I was ten years old when my father introduced me to the mathematical mysteries of the Electoral College. He was a high school graduate, but a man who read widely and a man with sixty years experience at the time of the introduction. I remember him explaining how, in our “democratic” country it was possible a majority of Americans could vote for President and yet the other candidate, with fewer votes, could win the election. I understand now, more than half a century later, my father was echoing controversy that followed two elections engraved in the memory of his parents and grandparents. In 1876* and 1888 the Electoral College voted in a President against the will of the voters. My dad was still marveling at the irony of those elections in this “democratic” country.
For context, remember the last two Republican Presidents were once elected by the Electoral College with a minority of popular vote, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016. Criticism of the Electoral College is not just an academic exercise. The Electoral College system produces massive downstream effects.
So how is it that the Electoral College has produced these anti-democratic results on four occasions in our history. Here’s the math: Each state is awarded “electors” to be sent to the Electoral College equal to that states number of Representative and Senators added together. The number of Representatives from each state is determined by population measured in the census every ten years. The number of Senators is, of course, fixed a two for each state.
What does that mean in terms of representation? Wyoming, with one Representative (the minimum) and two Senators (therefore already wildly overrepresented in Congress, too) gets three electors, one for every 192,579 people. At the other extreme, California with 20 House seats and two Senators, gets 22 electors, one for every 1,539,620 people.That gives the people of Wyoming eight times the voting power in the Electoral College than Californians. In a country that calls itself a democracy or even a “representative democracy” or a republic, that is a crazy imbalance.
One might be tempted to think of the Electoral College as a venerable, quasi-sacred institution, a pillar of American greatness, a bit of genius set forth by divinely guided “Founders.” If that viewpoint is even remotely tempting, spend a few minutes reading about the U.S. Electoral College as ir was originally written in the Constitution, the breakdown of the system, and the 12th Amendment (1803) that patched up parts of the original plan. Then read of the 14th Amendment, Section 2 (1866) prescribing a penalty for denying the right to vote for electors.
In 1961, with ratification of the 23rd Amendment, the country further acknowledged the anti-democratic bent of the Electoral College by authorizing one elector to the citizens of the District of Columbia, citizens recently numbering 672,228. These citizens were previously denied any say whatsoever in electing the President, a President who holds court in their district. People of Wyoming.are, even after the 23rd Amendment, three times better represented than people of Washington, D.C., in electing the President. (It is worth noting these citizens of Washington, D.C. still have no voting voice in Congress, no Senator or voting Representative. How is that for “representational democracy?”)
The Electoral College still denies the approximately 4 million U.S. Citizens resident in U.S. Territories(Puerto Rico is the largest) any voice at all in the general election for President. Puertoriqueños, full citizens of the United States, only have a vote if they have and maintain residency in one of the States(or D.C.) And we have the gall to call ourselves a “democracy?”
The Electoral College system is a complex, anachronistic tool leveraged to achieve electoral domination by a minority of voters. It is not sacred. It is all about power.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes “won” the election in the Electoral College by one vote, 185 to 184, while losing the popular vote 4,034,311 to 4,288,546. The story of that election, now faded in the country’s memory, is as complicated as the recent elections of minority Presidents. (Teaser: the resolution of that election, made necessary by the Electoral College, ended Reconstruction. That produced multiple grievous downstream effects. Most of us don’t learn these stories in school…)