislatures make the choice.
In the end, the matter was left to a “Committee on Unfinished Parts,” which settled on a compromise design political scientist Robert Alexander describes as “a Frankenstein’s monster” that combined elements of all three approaches.
The Founders envisioned representatives to the Electoral College as men of property, education and political experience. But electors would be convened for the sole purpose of selecting the president and vice-president. States were afforded representation in the body equal to their membership in the House and Senate, and state legislatures were granted authority to choose electors and allocate their votes as they saw fit.
All these parameters conspired to make the Electoral College a dysfunctional design. The formula for deciding how many electors to assign to each state was especially problematic because it replicated the abhorrent three-fifths compromise used to distribute seats in the House. To appease the free white residents of southern states, enslaved Black people were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of allocating representatives and electors, even though slaves were denied the right to vote. Wegman told the New York Times Daily podcast that southern states exploited that provision to perpetuate segregation long after Black Americans were granted the right to vote.
Nor did the Founders anticipate the rise of political parties and how, by the 1830s, the logic of partisan competition would drive nearly all states to adopt winner-take-all rules in which the candidate who won the majority of a state’s popular vote would be awarded all that state’s electoral votes. That development shaped the modern political landscape in which candidates campaign almost exclusively in a handful of “battleground” states where small shifts in voting results can determine Electoral College outcomes. Other states are reduced to “spectator” status.
In 1969, the House voted by an overwhelming 338 to 70 in favor of a constitutional amendment to dismantle the Electoral College, but a cadre of Southern segregationists blocked the bill with an epic filibuster in the Senate. That’s the closest America has ever come to an Electoral College redesign.
More recently, 15 states and the District of Columbia have endorsed an proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement that pledges them to award all their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular vote. It’s a clever workaround that doesn’t require rewriting the Constitution. But so far signatories of the compact control a combined 196 electoral votes, far short of the 270 votes needed for a majority in the Electoral College.
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