American History

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.

Blast from Past

Below is the electoral map from 1960, the famous Nixon-Kennedy contest. The irrelevant popular vote was very close, 34.2 million to 34.1 million. But Kennedy won the Electoral College by 303 to 219:

nixon map.png

This big margin concealed numerous close statewide races. Labelling a state as a swing state if the popular margin statewide was 3% or less, we see that Kennedy won these swing states: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. Nixon won these swing states: Alaska, California, Florida, Montana, and Washington.

Obviously there were so many swing states that the election felt like a national election. Moreover, the swing states were so different demographically that the candidates each had to appeal to big, complex coalitions of factions in order to prevail.

The Electoral College system did not appear to contribute to divisiveness, despite the extreme closeness of the outcomes in so many states and the indicative if meaningless closeness of the national popular vote.

Obscured somewhat by Kennedy’s large electoral victory was the untenable nature of the Democrats’ Electoral College block. Kennedy won New York, the state with the most electors at 45, by a 5% margin. This result marked a giant reversal from Eisenhower’s victory there in 1956 with 60% of the votes. The Democratic coalition in urban and suburban areas was racially, ethnically and religiously mixed. This coalition plainly was the base for Democrats to depend upon in future elections, given population gains in the former free states. Its composition, however, differed radically with the party’s southern base, from where 81 Kennedy electors came. That explained Lyndon Johnson’s presence on the ticket. But it foreshadowed the Republican choice to align its party with white voters in the south while relinquishing its historic Lincolnian alignment with African-Americans. New York’s results in 1960 taught the Republicans to look south for winning in the future. By 1968 Nixon’s southern strategy was in place.

With the popular vote virtually evenly divided, the parties could have taken different paths toward political victory if the national popular vote selected the president. The Electoral College system, however, made the southern electors, chosen almost exclusively by white votes, so critical that the Republican Party could not resist reshaping its policies, programs, and promises to take the pluralities in these states. The divisiveness of American politics today stems not from the popular vote in 1960 and thereafter, but instead from the pernicious electoral system.

Against Kings

Katherine Stewart writes that: 

"The Christian nationalist movement today is authoritarian, paranoid and patriarchal at its core. They aren’t fighting a culture war. They’re making a direct attack on democracy itself." 

The American experiment is and always has been a "direct attack" on a king, on the idea of kings, on the notion that kings should rule and the people should not. The American Revolution, the Civil War, the War to End All Wars, the triumph of the United States against fascism and then communism: our country has always been dedicated to opposing authoritarians, dispelling the dark magic of paranoia, and, yes, fighting for the equality of all people, including women oppressed by patriarchal regimes.

If Ms. Stewart is right, then Christian nationalists are on the wrong side of truth, justice and the American Way. They will have to be out-voted. Democracy must prevail. 

Might as well start in 2019 with reforming the way the president is selected. Seems like good timing given that several dozen people are announcing they want to be president. They should all say publicly that they do not want to win without campaigning nationally to win the national popular vote in order to become president. The rules of the game have to be changed. 

The Electoral College was a Compromise the Framers Didn't Want

“The electoral college was an unwanted child from the beginning,” writes Joseph J. Ellis, author of “American Dialogue: The Founders and Us.Ellis explains:

“Born in Philadelphia in mid-August 1787, when most delegates to the Constitutional Convention were eager to escape the heat and humidity and go home, it was the fruit of a compromise between the two warring factions at the convention: those who wished to revise the Articles of Confederation and retain sovereignty in the states, and those who wished to replace the articles by shifting sovereignty to a fully empowered national government.

. . .

Neither side was happy with the result.”

Fortunately, the Constitution does not require us to continue to be saddled with our current system. As Ellis explains:

“There is nothing in the Constitution that requires an elector to vote for the winner in his or her state, a loophole that might offer a way around the amendment impasse.”

In other words, if states agree to give there electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, we could finally be free from a system that no one really wanted in the first place.

Big Tents

“For most of the twentieth century, American parties were ideological ‘big tents’ each encompassing diverse constituencies and a wide range of political views,”  Levitsky and Ziblatt say on page 168 of “How Democracies Die.” They then assert that the Democratic embrace of the Civil Rights Movement collapsed the big tent. Next, immigrants supported the Democrats, and evangelists supported the Republicans. The result was two tinier tents, one for each party, and each with their own separate audiences.

The point of view here disturbs me. The parties, like sellers in a market, position themselves to win elections like businesses want to win market share. The principal reason that the two parties re-aligned since the 1960s is that the presidential selection system makes the national vote irrelevant. If candidates knew they had to win the national vote in order to become president, then Republican nominees could not have been so willingly insensitive to the desires of black people and immigrants. Nor could Democratic nominees have resisted the concerns of evangelicals. The parties would have needed to create coalitions that could win national majorities, especially in close elections, as opposed to carrying a handful of swing states.

