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Little Known Facts

Below find some little-known facts about the Electoral College and its implications.


Big vs. Small -- Who has more clout?

One of the objectives of the Founders was to ensure that candidate platforms and campaigns addressed the needs and concerns of each state equally. The Electoral College was created to ensure candidates would pay attention to every state's needs, since some states obviously overwhelmed others in population. However, this is hardly working today, as candidates spend the majority of their time, money and energy wooing a handful of swing states, and ignoring the worries of most states -- large and small.

While scholars argue that the electoral college favors, or is advantageous, to smaller states, there is also an argument that it favors larger states. Small states are "protected" by receiving a proportionally high amount of electoral votes in reference to their populations, arguably giving them more clout.

See Providence Journal article on small state power.

Simultaneously though,  voters in large states have more power through voting potential, because they have the chance to affect a large amount of electoral votes with their raw vote. As presidential historian Allan Lichtman explains, "you've got to have a majority 270 votes in the Electoral College to win, and you accumulate them state-by-state, with large states like California having the lions-share of the Electoral College vote."

According to Lawrence D. Longley and Neal Peirce in their book, Electoral College Primer 2000 (no updates since), the states enjoying a higher-than-average advantage in the Electoral College in 2000 were the ones with the most Electoral College votes. Note that this finding is in direct opposition to the broad assumption that smaller states have a greater advantage because of the Electoral College. In descending order, these states were*:

  • California - 55 votes
  • Texas - 34 votes
  • New York - 31 votes
  • Florida - 27 votes
  • Pennsylvania - 21 votes
  • Illinois - 21 votes
*These vote totals are current for 2001-2010

Longley and Peirce also declared that those states with the lowest amount of clout in the Electoral College are typically those that are argued to be favored by it, including Maine, Montana, Nevada, and Utah, each of which has 5 or fewer electoral votes.

This data turns out to be extremely hopeful, considering that since only six states enjoy a large amount of influence under the Electoral College system, the remaining 44 might not put up such a fight when it comes to abolishing it. Perhaps, the key comes in convincing the smaller states of the greater advantage to them in abolishing the Electoral College. Despite the loss of "clout" to small states, without the Electoral College, they would gain a proportionally balanced advantage by causing the larger states to lose their massively overwhelming advantage to the system.

Read more about Solutions and the Case for Reform.

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Special interests

From Why the Electoral College is Bad for America by George C. Edwards, III:

The Electoral College provides the potential for any cohesive special interest concentrated in a large, competitive state to exercise disproportionate power. Wall Street workers in New York, movie industry employees in California, and those earning a living in the energy business in Texas could, in theory, swing their states to one candidate or the other. Do we really want a system of electing the president that provides such potential to special interests?

Disproportionate power to any group is difficult to reconcile with political equality. As James Madison proclaimed at the Constitutional Convention, "local considerations must give way to the general interest."

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Power of state legislatures

State legislatures have the authority to replace their state's appointed electors after the popular vote with their own instead of following the decision of the parties. Florida's Republican Legislature was prepared to do so in 2000 if the Supreme Court had not decided in Bush's favor in Bush vs. Gore.

Consider this excerpt from the Washington Post (July 19, 2004):

Suppose that some of the electors -- the people who under our constitutional system conduct the real presidential election some weeks after voters go to the polls -- aren't actually selected by the voters.

Impossible? Not if you give a close reading to the Supreme Court's decision in the case of Bush v. Gore, which finally settled the presidential election of 2000, if not to everyone's satisfaction. Under that decision, there is no guarantee that the electors who are decisive in choosing the next president of the United States will themselves be selected by the people of the United States.

That's because the justices ruled in that case that state legislatures have unlimited authority to determine whether citizens in their respective states shall be allowed to vote for president at all.

"The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States," the court said, "unless and until the state legislature chooses a statewide election as the means to implement its power to appoint members of the Electoral College."

