American History

The Electoral College at Work

From Axios newsletter August 9:

“Trump campaign officials and sources close to the president tell Axios that they believe Democrats' extraordinary charge that the president is a ‘white supremacist’ will actually help him win in 2020, Axios' Alayna Treene reports.”

If true, this is the electoral college at work. There is no way that this “charge” would help any candidate who had to win the national popular vote. But the demographic mix of the handful of swing states is quite a bit different than the rest of the country, and so this alleged claim by “sources close to the president” could be what they really think.

The Electoral College, of course, has its roots in the country’s attitude toward race. By extending the disproportional power given to the slave states in the House into power of the choice of the president, the system virtually assured that presidents would not limit the perpetuation and even expansion of slavery. This worked until 1860, after which the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments gave the Confederate states still more weight in the House by counting former slaves fully, even while they had little to no chance of sending an elector to vote for the president they wanted.

In different ways now, the Electoral College still tilts the scales of political power against people of color.

Thanks, Electoral College

Almost all the voters in the problem locations below are ignored by the system. Florida, it gets attention, and sometimes North Carolina. But the candidates in both parties take for granted the outcome all the rest of these states. Given the plight of the people in these states, the voters really ought to be able to have all their votes count in a national election of the president.

There are two maps shown. The first is Lincoln’s, used to inform him about the slave population. The second, is Raj Chetty’s report on where low income parents are located. The overlaps show, among other things, how long the Electoral College system has denied voice to the people – of all races! – in these states.


A Look Back on a Bipartisan Effort to Reform the Electoral College

Recent polls have shown a sharp partisan divide in American’s opinions about Electoral College reform, though a majority still prefers a national popular vote.  But the national popular vote was not always an issue that split along partisan issue.  Polls from the 1960s and 1980s showed that large majorities of Republicans and Democrats both favored a national popular vote in nearly equal numbers.

During that era, there was a robust effort to reform the Electoral College by constitutional amendment spearheaded by Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana.  As Jesse Wegman wrote in the New York Times:

In a remarkable speech on May 18, 1966, Mr. Bayh said the hearings had convinced him that the Electoral College was no longer compatible with the values of American democracy, if it had ever been. The founders who created it excluded everyone other than landowning white men from voting. But virtually every development in the two centuries since — giving the vote to African-Americans and women, switching to popular elections of senators and the establishment of the one-person-one-vote principle, to name a few — had moved the country in the opposite direction.

Adopting a direct vote for president was the “logical, realistic and proper continuation of this nation’s tradition and history — a tradition of continuous expansion of the franchise and equality in voting,” he said.

He then explained how the Electoral College was continuing to harm the country. The winner-take-all method of allocating electors — used by every state at the time, and by all but two today — doesn’t simply risk putting the popular-vote loser in the White House. It also encourages candidates to concentrate their campaigns in a small number of battleground states and ignore a vast majority of Americans. It was no way to run a modern democracy.

Despite having the support of more than 80% of the population according to a 1968 Gallup poll, the effort to amend the Constitution failed, as nearly all proposed constitutional amendments do. 

Fortunately, with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an amendment isn’t required to make all votes matter.

The History of the Electoral College and the Modern Case for Reform

In an excellent piece published in the Minnesota Star Tribune, Mark Bohnhorst, chair of the State Presidential Elections Team at Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections, combats some of the most pervasive myths about how the Electoral College was designed to work and how it actually works, as well as examining the likely implications of a national popular vote:

The Electoral College was clearly an unholy if necessary compromise with slavery. Even following the Civil War, the Electoral College crisis of 1876 helped perpetuate racial injustice by ending Reconstruction, which led to another century of racial subjugation.

[Under the national popular vote], candidates will seek votes wherever the voters are. They will not ignore 100 million voters — urban or rural. They will use technology to reach as many voters as possible as efficiently as possible. That feels like democracy — the kind of democratic republic James Madison would have approved.

Read more here.

What does Fixing a Bicycle have to do with Fixing our Destructive Presidential Election System?

To a striking degree, voters of different political persuasions agree that things are going wrong with our government and our political system.  Shared national values are fraying as a result.  Most voters agree on many of the things that are going wrong—hyper-partisanship, citizen distrust of government, intensive divisiveness, and a conviction that they are not being represented by the system.  To be sure, they don't agree on how to reform the system, but fundamentally they do agree that it needs to be reformed.

When I was a kid growing up during World War II, the popular story line was that Americans were good at fixing things.  When GIs landed in rural France they endeared themselves to the liberated villagers not only by handing out chocolates but also by repairing their bicycles.  To fix a bicycle, one first needs to determine what is wrong with it and then roll up his or her sleeves to make the fix.  That was the reputation Americans had, it was legitimately earned, and we were proud of it.

