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Problems with the Electoral College

Many observers believe the Electoral College introduces complications and potential problems into our political system. These concerns include some of the following:

Grossly unequal distribution of campaign resources

See our 2008 Election Recap.

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Unequal voting power depending on where you live

The Electoral College gives disproportionate voting power to states, favoring the smaller states with more electoral votes per person.

For instance, each individual vote in Wyoming counts nearly four times as much in the Electoral College as each individual vote in Texas. This is because Wyoming has three (3) electoral votes for a population of 532,668 citizens (as of 2008 Census Bureau estimates) and Texas has thirty-two (32) electoral votes for a population of almost 25 million. By dividing the population by electoral votes, we can see that Wyoming has one "elector" for every 177,556 people and Texas has one "elector" for about every 715,499. The difference between these two states of 537,943 is the largest in the Electoral College.

See how your state racks up against the rest on our Population vs. Electoral Vote page.

The small states were given additional power to prevent politicians from only focusing on issues which affect the larger states. The fear was that without this power, politicians would completely ignore small states and only focus on big population centers.

Read this Providence Journal article on how small states control elections.

Ironically, there is a study that concludes that larger states are actually at an advantage in the Electoral College. Because almost all states give all of its electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes within that state, candidates must win whole states in order to win the presidency. Naturally, candidates tend to concentrate resources on the largest payoffs, the states which can provide the greatest number of electoral votes.

For a history of the development of the Electoral College, see William C. Kimberling's essay, A Brief History of the Electoral College. Kimberling was the Deputy Director of the FEC's Office of Election Administration.

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Looking at the Numbers: Minority Rules

Just how many people elect the president of the United States? The answer may surprise you.

Consider the 2000 presidential elections. Even though more than 100 million people voted in the election, only a small portion of those votes in fact were decisive. Indeed, the results would have been exactly the same even if nearly 80 million of those voters would have stayed home.

Here's what we mean:

  • Total number of votes cast nationwide in Presidential elections:
    • 105,396,641 in 2000
    • 131, 338,626 in 2008
  • Total number of votes cast for the winner in their states won:
    • 26,353,058 in 30 states for George W. Bush
    • 39,908,351 in 29 states (including DC) for Barack Obama
  • Total number of votes that did not factor in determining the winner of the president in their respective years:
    • To win the Electoral College in 2000, Bush needed only 21,835,615 votes out of a total of 105,396,641 votes.
    • To win the Electoral College in 2008, Obama needed only 39,908,351 votes out of a total of 131,338,626 votes.
  • Percentage of votes that did not factor in determining the winner in their respective years:
    • 79.28% in 2000
    • 70.39% in 2008

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The winner-take-all method of distributing electoral votes

The Electoral College favors the smaller states with disproportionate voting power. Advocates of the system say that this uneven power forces politicians to pay attention to smaller states, which would otherwise be ignored.

Despite its intentions, the Electoral College does not encourage politicians to campaign in every state.

Some states are still excluded from the campaign; these are not necessarily the small states, but rather they are states that are not viewed as competitive.

Since all but two states allocate their votes via a winner-take-all method, there is no reason for a candidate to campaign in a state that clearly favors one candidate. As an example, Democratic candidates have little incentive to spend time in solidly Republican states, like Texas, even if many Democrats live there. Conversely, Republican candidates have little incentive to campaign in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts, especially when they know that states like Florida and Michigan are toss-ups.

The winner-take-all rule also leads to lower voter turnout in states where one party is dominant, because each individual vote will be overwhelmed by the majority and will not, in effect, "count" if the winner takes all the electoral votes.

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Unbound electors

There is no federal law that requires electors to vote as they have pledged, but 29 states and the District of Columbia have legal control over how their electors vote in the Electoral College. This means their electors are bound by state law and/or by state or party pledge to cast their vote for the candidate that wins the statewide popular vote. At the same time, this also means that there are 21 states in the union that have no requirements of, or legal control over, their electors. Therefore, despite the outcome of a state’s popular vote, the state’s electors are ultimately free to vote in whatever manner they please, including an abstention, with no legal repercussions. Even in the states that do have control, often the punishment or repercussion is slim or nothing (some states issue only minimal fines as punishment), although some states instigate criminal charges ranging from a simple misdemeanor to a fourth degree felony. The states with legal control over their electors are the following 29 and D.C.:

  • Alabama (Code of Ala. §17-19-2)
  • Alaska (Alaska Stat. §15.30.090)
  • California (Election Code §6906)
  • Colorado (CRS §1-4-304)
  • Connecticut (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-176)
  • Delaware (15 Del C §4303)
  • District of Columbia (§1-1312(g))
  • Florida (Fla. Stat. §103.021(1))
  • Hawaii (HRS §14-28)
  • Maine (21-A MRS §805)
  • Maryland (Md Ann Code art 33, §8-505)
  • Massachusetts (MGL, ch. 53, §8)
  • Michigan (MCL §168.47)
  • Mississippi (Miss Code Ann §23-15-785)
  • Montana (MCA §13-25-104)
  • Nebraska (§32-714)
  • Nevada (NRS §298.050)
  • New Mexico (NM Stat Ann §1-15-9)
  • North Carolina (NC Gen Stat §163-212)
  • Ohio (ORC §248.355)
  • South Carolina (SC Code Ann §7-19-80)
  • Tennessee (Tenn Code Ann §2-15-104(c))
  • Utah (Utah Code Ann §20A-13-304)
  • Vermont (17 VSA §2732)
  • Virginia (§24.2-203)
  • Washington (RCW §29.71.020)
  • Wisconsin (Wis Stat §7.75)
  • Wyoming (Wyo Stat §22-19-108)

Most of these state laws generally assert that an elector shall cast his or her vote for the candidates who won a majority of the state's popular vote or for the candidate of the party that nominated the elector.

Over the years, however, despite legal oversight, a number of electors have violated their state's law binding them to their pledged vote. However, these violators often only face being charged with a misdemeanor or a small fine, usually $1,000. Many constitutional scholars agree that electors remain free agents despite state laws and that, if challenged, such laws would be ruled unconstitutional. Therefore, electors can decline to cast their vote for a specific candidate (the one that wins the popular vote of their state), either voting for an alternative candidate, or abstaining completely. In fact, in the 2000 election, Barbara Lett-Simmons, an elector for the District of Columbia, cast a blank ballot for president and vice president in protest of the District's unfair voting rights.

Indeed, when it comes down to it, electors are ultimately free to vote for whom they prersonally prefer, despite the general public's desire.

See our list of "Faithless Electors" through history.

This inconsistency allows for discrepancies in our electoral system. The electors from nearly half of the states can vote however they wish, regardless of the popular will of the state.

In the founding of our nation, the Electoral College was established to prevent the people from making "uneducated" decisions. The founders feared uneducated public opinion and designed the Electoral College as a layer of insulation from the direct voice of the masses.

There is no reason, in this modern day, to assign this responsibility to a set of individual electors. Hundreds of thousands of votes can and have been violated by an individual elector, choosing to act on his or her own behalf instead of the behalf of the people.

As of the 2008 election, since the founding of the Electoral College, 157 electors have not cast their votes for the candidates who they were designated to represent.

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House of Representatives can choose the president

If no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes, the presidential vote is deferred to the House of Representatives and the vice presidential vote is deferred to the Senate. This could easily lead to a purely partisan battle, instead of an attempt to discover which candidate the citizens really prefer.

If the Senate and the House of Representatives reflect different majorities, meaning that they select members of opposing parties, the offices of president and vice president could be greatly damaged. This potential opposition in the presidential office would not be good for the stability of the country or the government.

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Enforcement of a two-party system

Because of our two-party system, voters often find themselves voting for the "lesser of two evils," rather than a candidate they really feel would do the best job. The Electoral College inadvertently reinforces this two party system, where third parties cannot enter the race without being tagged as "spoilers."

Since most states distribute their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, the smaller party has no chance to gain support without seeming to take this support from one of the major parties. Few people will support a party that never wins, especially when they are supporting that party at the possible expense of their least favorite candidate taking power (as happened to Nader/Gore supporters in 2000 and Perot/Bush supporters in 1992).

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Presidency can be won without a majority of the popular vote

As the 2000 election demonstrated, it is possible for a president to be elected without winning the popular vote. Nor was the Bush/Gore election the first time a presidential candidate has won the presidency while someone else claimed a plurality of the votes cast. Andrew Jackson and Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in 1824 and 1876 respectively, only to see someone else walk into the White House.

As an even more common occurrence is for a presidential candidate to win both the presidency and the popular vote without actually winning a majority of all ballots cast. This has happened 16 times since the founding of the Electoral College, most recently in 2000. In every one of the elections, more than half of the voters voted against the candidate who was elected.

With such a winner-take-all system, it is impossible to tell which candidate the people really prefer, especially in a close race.

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