I have been asked numerous times by Germans, in genuine curiosity, why the US uses the Electoral College to determine who our next president will be. To help answer this question I have spoken with my friend Maurice, who studies US policy. Although he had a lot more to say, he sums it up with: “Americans long ago were weird. Now we’re too traditionalist to change anything they instituted.”
Main complaints I have heard expressed are along the lines of: there is a popular election in November, why is the extra step of an electoral college necessary? Especially since a lot of states have laws to punish electoral college voters from voting against what they were elected to.
There is also the question of why we use a system of indirect election, which is less democratic than a simple direct election, as well as questions about fair representation and things. Also, in most states, all of the electoral college votes go to one candidate or the other (so a 10% + 90% vote in one state and a 45% + 55% vote in the same state will result in the same amount of victory).
There are a lot of contributing factors to why we set it up in the first place, why we still use it, and why it may seem so strange to the Germans who have asked me about it.
Originally, the founders of the US wanted only involved, educated citizens voting (to minimize the influence of silly people like Birthers and the ones who make Socialist Hitler Obama protest signs), so, as the only citizens who consistently met that requirement, land-owning white men made up the political scene of the baby US. Because the US was an agrarian economy, these land-owning men were mostly farmers and plantation owners, which meant it was problematic for them to congregate in the city for politics, or to reach them in the countryside for a vote recount. So the Electoral College saved time and money in the spread-out landscape of early American politics.
The founders also disagreed with each other as to how to set up the democracy – some wanted the president to be directly elected and some wanted the president to be elected by the congress, so the Electoral College was a compromise between the two: there was a direct vote which determined (through the state’s individual laws) the electors. The number of electors was based on the state’s quantity of congresspeople, and then those guys got to do the actual vote. The system of electors also benefitted slave states in the South because although they couldn’t vote, slaves famously counted for 3/5ths of a person when a state was assigned Representatives for Congress, making the white people votes count extra.
Carrying that into modern times, the Electoral College has an extra benefit for minimally-populated states: the minimum representation a state can ever have is 3 electoral votes, because it is based on the number of Representatives a state has (which is based on population) plus the number of Senators (always 2). So even though hardly anyone lives in the northern Great Planes states, they get a proportionally large number of electoral votes. These rural agrarian states tend to run red, so it is against the interest of Republicans to overhaul the system. By contrast, large, heavily populated areas tend to vote blue, so the Electoral College also mitigates their voting power some by watering down large cities in otherwise-red states.
I think another thing that is puzzling for Germans in particular about why we stick with what a majority even of Americans think is an archaic system, is that Germans change their government fairly often – in fact, their country was only really unified in 1871 – their constitution was only adopted in 1949 (after multiple government changes), and half their country only arrived on the scene in 1990. Plus, making amendments is a much simpler process than the US’s additional system of 75% of states ratifying.
Germany also has a specific amendment which says they can tear down their constitution and make a completely new one – which is an idea that doesn’t even cross Americans’ minds – and I think shows an un-American readiness to improve their government from the ground up if needed. All in all, Germany as a country is also fairly new and still flexible – when we were that young, we made a lot of changes too.
And also, the Germans just seem more practical (at least to me) in their laws, rather than holding up their founders alongside Jesus and basing policy decisions exclusively on tradition and religion.
So I hope that clears up some of the bemusement about why we have a silly system of electing our president. Basically as Maurice said, Americans are silly and traditionalist and don’t want to consider there would be a better way of doing it. I think this picture sums up our attitude of God and Country going hand in hand: Jesus and our Founding Fathers made us this way, so we’re damn well going to be what they intended!
Edit: Be sure to check out Jeremy’s video links in the comments, especially (if you’re already familiar with the electoral college) the second one. The situation is even worse than I thought! Disregarding race, wealth, or political direction, and just going by the numbers: the system is pretty damn unfair.