Imagine, now, a state in which the same party controls both houses of the legislature and the governor's office. There would presumably be no partisan impediment to the state legislature, with the governor's approval, deciding that the majority party in state government shall control the state's electoral vote, regardless of any popular vote in the state.

The ordinary protection against this sort of usurpation is presumably the "outrage factor" -- the idea that no legislature would risk the wrath of the citizenry by usurping their right to vote. But in 2000, unfortunately, Florida demonstrated that legislators might well be willing to risk the outrage if they have a case, no matter how contestable, that the electors they are choosing actually do represent majority sentiment in the state.

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And... the last shall be first

The four elections in which the president-elect lost the popular vote are:

  • 1824 – Adams over Jackson

 


Popular vote margin: 44,804 (favoring Jackson)
Electoral College margin: 15 (favoring Jackson)

*John Qunicy Adams received not only less of the popular vote than Andrew Jackson, but also less of the electoral vote than Jackson. So why didn’t Jackson win? Because, as outlined by the Constitution, when no candidate receives the majority of the Electoral College vote, the decision is turned over to the House of Representatives. There, Adams won a majority with 13 state delegations voting for him, with only 7 for Jackson and 3 for Crawford. (www.nara.gov)

Read more about the Adams/Jackson election on our list of controversial elections.

  • 1876 – Hayes over Tilden

 


Popular vote margin: 264,292 (favoring Tilden)
Electoral College margin: 1 (electing Hayes)

Read about the Hayes/Tilden election on our list of controversial elections.

  • 1888 – Harrison over Cleveland

 


Popular vote margin: 100,456 (favoring Cleveland)
Electoral College margin: 65 (electing Harrison)

Read about the Harrison/Cleveland election on our list of controversial elections.

  • 2000 – Bush over Gore

 


Popular vote margin: 543,895 (the largest so far) (favoring Gore)
Electoral College margin: 5 (electing Bush)

Read about the Bush/Gore election on our list of controversial elections.

*Note: Some sources also consider 1960 election between Kennedy and Nixon a contested election. Although most believe that Kennedy won both the popular vote and the electoral vote, some believe that there exists an alternative result that puts Nixon on top in popular votes. However, this election is not as harshly contested as the above four.

It is only luck that has saved us from more situations like these where the White House is not delivered to the President-Elect. Statistics show that close elections possess a very high possibility of this distorted result. Several elections throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have been so close that a small difference in votes - a fraction of 1 percent of the national vote - would have presented a different winner.

Election Year

Shift Needed

In Which States

1828

11,517

Ohio, Kentucky, New York, Louisiana, Indiana

1840

8,386

New York, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Jersey

1844

2,555

New York

1848

3,227

Georgia, Maryland, Delaware

1864

38,111

New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Oregon, Wisconsin, Maryland, Connecticut

1868

29,862

Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Alabama, Connecticut, California, Nevada

1880

10,517

New York

1884

575

New York

1892

37,364

New York, Indiana, Wisconsin, New Jersey, California

1896

20,296

Indiana, Kentucky, California, Delaware, Oregon, West Virginia

1900

74,755

Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming

1908

75,041

Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, West Virginia, Montana

1916

1,983

California

1948

29,294

California, Ohio, Illinois

1960

11,424

Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada

1976

9,246

Hawaii, Ohio

*Information from Why the Electoral College is Bad for America by George C. Edwards III

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Ignoring your vote

Some Electoral College supporters say the magnification of the margin of victory that the institution creates is actually beneficial, at least to the president. Their argument appears to stem from a hope that people might ignore the popular vote, focusing on the electoral vote instead and offering the administration more credibility and legitimacy.

Meanwhile fewer and fewer voices are heard in the nationwide contest. In 1996 we saw the number of competitive states drop from 1992. 2000 had fewer than 1996 and in 2004 the trend continued with just 11 states considered competitive. In 2008 we might well have less than 10 competitive states.