Immigrants did not inevitably support Democrats, and African-Americans famously had long seen the Republicans as the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. These groups did not choose parties so much as the parties chose them or left them. For Republicans, getting the immigrant vote would not help carry California, and the black vote in the old Confederacy could not beat the white vote. For Democrats, the evangelical vote in the Rust Belt, while huge, could not overcome the labor vote.  If the national vote mattered, a different calculus would have prevailed. Both parties would have had motivation to build big tents.

GWB the Big Tenter

In “How Democracies Die” the authors report that “President [George W.] Bush governed hard to the right, abandoning all pretense of bipartisanship [because] Republicans could win by mobilizing their own base rather than seeking independent voters.” Page 152.

Bush won a majority of the popular vote in 2004, and became the first presidential candidate to accomplish this feat since his father did in 1988. He ran as a “big tent” Republican, and generally held positions currently anathematized by the incumbent president.

In fact, it was not Bush but John Kerry who sought to use the Electoral College to thwart the will of the majority of Americans. Kerry battled hard to win a plurality in Ohio, and he came close. If he had pulled that off, he would have won an electoral victory even while Bush won the majority of votes in the country.

Supreme Court Mischaracterized: They Got FDR and the 19th Amendment Wrong

The Supreme Court was designed to be profoundly anti-democratic. As a result, it inevitably can become an instrument for anti-democratic forces to use in order to create a rule of law that is neither desired nor supported by the majority of Americans.

In “How Democracies Die,” Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt at page 119 condemn Franklin Roosevelt for wanting to change the size of the Court in order to appoint justices less inclined to kill legislation that the vast majority of Americans thought necessary to respond to the Great Depression. Roosevelt was on the side of democracy. The professors wrongly characterize him as contributing to the erosion of norms essential to the working of democracy.

It should also be noted that the Supreme Court ought to have term limits and a strong and public ethics code in order to mitigate its anti-democratic character.

On page 125 they claim the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919 gave women the right to vote, and exemplified “bipartisan cooperation.” This amendment was not ratified by the requisite number of states until Tennessee barely adopted it in 1920 (not 1919). It exemplified, if anything, regional white male hostility to any threat to the hegemony of this demographic. As the map below, from Wikipedia, shows, the red and orange states had no or very limited suffrage for women in elections at every level prior to the Nineteenth Amendment:

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In general, regional differences have characterized all efforts to extend the franchise. This is the case with efforts to cause the national vote winner always to become president.

My Beef with This Book

The argument of “How Democracies Die” is found, among many other places (repetition is the soul of didacticism), at page 102:

“Unwritten rules are everywhere in American politics, [including] the operations of the Senate and the Electoral College…But two norms stand out…mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.”

I am scratching my head, but I think there are no important unwritten rules relating to the Electoral College.

Certainly, the two norms have no bearing on the presidential selection system. Third party spoilers, like Perot or Nader, have never tolerated the system or forborne to frustrate the will of the majority or plurality of the American people. Faithless electors have willy-nilly cast protest votes of no consequence, except insofar as they shown how broken the system is that the southern/small state alliance required as a price for ratifying the Constitution.

My simplest beef with this book is that it assumes the existence of a democracy that is, then, said to be at risk of dying. The problem with American politics is almost exactly the opposite. There is an absence of democracy in key institutions, and if our Republic dies the reason lies in our collective failure to create democracy in form and function, rather than our inability to adhere to unwritten rules or norms. 

Black History Misstated

On pages 89-90 of “How Democracies Die” Levitsky and Ziblatt describe how black turnout was 65% or higher in critical states in the old Confederacy in the 1880 election. They write that “Democrats lost power in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia in the 1880s and 1890s.”  

Jim Crow put an end to the threat posed to white Democrats by the black Republican vote in the south. That much is undeniable.

But the authors fail to note that the presidential selection system effectively rendered black votes in the old Confederacy meaningless after the 1876 election, which led to the end of Reconstruction. As the map below shows, in the 1880 presidential election the south was solidly held by white Democrats:


And for that matter, even in 1876 only three states in the South went Republican:


The problem then and now is that the winner-take-all allocation of electors in a state effectively ignores all votes cast for the runners-up. This is biased against black voters in the south. Under a national vote system, all their votes would matter. Under the current system, because African-Americans are concentrated regionally in the old south, their votes are effectively meaningless in the general election for president.

1968 Misunderstood

Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that the political parties usefully blocked George Wallace from mounting a seriously threatening presidential campaign in 1968, page 47. But they neglect to point out that Wallace cost Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey the chance to carry previously Democratic states in the Deep South and some critical northern states where Wallace captured a large share of blue-collar voters. The election was very close. Wallace arguably cost Humphrey the election. The presidential selection system allowed Wallace to capture all electors from certain states. It always invites spoiler third-party candidates, of which Wallace and Ralph Nader are two notorious examples.

Founders Misinterpreted Again

Levitsky and Ziblatt claim that the founders “sought…an elected president…reflecting the will of the people,” but they wanted “some kind of built-in screening device.” So, they invented the Electoral College. Pages 39-40. Made up of “locally prominent men in each state” it would be the “original gatekeeper.”

