The Electoral College and the Route Around It

The history of the United States (and the world) would be very different if the Electoral College hadn’t elected a minority President twice in the last 20 years. (GW Bush in 2000 and DJ Trump in 2016).

The Framers settled on a system of State selected Electors as a compromise. The process is well described at, “Why Was the Electoral College Created?” Here’s the opening:

It wasn’t like the Founders said, ‘Hey, what a great idea! This is the preferred way to select the chief executive, period,’” says [George C.] Edwards. [Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M] “They were tired, impatient, frustrated. They cobbled together this plan because they couldn’t agree on anything else.”

The article goes on:

One group of delegates felt strongly that Congress shouldn’t have anything to do with picking the president. Too much opportunity for chummy corruption between the executive and legislative branches.

Another camp was dead set against letting the people elect the president by a straight popular vote. First, they thought 18th-century voters lacked the resources to be fully informed about the candidates, especially in rural outposts. Second, they feared a headstrong “democratic mob” steering the country astray. And third, a populist president appealing directly to the people could command dangerous amounts of power.

Out of those drawn-out debates came a compromise based on the idea of electoral intermediaries. These intermediaries wouldn’t be picked by Congress or elected by the people. Instead, the states would each appoint independent “electors” who would cast the actual ballots for the presidency.

The Electoral College was a flawed compromise from the beginning. The Constitution was ratified in 1790. Fourteen years later, by 1804, three-quarters of the states had hurriedly ratified the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, a fix meant to prevent the election of a President and a Vice-President from two competing political camps. The Framers did not anticipate the rise of political parties based on competing ideologies, nor did they foresee the complications of two people with antagonistic views holding these two offices.

The Electoral system described in the Constitution, even as modified by the 12th Amendment, leaves it up the individual State legislatures to decide how to select their Electors. The 12th Amendment says the selected Electors of each State shall meet in their State and they shall vote, but neither the Constitution nor the 12th Amendment says anything about the State specifying for whom each Elector shall vote. That too is apparently left for each State to decide.

Article II, Section. 1. reads: Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

Make note. Each State decides. That constitutional clause is important to freeing ourselves from this well-intentioned but greatly flawed compromise that is the Electoral College.

The number of Electors from each state was also a compromise. The number was set as the sum of the number of Representatives from each State plus two for the number of Senators from each State. Thus, in 1790 Rhode Island selected three electors (1+2) or roughly one Elector per 28,000 inhabitants while Virginia selected twelve (10+2) or roughly one Elector per 52,500 inhabitants, (The numbers for these calculations come from here and the U.S. Constitution. The number for the population of Virginia is adjusted to reflect the infamous 3/5 Compromise that counted enslaved people as 3/5 of a person.) Current Elector/population numbers are even more skewed: Wyoming gets three Electors, one per 193,000 inhabitants, while California, with fifty-five Electors, has one per 693,000 inhabitants. Therefore, Wyoming, thanks to a small state getting a minimum of three Electors regardless of population, gets 3.6 times the Presidential electoral power of California on a per inhabitant basis. The Framers’ constructed a hybrid system that has become more skewed as the population has grown from around 4 million to 330 million. (The Senate itself is even more skewed. The 52 Senators that voted to acquit in the impeachment trial collectively represent 18 million fewer people than the 48 Senators who voted to convict.)

The buffering (of the rabble), the balance and deliberation hoped for by the Framers melted away almost immediately. Starting in 1789 with Pennsylvania and Maryland, state after state adopted an at-large, winner-of-the-popular-vote-takes-all (of the Electors) selection process. Political parties, unanticipated by the Framers, took over the system. (See “Evolution of Selection Plans” in the wikipedia article on the College.)

We are left with an archaic system, a system most of us barely understand, and a system that discourages many from even voting in the Presidential elections, since the winner-takes-all-system in many partisan dominated states effectively pre-ordains for whom the Electors of the State are assigned to vote.

(Some political thought leaders of local Christian Fundamentalists, understanding the complex advantage the Electoral College system can sometimes confer on them, want their followers to consider the Electoral College to be divinely inspired [1]–a convenient mis-reading of history.)

So how do we get out of this flawed mess the Framers wrote and political parties have commandeered?

How about a Constitutional amendment? We’ve come close. With enthusiastic bi-partisan support and the promise of a signature from Richard Nixon, the Bayh–Celler amendment passed the House in 1970, with a vote of 339-70, only to fall victim to the anti-democratic Senate, where it was killed by filibuster. (Click that link to read the sad story.)

The Electoral College is so entrenched in our political rivalries, and the process of Constitutional amendment is such a hurdle, depending, as it does, on the anti-democratic U.S. Senate, that there has to be another way. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is that way. Remember: the States “shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” the Electors. What if enough states to collectively vote an Electoral College majority (270 votes) all agreed that they would direct their Electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote?

Never heard of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact? Neither had I, but it’s already well on the way. As of February 2020, enough state legislatures have passed this law to control 196 electoral votes. The law in each state works like a sleeper cell: it is only activated when the threshold 270 electoral votes are achieved. If that’s confusing (it was to me at first) I urge you to watch this entertaining youtube video on the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact by RGP Grey.

In Washington? Oh, yeah. the Interstate Compact become law in 2010.

In Idaho? Nope. So far, it is not even on the radar.

You can see a state-by-state accounting of the process here by scrolling down to the table near the bottom.

Nothing worthwhile, especially nothing actually in the interest of democracy, happens in our country without careful thought and sustained effort. Think of voting rights for former slaves, voting rights for women, civil rights. Each took decades. Scrapping the archaic Electoral College is another such issue.

Keep to the high ground,

[1] I can thank We Believe We Vote (WBWV), the Eastern Washington political action committee (PAC) that weds Fundamentalist Christianity to right wing political orthodoxy, for this concept of the Electoral College as divinely inspired. (read, What is it?)  Before the 2019 election cycle one of the published criteria for candidate evaluation by these self-described “Christians” was devotion to the Electoral College system for electing the President. These folks were so blatant about their minority political interests that, apparently, the hard fought compromise that resulted in the inclusion of the Electoral College concept in the Constitution was considered by them to have been guided by Jesus. I don’t remember that as part of my United Methodist upbringing…