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Three myths about the Electoral College

Since the election, we Americans have engaged in a healthy debate about the Electoral College. My instincts in this debate are those of an institutional conservative: Writing our Constitution from scratch today, we would not have designed the Electoral College as it has evolved. However, institutions become embedded in societies. Apparently compelling reforms, when implemented, often generate undesirable and unforeseen consequences.

Moreover, institutions often adapt to roles different from those anticipated by those who crafted such institutions. During the summer, when I decided that I could vote for neither major party candidate for president, I proposed that, where possible, bi-partisan unpledged slates of presidential electors run to provide an alternative. In the future, such an approach might commend itself if we are again confronted with two major party candidates viewed as unfavorable by the general electorate as were Secretary Clinton and President-elect Trump.

To further this debate, consider these three contentions often heard today about the Electoral College.

1. The Electoral College always favors Republicans. Advocates of this position point to President Bush’s loss of the popular vote in 2000 and to President-elect Trump’s larger loss of the popular vote in 2016. However, in the run up to the 2016 election, Clinton partisans were touting her “blue state firewall” in the Electoral College. I can find no public utterance by any prominent Democrat objecting to the possibility that Secretary Clinton might prevail in the Electoral College even if she lost the popular vote. The editorial board of the New York Times, which now calls for abolition of the Electoral College, was similarly silent about the prospect that Secretary Clinton might prevail in the electoral vote while losing the popular vote.

The narrative that the Electoral College always favors Republicans is wrong in another respect: As careful observers of the 1960 election have demonstrated, it is likely that Richard Nixon, not John Kennedy, won the popular vote in that year. No votes were explicitly cast for Kennedy or Nixon in Alabama since neither of their names appeared on that state’s ballot. Kennedy’s national popular vote total over Nixon rests on the unrealistic allocation to Kennedy of all of the votes cast in Alabama for a Democratic slate of electors, half of whom were pledged to vote against Kennedy in the Electoral College.

Camelot may thus have been a creature of the Electoral College.

2. For the victor in the Electoral College to lose the popular vote is a uniquely American phenomenon. Not so. Under parliamentary systems, it is possible for the victor to lose the popular vote but prevail by winning the most parliamentary seats. This happened twice in Great Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1951, Britain’s Labor Party garnered more total votes in the aggregate, but the Conservative Party, with fewer popular votes, won more seats in the House of Commons. Consequently, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister. In 1974, the reverse occurred: The Labor Party received fewer votes nationwide but won more parliamentary seats. Hence, Harold Wilson, while losing what Americans call the popular vote, was elected Prime Minister.

3. The “winner take all” allocation of states’ respective electoral votes is bad. But the “winner take all” method is not required by the Constitution. Each state decides for itself how to award its electoral votes. Today, two states – Maine and Nebraska – allocate an electoral vote to the presidential candidate who carries a congressional district, even if that candidate loses the statewide popular vote. This happened in 2016 as President-elect Trump received one electoral vote by winning Maine’s second congressional district even as Secretary Clinton received Maine’s other three electoral votes. Other states can emulate Maine and Nebraska and allocate their respective electoral votes by congressional district. Alternatively, a state could also allocate its electoral votes proportionately so that, for example, a presidential candidate winning 40% of the statewide popular vote would receive 40% of the state’s electoral votes.

Those who would abolish the Electoral College bear the heavy burden of overturning a 200 year old institution which has become embedded in our society. The fact that Secretary Clinton prevailed in the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College does not carry that burden. As I suggested last month, the popular vote which occurs under the Electoral College is not necessarily the vote which would have occurred in a direct election for president conducted under uniform national rules.

Featured image credit: white house Washington president by gunthersimmermacher. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard Winger

    There were other states besides Alabama in 1960 that did not print the names of presidential candidates on the ballot. It doesn’t matter. Party labels were on the ballot for candidates for presidential elector. The idea that all the votes for the Democratic slate should not be counted for Kennedy is sometimes made by people who note that only 5 of the presidential elector candidates were pledged to Kennedy. But in 1948 in Tennessee, two of the Democratic electors were pledged to Strom Thurmond, and no one ever refuses to credit Truman with all the popular votes in Tennessee in 1948.

