The Electoral College: Why it is, Why it's hard to fix, and why it's not as big a deal as you think

As we do every 4 years, people are lamenting about the crazy system of the electoral college. It is archaic and should be replaced, but that's far more easily said than done.

Everybody knows that because all but 2 states vote as blocs in the college, it turns the election into a battle of swing states, and it's happened a few times that the winner of the college did not win what people like to call the "popular vote" -- the number you get when newspapers add up the vote counts in each individual state race.

Because it currently biases the results slightly to the Republicans, most calls to eliminate it come from the Democrats. The situation is a bit more complex than it seems, though, when we consider the following:

  • It's written pretty strongly into the constitution, which makes changing it there almost impossible.
  • There is an effort to reverse its effects with an "interstate compact" which has 16 blue states signed up for it, but hat also faces challenges.
  • The bias introduced by the college is small, but appears much larger than it is
  • If we did get rid of the college, it would only change things a little bit
  • Having the winner of more states beat the winner of the popular vote was actually one of the original purposes of the college
  • There is no popular vote in US election law. The one newspapers invent is very flawed, so we don't quite know what would happen.
  • It would greatly change how elections are fought, and not every change would be positive.

In the constitution

The constitution declares the college, and says that states can decide how to choose their electors. In the past, they were appointed by the state government, and limited free agents in how they could vote. Eventually, all states passed laws saying there is to be a popular vote election in the state, and electors are chosen who pledge to vote for the winner of that election. (In some states they are forced to, in others they can change their vote with some or no penalty.)

States can change these rules, though it is debatable if they could go back from a popular election today. However, any other change needs a constitutional amendment, which means you need approval from 3/4 of the states, and absent a convention, also 2/3rds of the Senate and 2/3rds of the house. This is not going to happen as long as one party or the other feels the college gives them an advantage. Which is to say that today, the Republicans will never vote for it, and so it can't happen, absent a deal giving them something they want of equal value.

Nebraska and Maine pick electors in a special way -- 2 votes as the state voted as a whole, and one for how each congressional district voted for President. All the rest give all their electors to the candidate who came first in the state, in a "winner takes all" approach.

Changing it outside the constitution

States can make their own rules. A group called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact hopes that it can gather a group of states controlling more than 269 electoral votes, and have them pass laws saying they will appoint their electors to vote for whoever the winner of a national popular vote was. It would not matter at that point what the other states did.

People debate if that's constitutional -- the Republicans would fight it of course. But even if it is, they face a problem -- they have 16 states in the compact, but all are blue. Several red states have considered the idea in committee, but none have passed it. It's difficult to see that they would. Swing states like all the attention and goodies they get in elections, so they are unlikely to sign. Safe states don't mind getting rid of that attention swing states get, but safe blue states will be loathe to sign something that would make their state be the one to make their party lose in 4 elections, including 2000 and 2016, and more solidly in 2020. There has never been an election where the Democrat won the college and probably lost the popular vote. Maybe a blue state will feel a wave of fairness and sign, but it's not too likely.

In some ways, this compact got too greedy. You don't need 270 votes to do this job. You just need 50 safe blue ones and 50 safe red ones. Together, that would swing any election that was very close in the popular vote. That's just California and 2-4 red states -- if you can find them. Which you probably can't.

There is another way this could be done, a much more dramatic way, but I will be discussing that in 2021.

How big a deal is this?

Certainly everybody thinks it's a big deal because both 2000 and 2016 flipped to the GOP due to the college. In reality those elections where quite close in the hypothetical popular vote. The overall effect is a bias of a few percent. Any candidate with the popularity of a Reagan, Obama, Nixon or Johnson easily overwhelms any bias in the college. As did Biden, but not so overwhelmingly. It's really only showing a big effect because other factors are making elections super close more and more often. That turns out to not be entirely a coincidence, which leads to the next point.

What if we did switch to a popular vote?

As noted, the college gives a small bias to the GOP, made clear because of our close elections. If that bias were removed, the parties would change. The GOP, in particular, would have no choice but to change. They would alter their policies and recruiting and nominees until they could win 51% of the new true popular vote. This happens all the time when situations and rules change. There's hardly something more dramatic than the change of the Democratic party from being the party of slavery in the 19th century and segregation until the mid-20th to the party it is today.

While the GOP would adjust to the new rules, taking in policies to win a few more centrists or using other techniques, the Democrats would also help them. The Democrats have built a larger party because they had no choice -- they can't win with a smaller one. Freed of that burden, the Democrats would start casting out some members of the fringes of their party as no longer necessary. These would go to minor parties, or the GOP, or to not voting. In the end, each party only wants to work hard enough to win, and not a lot harder. Both are good at their game, and in an adversarial battle they often tie. We don't have parties with clear and stable platforms which then see which attracts the most voters. Instead we have a dynamic voter base and parties that adjust to grab enough of it to win. Both parties are a combination of factions. The Democrats have very liberal progressives, mainstream liberals, moderates and even conservative democrats, plus factions you can't really put on a spectrum. The Republicans have the evangelicals, the moderates, the Tea partiers, the Trumpians, some of the Libertarians and other special groups. They come together because they can't win otherwise.