The same was true of our political system from the earliest days of our country.  We did what we needed to make things work.  Our founders were visionaries, it is true, but they were also practical.  Europeans, by contrast, tended to be guided by ideologies and spent considerable time in ideological debate.  This approach—from the divine right of kings, to the perfectibility of humankind, to communism's "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," to the empty and cynical slogans of totalitarian states—got them into trouble.

In contrast, American political rallying cries—Teddy Roosevelt's "Square Deal," Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal," and Harry Truman's "Fair Deal"—have been grounded in the practical mentality of the Yankee peddler.  In addition to improvisation and practicality, these slogans reflected a commitment to fixing things, making them better.

As a country, we need to fix our political system, and it doesn't matter all that much, beyond certain fundamental values the great majority of Americans share, what collection of beliefs each participant brings to a table where the root causes of our problem are identified and remedies are fashioned by collaborative discussion and reciprocal horse trading.

Making Every Vote Count's leadership has come together from different political perspectives.  Like a rapidly growing number of other groups and individuals, which are concerned about the serious problems in our political system, board members of disparate views on many issues are joined in the conviction that a major source of these problems is  a very specific segment of our Presidential election system -- how 48 states allocate their electoral college votes under a very unrepresentative winner-take-all system -- not in the Constitution, itself, and that it is fixable. This defect is the equivalent of the broken bicycle chain that prevents it from being used properly.

So, let's put aside ideologies, but not our national values, put our hands into the grease of the malfunctioning bicycle chain and devise and implement the needed fix.  That's what our founders did in 1787, when the damaging flaws of the Articles of Confederation had become apparent.  The difference here, however, is that we don't have to throw away the old bike.  We need to fix only the one defective part of it.  In the case of our Presidential election system, an increasing number of commentators, scholars, and public and political figures recognize that the appropriate remedy can and should be implemented at the state level, not at the level of the federal government.  We should get on with the job.


This article by Yale Law School Professor Akhil Reed Amar has it right. The Electoral College is not something to be venerated. It is a shame that the framers had to adopt this system to get the necessary votes from slave states to ratify the constitution. It’s a further shame that it has existed for the last two centuries plus. 

The reasons sadly have a great deal to do with the fact that the history of America is the history of race. 

We don’t need to have a constitutional amendment to extirpate this system from the future of America. 

Just appointing a big enough bunch of electors who are bound to the national popular vote winner will be sufficient to cause campaigns to compete nationally. Then this particular element of national disgrace will be erased. 

The part Professor Amar has wrong is his unsupported statement that there are reasons to keep the electoral college system. He does not cite any. There aren’t any. 

Let All the People Pick the President

Numerous Democratic presidential candidates want to get rid of the Electoral College. On the other hand, the only Republican candidate says that the system is “brilliant” because if all citizens in a single national vote chose the president then he and his rival Democratic nominee would pay no attention to anyone living in a small state or the Midwest.

Everyone can see that the Democrats believe their nominee would win the national popular vote, and President Trump, having said he could have won in 2016, might not be confident that he could pull that off in 2020. Nothing is surprising about politicians wanting rules of the game that help them win.

But neither Republicans nor Democrats are mentioning the three sins of the current system. Regardless of which candidates a national popular vote would favor, these clearly call for abandonment of an 18th century system designed to protect slavery and solve the logistical problems of travel in a pre-telegraph era.

First, because the pluralities in more than 40 states are predictable in these tribal times, in the general election the two major party campaigns ignore those states in which more than 80% of Americans live. Their indifference to turn-out in those states causes total voter participation to fall between 20 and 80 million votes short of the levels that would be reached if every vote counted in picking the president. Disinterest and disgust come from voter indifference – people who know they are ignored justly harbor resentment that undermines trust in government. 

Second, because the general election presidential campaigns don’t pay much attention to four out of five Americans, the parties and their nominees do not offer promises, platforms or policies that most Americans want. Huge majorities register their desire for sensible compromises and good legislation on immigration, infrastructure, clean power, better support for child care and a host of other common-sense measures. The candidates don’t need votes from most people, so they don’t pay attention to most people during the election cycle and then when in office.   

Third, because the result in presidential election is dictated by small margins in perhaps only four states – currently, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – billions of dollars are spent by the two parties in badgering voters and wooing political leaders in these states. The politicians might enjoy the attention. The people in those states do not. They get little or nothing out of robocalls, door knocks, and Facebookery that mark over-intensive campaigning. In Iowa or New Hampshire in the primaries voters actually get to meet the candidates. From September to November every four years the proverbial swing voters just get digitally bludgeoned.