  2. Carol Lerche

    How did that voting decision work out for you? Doesn’t inspire confidence in your further commentary.

  3. Ian M. Evans

    What a strange idea that you couldn’t vote for either party! Anyone not voting for Clinton, an outstanding and principles candidate, ended up voting for Trump, a petty and hostile buffoon. Why would you want that?

  4. Mike Taylor

    Professor Zelinsky,

    The Electoral College is corrupt. Not by the people who rely on it to decide on a presidential winner; but by the Congress who long ago decided that the number of Representatives be Fixed at 435.
    I had not questioned this number before this election, but now I do. Why was it set at that amount?
    A little research showed this was done by Congress in between 1911 and 1923, an era of societal change within the United States, and a scholar such as yourself might profit from researching this decision, as well as starting a reformation movement to modify this rule to deny the People representation.

    Between 1905 and 1915 almost 15 million immigrants arrived in the United States, and unlike the waves before them, the majority did not speak English, and were discriminated against. Most were from Eastern Europe, Poland, Russia, and Italy; and a majority were Catholic. The WASP-ish Congress may have been afraid if they increased the number of seats that soon there would be more Catholics in Congress.
    The second group who have complained about being un represented and denied voting access were the African Americans, and in the 1910-1920 period they were starting to vote in places other than the North; and I am only guessing that this is another reason for limiting the number of seats to 435. My third speculation was the Suffragette movement had gained enough momentum, and before the Old Boys Club knew it women would be running for Congressional seats if more seats were available.

    As you know, the Census determines the locations of the Congressional Districts, and this is set forth in the Constitution, it was also written there should be One Representative for a minimum of 30,000 Residents; and by studying the census of the first 100 years it is apparent that Congress went by those rules, taking the Census, and then redistricting, adding Members as the population grew, and removing them if the population fell.

    In 1911 the population was approximately 105 million, and Each District averaged 127,000 people, there were also only 46 States.

    Today there are 50 States, the Population has soared to over 350 Million people, and each Congress Member represents 725,000 people. Imagine if Congress had stuck to it’s original plan of one member per 30,000 how many Electoral seats there would be today, and how much fairer the election might be.

    Thank you giving us room to comment,

  5. Lowell Finley

    An institution originally created to shield the morally indefensible crime of slavery in the southern states is no less wrong because it is embedded in our history. The electoral college, rooted as it is in the non-proportional assignment of two U. S. senators to low-population rural states and high-population urban states and alike, perpetuates a gross denial of the principle that each person’s vote should have equal weight. It gave whites in the southern states disproportionate power before the electors were chosen by popular vote, and it continues to give them disproportionate power now.

  6. Arnold Pulda

    The last comment, from Lowell Finley, is exactly right. How long was slavery “embedded in our society”? We got rid of one; now let’s get rid of the other.

  7. Baa

    This issue reared it’s ugly head again because the side that did not prevail won the “popular” vote. Interestingly no reference to Tilden/Hayes 1876 here.

    I think many of the big city leftists have convinced themselves that too much voting power is given to the Bible Belt. And the usual narrative of the big city Liberals is the Southerner is all about God and Guns, as well as under educated. Get rid of the electoral college and you will really disenfranchise the African Americans in those states. My experience in rural american is that African Americans are patriotic, religious, and gun and hunting enthusiasts, much like their white counterparts. They generally go democratic and the reasons have been well documented.
    Don’t get rid of the electoral college to disenfranchise an ideology you can’t lick square.


    Remove liberal waste land California, Trump won the popular vote by 1.7 million. Can’t have heavily populated states of California, New York, Texas & Florida elect the POTUS. The Founding Fathers were genius in ensuring that every state participates in the election for President.

  9. Robert Laity

    I would like to make you aware of something. Obama was never President. He usurped the Presidency. Like Chester Arthur, Obama is not an Article II “Natural Born Citizen”. http://www.thepostemail.com/09/17/2010/there-is-no-president-obama/

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