The Republican bias in the college has come because of an urban/rural split. The Republicans worked to capture more rural voters, and they get more electoral votes per person. Democrats use to be stronger in farm country, and in the south but ceded some of that to the GOP.

So while many might hope that when we get rid of the college some sort of giant political shift will happen, that's just not the case. It will be a nudge. It's not actually impossible that the GOP could move to the right! After all, Trump grew their base by bringing in fringe elements on the far right who never felt very devoted to the GOP, for a net gain. Trump almost won in 2020 with that group, and almost 20 million virgin voters who had never voted before but got motivated to turn out for Trump. He lost because even more people were motivated to turn out to vote against Trump. (Sorry, President Biden, but only a few of them did it just to vote for you.)

Is this a bug or a feature?

When the country was founded, there were 13 rival colonies of different sizes. Few of the founders were keen on electing a President by popular vote and they decided not to, which is part of why there is the college. Popular votes came much later. The winning faction of founders were keen on states' rights, not voter's rights, at the federal level. They made the Senate to really cement that, but they also made the college. While they didn't want a popular vote at all, for fear of a populist President, among other things, it is likely that if they had to choose between a candidate who was slightly more popular with voters, and a candidate who won more states, they would have wanted the one who was supported by more states. When the college picked Trump over Clinton, it was doing what they wanted.

But we don't want that any more. We're much bigger on the idea of one person one vote, and with lots more types of people voting. One big reason they craved states' rights was to protect the power of the slaver states. So that's why all that effort listed above to change it.

No, there is not a popular vote

That's just a fact -- it doesn't exist in any election rule-book. But there's more to it than that. Yes, newspapers add up all the state elections into a total that everybody quotes. And that total gives us some sort of guess at what an actual popular vote might look like if we had one. But it's not a very good guess. You're adding two very different types of state vote totals:

  1. Swing states, where there was massive campaigning, billions of dollars in advertising and every voter was told 100 items a day how much their vote mattered
  2. Safe states, where nobody spent a dime (except to fund-raise for the swing states) and most voters knew their vote could not possibly change the election, and was only done as a gesture of duty.

These are two different types of races. The first is a real race. The second is closer to an online website poll than an election. The difference in money is striking. Unless you want to say that money really plays no role in politics and all those billions are for nothing, you can't compare the two types of states. You certainly can't add them, not in any way a mathematician would say is valid.

You can say somebody "won" the "popular vote" but the problem is nobody sane was trying to win it. It matters a great deal what people are trying to win. It's like if you looked at the baseball season, and noted which team scored the most runs, and said they "really won." Runs are super important in baseball, they are how you win games, which is the only thing that matters for winning the pennant at the end of the year. And indeed, in 2020, the Tampa Bay team that won the pennant placed 6th in runs and 9th in hits in the American League. But US Presidential elections are the same. Runs win games and votes win states, but they are not what makes you the real winner. If you told the baseball teams the pennant would be given to the team with the most hits, you would see a very different game, and probably a different winner.

What if there were a popular vote?

So we don't really know what a popular vote would be, but that won't stop people from declaring that one candidate or another won the race nobody was fighting for. But what if that vote counted?

With such a rule, all votes would be equal, and there would not be swing states. Presidential nominees can't afford the money, or the time, to campaign everywhere, so they would have to figure out where to go that gets them the most gain.

Today, very little campaigning is actually about changing people's minds, to make them switch from one side to the other. The most effective way to campaign is called "Get out the vote" (GOTV.) All those ads aren't there to get a Democrat to vote Republican. They are there to get a weakly motivated voter already on your side to get a bit more motivated. That's a much cheaper way to win a vote than changing minds. It's one reason we get all those negative ads. Negative ads about the other candidate motivate your voters to make sure they get to the polls to stop that horrible evil. It's nice if they like you, of course, but not as essential.

So campaigns will examine, "where can I reach the most motivatable voters for the lowest cost?" That's where they will campaign. Perhaps in places with low voter turnout. Perhaps mostly in places which already love them the most. After all, if you place an ad in a city which votes 80% for you, but 30% don't turn out, then 24% of the population is just the folks you want to reach. If you put effort in places that don't vote for you, or where turnout is already high, your ad is much less effective. Today, you would never see a Democratic nominee campaigning in San Francisco or the District of Columbia which vote 90% for them. In the future, it could be the most lucrative place to get out the vote. This could actually polarize things more, not less. We would also see some efforts in places where there truly are enough undecided voters to make it worthwhile, but it's going to be hard to find them.