To build some trust between the people and the politically powerful, to give most people what most people want out of government, and to spread the pain of political campaigns fairly and more bearably over the whole country, it is time to let the people pick the president.

Legal Scholar Paul Smith Makes the Case for the National Popular Vote

From the Campaign Legal Center:

“Under the U.S. Constitution, states have the power to determine how they award their electoral votes in national elections. States are increasingly showing that the will of their voters is to do away with the winner-take-all laws, which award all of its electoral votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes within the state. They are signing up for the National Popular Vote Compact.”

White Supremacy’s Anvil: The Electoral College

Take a look at this illuminating history of the Electoral College from Making Every Vote Count Co-Founder and CEO Reed Hundt on Medium. It discusses how the Electoral College was conceived to protect the institution of slavery, and how the Electoral College worked to create and preserve Jim Crow long after slavery was officially abolished.

Demography and Democracy

In “No Property in Man,” historian Sean Wilentz explains that the southern representatives to the constitutional convention were disappointed to see rather quickly that the “widely expected movement of population to favor the south and southwest never occurred, as settlement of migrants and new immigrants disproportionately favored the North.” Page 187.

In 1800, free states had 76 members of Congress, and slave states had 65. But by 1820 the margin was 122 to 90.

Southerners had hoped that the three-fifths compromise coupled with a swelling slave population would give them a slaveholding majority in the House. In that event, the Electoral College would always produce a pro-slavery president, even while slaves could not vote.

But demography is destiny. The burgeoning population of the North rapidly gave the House more free state representatives despite the three-fifths compromise.

Now again, as in first decades of the Republic, the demographic trends of the country are rapidly filling the House with members who root out and oppose racism in all its many manifestations, whether blatant or insidious.

These same trends have not yet changed the method of selecting the president. This is the reason that racially divisive candidacies for that high office are still possible.  


Someone asked me the other day what I most disliked about the Electoral College system (that any state law can change). Huge is the fact that the system virtually forces the candidates to ignore the views of the vast majority of Americans. But here's the whole list of what disturbs your correspondent.

1. Makes the views of most Americans irrelevant to presidential candidates.  The Electoral College system creates swing states—they are accidents of demography, states where the balance of right and left leaning voters by happenstance is roughly equal. Most state populations tilt one way or the other. These are the ignored states, because the candidates know who will win the plurality. But more than 80% of Americans live in the land of the ignored. There strong majorities support more government action on infrastructure, shift to clean power, limitations of the size of magazines in assault weapons, the well-off paying a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the middle to lower income households, more government support of higher education so college doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and immigration reform to give clarity to millions of people about whether they can or cannot ever become citizens. The Electoral College system motivates the candidates to appeal to the views of the few and ignore the wishes of the many.

2. Bad for Black Americans. The framers of the Constitution designed the Electoral College to make sure that no abolitionist could become president. When Lincoln got elected in 1860, and the civil war ensued, in the aftermath the former Confederate states in the south adapted the system to make sure that all electors from their state represented white supremacists and no former slaves could ever send an elector to choose the president. To this very day that same system suppresses the relevance of African American votes in almost every election. This is why Barack Obama got zero electors from South Carolina to Texas—right across the heartland of the old Confederacy.

3. Unfair to women. The Electoral College is biased against women. More women vote than men. Women turned out a bigger majority for their preferred candidate than men did for theirs. But somehow the choice of males got elected in 2016 and 2000. Why? The Electoral College made the election turn not on the views of the whole country but only on the skinny margins of a handful of states where the views of women were felt a little less strongly than in the whole country. 

4. Treats legal immigrants as second class citizens. The Electoral College is biased against immigrant citizens even to the second generation. Most immigrants live in just five states—the states that are portals to the country. In all these five except Florida the candidates of both parties take the election results for granted, and so they ignore the wishes of immigrants. And in Florida the immigrants who matter most matter are Spanish speakers not from Mexico. No candidate could campaign about a wall or rail against immigration except for the unfairness of the Electoral College.

5. Throws shade on workers. The Electoral College is biased against workers who hold jobs located mostly in the 40 states that are taken for granted. Loggers and longshoremen for example are ignored while coal miners get lots of attention. Why? Coal miners live in swing states. The others don't. This unfairness exists only because every vote does not matter—hardly any votes matter except those in swing states.

Right, Professor, Right

In his book “No Property in Man,” historian Sean Wilentz writes of the Constitution’s Framers, “On July 20, the delegates gave their initial approval to what might have been the most decisive triumph on behalf of slavery of the entire convention….the creation of the Electoral College.” Page 70.