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Reliance on geography

Because the Electoral College system is so geographically influenced, candidates for president are hindered when choosing a running mate. While a candidate may want to pick his or her running mate based on leadership skills or stances on political issues, the Electoral College has made candidates increasingly dependent on geography. Since fewer and fewer states are now receiving attention from campaigns due to a decrease in the number of "battleground states", future vice presidential candidates may be chosen based solely upon where they are from. While this strategic thinking on the part of presidential candidates may help them win elections, it does not appear to be in the best interest of the American people.

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Vague values

The Electoral College system not only removes the voice of a majority of the country, but in the end distorts the will of voters. George C. Edwards III explains in Why the Electoral College is Bad for America that:

There is typically a substantial disparity in almost all elections between the national popular vote a candidate receives and that candidate's percentage of the electoral vote. In the election of 1860, although Stephen A. Douglas was second in popular votes, he was fourth in the Electoral College. Although he won 74 percent as many popular votes as were cast for Abraham Lincoln, his electoral vote was just 6.7 percent of Lincoln's. Douglas's popular vote was 162 percent of John C. Breckinridge's, yet he received only 16.7 percent as many electoral votes as Breckinridge. And Douglas's popular vote exceeded John Bell's by more than two times, but Bell had three times as many votes in the Electoral College.

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Electoral replacements

In almost every state today, electors are permitted to appoint their own replacements if they cannot show up on the day electors convene and vote in their state's capital. Sometimes, the replacements are literally found by roaming the halls in search for candidates, as was Mr. J. J. Levy of Michigan in 1948. However, when the vote was actually taking place for Michigan that year, Mr. Levy had to be restrained by the other electors - pledged to Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren - from voting for Harry Truman and Alben Barkely. Evidentially believing in the premise of a direct election Levy was later quoted as saying: "I thought we had to vote for the winning candidate."

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Electoral tie

When there is a tie in the Electoral College, the election is thrown into Congress, with the House picking the president and the Senate choosing the vice president. In the House, each state is given one vote, an even further deviation from the principle of one person one vote. Furthermore, the whole setup provides the chance for a president and vice president to be selected from different parties.

If by chance no vice presidential candidate manages to obtain a majority in the Senate, there exists no provision in the Constitution providing an explanation of the procedure to follow. There is also no provision that addresses the possibility of senators or representatives running for president or vice president and voting for themselves.

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Favorite son effect

One of the reasons the Founders created the Electoral College was to prevent a favorite son effect, in which citizens of a state would vote for a candidate who is also from their state solely for that reason. But in fact, the Electoral College has turned out to promote the favorite son effect instead of suppress it. Note that every single president, with the exception of James K. Polk in 1844, has won his home state.

*Note: The Federal Elections Commission currently, and incorrectly, explains the favorite son effect as being prevented by parties selecting their presidential and vice presidential nominees from different states.

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A few states to win

Based on the current allocation of electoral votes, a candidate could win the presidency with electoral majorities in only 11 states. Conversely, a candidate could win every vote in 39 states and DC and still lose the presidency.

In theory, the eleven States that can elect the president (electoral votes in parenthesis): California (55), Texas (34), New York (31), Florida (27), Illinois (21), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Georgia (15), New Jersey (15), North Carolina (15). Total: 271 electoral votes.

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Constitutional residence

Emily Fredrix, an Associated Press Writer, wrote this on October 26, 2004 concerning presidential election residence:

According to the Constitution, electors must vote for at least one candidate from a state other than their own. This is why political parties usually select presidential and vice presidential candidates from different states. If candidates on one ticket were from the same state, that state's electors could not vote for the ticket.

Just before he was nominated as the Republican candidate for vice president in 2000, Dick Cheney owned a home in Texas. Before the election he changed his legal residence to Wyoming, his birth state, which he had represented in Congress. Some Texas voters questioned the move and filed suit over the legitimacy of giving Texas' electoral votes to Bush, who had been Texas governor, and Cheney. Cheney's residence in Wyoming was ruled satisfactory in court.

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