There are a few races we might learn from, like Senate races in large swing states, or primaries which are contested in big states. That's where we might learn how things look. Other countries that have popular vote elections may teach us something, but for the USA it will be a new world.


I'm surprised you didn't mention the difficulty of having a single uniform standard throughout the country.

It's fine that some states allow some things and some states allow other things now, as long as it's consistent within the state. Make it a national popular vote and that completely changes.

It does change things a lot with a national popular vote, but it's not difficult. Many countries have a national popular vote, they get by just fine. Yes, it means there would have to be federal standards on how votes are collected, but as far as I can see all states already collect and publish statewide popular vote totals, as their law requires to appoint their electors based on the winner of that race. What is difficult?

For the parties to figure out how to fight the new race, that's a challenge, but again, it's not like there aren't lots of examples to learn from.

What country has a national popular vote for president and gets by just fine? I don't ask that because I doubt you, but because I'm curious. I bet it's a country that doesn't have anywhere near the degree of federalism as the USA.

Perhaps all states already collect and publish statewide popular vote totals, but I see no reason to trust their numbers, and that's despite the fact that they don't have nearly the incentive to fudge the numbers that they would if the popular vote mattered. Look at what's going on right now in Michigan and imagine if it actually mattered.

Yes, it means there would have to be federal standards on how votes are collected (and who was allowed to vote, and how votes are counted, and how recounts are conducted, and how challenges are made, and how registration is done, etc.). And who's going to make those rules? The Congress and President that's already in power? Incumbents are going to have an even bigger advantage than they already do.

Will the states stay involved at all? Or will the feds take over the whole process? What will the initial rules be? Mail-in, or not? Early voting, or not? Former felons can vote, or not? How many voting locations and where are they located? How do you register? When are there recounts? Who certifies the results? It's unlikely that Republicans and Democrats are going to agree on whether or not to switch to a popular vote, but it's even more unlikely they'll agree on all the details of how to conduct the elections.

What are the examples? Most democracies I can think of have heads of state selected by their Parliament/Congress. But there probably are counter examples. I'm curious how they do it, and how they avoid the problems I'm talking about. (They're probably all much smaller than the USA, more on the order of one big US state.)

Well, I happen to have been in France for their most recent election so I know about that one. They even do a run-off. Here is a chart of the countries and how head of state is chosen. It marks some countries (like Canada) as having a hereditary head of state, which is true, but she is not the head of government.

States publish popular votes because it is required by law in most states that the electors be given to the candidate who wins the popular vote, which must be certified and published.

States could continue to administer but yes, it makes sense for federal elections to be a federal matter, and unified. State elections would remain a state matter.

As I have said, partisans should have no role in election rules or enforcement, that's a crazy stupid bug.

France (since 1965) is a good example. As you point out, they use a runoff, which would be helpful if moving to a popular vote. I'm not sure what other countries do something similar. That chart only shows countries in the southern hemisphere that directly elect a head of state who is head of government. But that chart is not very useful, and seems to geared to making the point that the USA is unique. Yes, we're unique. We are the first country to have a President. Our uniqueness is, to a large extent, a good thing.

I'd like to move to a popular election for President. But it'd be a very difficult thing to do, for the reasons I've given.

As I have said, partisans should have no role in election rules or enforcement, that's a crazy stupid bug.

It's unavoidable.

By the way, the Canadian Prime Minister is not directly elected.

Well, since I vote in Canadian elections I kinda know that. And in fact his party got less than 40% of the popular vote in the last election due to the fact that there are multiple parties, the electoral college angst seems a bit overblown.

The USA could have a popular vote for President by the following means:

  • An interstate compact with 50 safe blue and 50 safe red votes (California + 2-3 red states)
  • A larger interstate compact (but why bother?)
  • A constitutional amendment (not happening)
  • A compact where states are "bribed" into joining by offering them something they want. (Money, some bill they want, or federal favours when one party has triple control)
  • It could be approximated through another scheme to be detailed later.

None of these are easy. The NPVIC has to convince a red state to join an all-blue compact. A smaller compact is easier. They probably has to be a trade. Perhaps as simple as "Hey, red state. Join this compact and we'll give you $100B to do what's fair anyway."

I'm not sure that any route other than a constitutional amendment would be constitutional, especially if Congress doesn't sanction it. Are states that don't like the agreement even required to release vote counts?

And I agree with you that a constitutional amendment isn't happening; at least not in the foreseeable future.

So all of this is just musing over something that isn't going to happen.

Yes, congress has to agree, and since the Democrats failed to take the Senate and won't win Georgia, it seems it is unlikely for probably 16 years. Had Trump won, the Democrats would take the Senate in 2022 and the WH in 2024 and been able to do a great deal. Somewhat ironic for the Democrats, but Trump had to go.

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