The Electoral College was conceived in the sin of slavery. No one now argues that slavery was anything other than a horrible proof of the depravity of human beings. Holding on to it was the single strongest motive of the southerners at the convention.

As Wilentz writes, “the convention divided between those more and those less impressed by the competence of popular rule,” but beyond doubt “southerners in both groups had an additional reason to oppose popular election of the president.”

What was that? And does it still lurk in the thinking of those who oppose direct election by national popular vote of the president? See, e.g., former Maine Governor Paul LePage, who oppose direct election because it would empower non-white voters.

Wilentz explains that because slaves would not be able to vote, “southerners were unlikely ever to win the presidency under a democratic system.”

Even today, more than 200 years later, African American voters in the south typically play little to no role in the general election of the president – because the electoral system systematically discards the votes for runners-up, which usually is where the non-white vote in the polarized south goes:

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To win the southern states’ agreement to vote for the constitution, Madison apportioned the electors according to total of the seats in the House, which gave weight to slaves on a three-fifths basis, and seats in the Senate, which gave weight to relatively underpopulated states (which came to include more slave states, like the nearly empty Florida and Arkansas). The unsurprising result, Wilentz explains, was that “four of the first six presidents of the United States were Virginia slaveholders.” He might have gone on to say that no president was anti-slavery until Abraham Lincoln in 1860. And Lincoln won only because the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions.

The history of America is the history of race and the principal arguments for the Electoral College system today are, whether or not well-intentioned, all too clearly resonant of the views of the southern delegates in the 18th century and Governor LePage this week.

The Electoral College "Has Not Stood The Test Of Time"

In an excellent piece in the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie explains that the Electoral College has almost never worked as it was intended, and states the case for making a change:

The history of the Electoral College from [1800 on] is of Americans working around the institution, grafting majoritarian norms and procedures onto the political process and hoping, every four years, for a sensible outcome. And on an almost regular schedule, it has done just the opposite.

Americans worried about disadvantaging small states and rural areas in presidential elections should consider how our current system gives presidential candidates few reasons to campaign in states where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. For example, more people live in rural counties in California, New York and Illinois that are solidly red than live in Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas, which haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in decades. In a national contest for votes, Republicans have every reason to mobilize and build turnout in these areas. But in a fight for states, these rural minorities are irrelevant. The same is true of blue cities in red states, where Democratic votes are essentially wasted.

Candidates would campaign everywhere they might win votes, the way politicians already do in statewide races. Political parties would seek out supporters regardless of region. A Republican might seek votes in New England (more than a million Massachusetts voters backed Donald Trump in 2016) while a Democrat might do the same in the Deep South (twice as many people voted for Hillary Clinton in Louisiana as in New Mexico). This, in turn, might give nonvoters a reason to care about the process since in a truly national election, votes count.

A History of the Electoral College

In this video, Professor Richard Tedlow gives a fascinating history lesson on how and why the Electoral College came into existence. 

Professor Tedlow explains the Electoral College, as it currently operates, is out of line with what the Founders envisioned and what most Americans want.  He discusses the practical obstacles to holding a popular election at a time when transportation and communication infrastructure was so poor as well as the compromises necessary to get slave states to agree to the new Constitution. He dispels a few common myths about the Electoral College, including that it’s working the way our Founding Fathers intended and that it protects small states. 

Professor Tedlow also explains that we are not stuck with our current system, and we don’t need a constitutional amendment to make the changes we need.

Republicans Should Dislike Winner-Take-All

Democrats use a proportional system to nominate their candidate for president.

But “Republicans tend to use winner-take-all systems that reward candidates who win by even the slimmest margins.” Kamarck at 88-92. This “means that Democratic contests that make it past the early states can go on much longer than Republican contests.”

Proportional systems were favored by “early twentieth-century progressive reformers who saw proportional representation as a way to break the power of big-city political machines.” Proportionality was revived by Democrats in their presidential nominating process in the wake of the divisive 1968 nominating experience.

The result is that Democrats typically attract more attention, more voters register Democratic, Democrats build a big tent and a big base, and Republicans hope that greater control by an elite over the process gives them a candidate who aligns with the wishes of the elite.

In 2015-16 the winner-take-all system greatly helped Donald Trump’s take-over of the Republican party. If the Republicans had used proportionality to choose delegates, Trump would have had a much more difficult time getting so many delegates so early. He might well have won the nomination anyhow, but the theory of an elite controlling the process is now debunked.

By contrast, while using the equitable proportional system almost exclusively since the 1990s, the Democrats have nominated candidates who won the national popular plurality in every general election from 1992 to 2016, with the sole exception of 2004. That is six wins out of seven.

One person, one vote builds a bigger, better, reliable base for a national party.