Why the Electoral College?

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.

7 Responses to “Why the Electoral College?”

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Interesting, thank you. I had heard most of the rules in the first one, except for the section about territories… someone probably told in school that territories can’t vote in even in presidential elections, but I didn’t realize how much population they had compared to some of the other states! Crazy!

  1. Patrick
    | Reply

    Well, I can understand the different weighting of the states, we have it in Germany for the second chamber on the federal level, where smaller states are overrepresented. The European Parliamant has it as well, Germany is quite underrepresented there, as a concession to the smaller countries.

    I can see that once you hand out those privileges to smaller states, they’ll never agree to let go and neither will the party that benefits from that. Still, I don’t see how the electoral college is necessary for that though. You could still just count the votes on a state level and say “candidate x got the three votes from state y”. It wouldn’t be more arbitrary than it is right now. So basically it just sounds like traditionalism to me.

    A question about the founding fathers not wanting the president to be elected directly: Is it to “weaken” him vs the congress? I ask that because in Germany every now and then the idea comes up to elect our president (not at all comparable to the US pendant) directly, but the main argument against it is that he’d be too “legit” and thus too strong, because he could always say that he is representing the majority. If that was there intention I think that is kind of done by now, with the electoral college mainly being ignored by now. Well I guess other than it being a funny old fashioned thing, where the media can pretend that something surprising might happen there, but in the end it doesn’t.

    Anyways: I think my main gripe with the American system is the “the winner takes it all” principle. The people are voting on one position (president of the US), which by itself is a majority vote, because every vote for the loser is negated. Not only on the federal level, but then also on each state level again, so it’s majority vote within a majority vote (insert “yo dawg, I heard you like…” joke here). Like I said above, I understand the reasons for overrepresantation even if I might not agree with the extent that it is used in the US. Also, it is obvious that if you get less votes on the federal level you will not become president and all the votes you got will go to waste. The main problem is for me on the state level. You could just as well split up Alaskas 3 votes up according to how many votes the candidates received. Like Romney gets two and Obama one. Alaska’s impact on the presidential election would still be the same, but it’d avoid neglecting so many voters. Of course you’d have to adjust the numbers (3 votes are too rough to split up), but you could keep the relations between the states equal to how they are now.
    Britain and you guys do quite well with a majority vote for your respective legislative and it makes for stable conditions, but why extend it to the presidential election? I know everything is regulated on the state level, and a state where one party has a strong majority will never change it away from “the winner takes it all” because they’d just damage themselves, so I guess it’s there to stay.
    Since the polls are usually extremely close on the federal level, I think it wouldn’t shift the balance between the parties too much, but I guess if any party makes an approach to changing the system the other party would shoot it down as being “undemocratic”, “unpatriotic” or against the principles of the founding fathers.

    It is a bit of a sorry affair and we have the same problem in Germany. The constitution doesn’t say much about how our elections work (pretty much nothing), so the governing party has a lot of freedom, because it could just change the laws. Admittedly, the constitutional court is pretty strict there, but the governing parties could decide to switch to a majority system any day. (The CDU would all of the sudden get 75% of the seats in parliament that way based on the results from the last election) Only the public backlash and the coalition partner stop them from doing that, which sounds quite fragile.
    Right now we don’t even have a valid law concerning our federal elections, because the one instituted by the governing parties was deemed unconstitutional by our court and now they’ll have to try again. Right now we’d have a hard time holding off elections, which is a bad state to be in.

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Well, to answer your question about electing the president directly or not, I think the goal wasn’t to weaken him like in Germany, but to make sure a wise man was being chosen. They were pretty concerned about the dumb masses’ uninformed involvement in politics, but at the same time those dumb masses had helped win independence. Since Congress was supposed to be full of the American “cream of the crop,” they would naturally be the most informed about who the best president to choose would be.

      Your complaint with the winner-take-all attitude in the US may be valid, but it’s a pretty integral part of our government structure, with the two-party system, the electoral college, and so on. Germany has a parliamentary system, but the US does not – our system doesn’t care about the fringe groups.

  2. Patrick
    | Reply

    The problem is not with the single winner system itself. Like I said it obviously works for Britain and the US very well (and probably other countries) to form your legislative. It leads to great stability and that is a valid goal.

    I just don’t get why you have to cut it off at state level. Just as an example: You could add another layer on the county level. Like New York state has 62 counties. If some candidate wins in 32 of these counties he gets the votes from new york state. That would be another layer. Of course that’s not being done, it was just to illustrate what I mean.
    On the state level it doesn’t make a whole lot more sense to me though. Of course states are more distinctive than counties, but what I was suggesting isn’t about “merging” the states votes, just not applying “winner takes it all” on the state votes.

    The political stability is already achieved by the single winner system when voting for congress, because realistically a candidate who is not from one of the two major parties doesn’t have a chance. If he had though, I don’t think the “winner takes it all” on the state level would stop him either. Even if you split up Alaska’s vote 2 to 1 instead of giving it all to one candidate, that wouldn’t really favor an independent candidate, because he’d still receive an ridiculous small amount.
    I fail to see that is serves any other purpose than tradition and majorities (this goes for democratic and republican dominated states) not wanting to give up the privilege of being able to ignore the minority when it comes to the votes of their state in the presidential election.

    • ellen
      | Reply

      Well, at some point, the only answer becomes Maurice’s summary that “Americans long ago were weird. Now we’re too traditionalist to change anything they instituted.” Remember too that a majority of Americans do think the system is silly.

  3. Patrick
    | Reply

    Ok, then we agree. The blog post was very interesting and reading through it and watching the video made me realize that, while the electoral college is a weird concept, it doesn’t really hurt much. From a German viewpoint it is interesting because we remember the electoral college being so weird, but it’s basically just a superficial thing that is not really worth getting so excited about.

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