As historians have amply shown, this version of history is, to put a word for it, wrong. Some among the drafters strongly preferred direct election of the president. The slave and small state alliance had won inequitable, anti-democratic power in both the House and Senate, and they did not want anything short of this unfairness to be on their side when it came to choosing the president. No one thought that the electors would “screen.” Instead they would negotiate compromises among the different states, probably fail to produce a majority of electors for anyone, and then kick the process to the House.

This good book’s description of the history of the Electoral College is not one of the authors’ best moments.

An Authoritarian Streak

Levitsky and Ziblatt claim on page 36-7 of “How Democracies Die” that “Americans have long had an authoritarian streak [comprising] a sizable minority – 30 or even 40 percent – of the country.”  This frightens them, with reason.

But they utterly neglect to point out that a minority of this size can elect a president solely, exclusively, only, for no other reason than that the presidential selection system creates this possibility. 

The Founders never had in mind rule by the minority. Indeed, they specifically required majorities and even super-majorities for all important action.

Using Institutions Against Democracy

In their good book, “How Democracies Die,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write at pages 7-8: “Institutions become political weapons [that] elected autocrats [use to] subvert democracy…democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy…to kill it.”

But the presidential selection system exemplifies how an anti-democratic institution automatically and routinely kills democracy, without any malign agent needing to lift a finger. The current system tells candidates not to bother to seek a popular majority in running for president. No presidential candidate has manipulated the electoral system to obtain an unfair win, with the arguable exception of the 1876 election, because it works like an evil charm to fend off democracy without requiring any bad actor to grab the controls. 

“Legal” Subversion

Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt assert at page 5 of “How Democracies Die” that “Many government efforts to subvert democracy are ‘legal,’ in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts.” They do not, but should, note that the winner-take-all system of choosing electors state-by-state is completely a function of state legislative action, and that it leads to the systematic discarding of all surplus votes for the statewide winner and all the votes for runners-up. The total of discarded votes is greater than 60% of all votes cast for president. Throwing away most votes is a subversion they might have mentioned.

Not Quite Right

In What Happened, Hillary Clinton, at page 387, wrote that the Electoral College was an “archaic fluke of our constitutional system….that…gave disproportionate power to less populated states and therefore was profoundly undemocratic. It made a mockery of the principle of ‘One person, one vote.’”

This is the way she and most lawyers and politicians were taught, but it is inaccurate in three ways.

First, the winner-take-all system, and for that matter, even the phrase “Electoral College,” are not in the Constitution. Any state can change the way it chooses electors, and if even a few states allocated even a few electors to the national winner, then both campaigns would seek national pluralities.

Second, if campaigns had to win national pluralities to get to 270 electors, then by definition every vote would count equally. The Constitution does not block this move, or thwart the principle of ‘One person, one vote.’ States can make this the fundamental principle in choosing the president if even one or two of them decided to award electors to the national vote winner.

Third, the “system” is not undemocratic because it empowers “less populated states.” These states in fact are almost without exception taken for granted and ignored by both parties in the general election. What’s undemocratic is the way the residents of virtually all states, and especially small states, have no say on what the major party candidates say, promise, and, when elected, do. The system is undemocratic because the vast majority of voters live in non-swing states and so are taken for granted and ignored in the general election.

Real Third Parties Should Matter

If a presidential candidate had to win the national vote in order to get 270 electors then a third party with substantial support across the country could make an impact on politics.  

In a truly national election Ross Perot in 1992 would have campaigned across the country in pursuit of a minimum of 34% of the vote. At the very least if he got more votes, he would have moved the Republican and Democratic parties to closer alignment with his views. 

The Populist, Progressive, and Bull Moose Parties of 19th and 20th centuries too might have become enduring presences if the system required them to build national bases.

But the presidential selection system gives third parties spoiler roles instead of a chance to make a real contribution to ideological debate.    

Who knows after all what Nader now stands for? All we know is that he changed the outcome in 2000. But why? To what end? A real third party can shift the course of political thinking. That matters more than flipping a particular election. 

A national popular vote for electing the president can lead to healthy evolution of thinking in all political parties. 

Third Parties—Not Fun

Third parties thrive in parliamentary systems but in the United States they are usually important only if they change the plurality in a swing state in the general presidential election. Any third party can frustrate the will of the majority of the people by slicing off a few percent of the votes as Ralph Nader clearly did in Florida in 2000, thereby giving the presidency to George W. Bush. 

I was friendly with the future president in college and I can testify that he never expected Nader to make him president.  

I was part of a group that tried to persuade Nader to drop out in 2000. He knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to help Bush win in order to prove that there was no difference between the two parties. The logic was lost on me. 

 But as Nader proved, the existing presidential selection system gives great negative power to an American third party. I fully expect that dark money at some point will fabricate third parties out of whole cloth with the specific purpose of repeating the story of Florida 2000 in the half dozen swing states that matter under the current system. 

This tactic might be tried in 2020. 

A Half-Century Ago

When I graduated college 50 years ago next year, a constitutional amendment to replace the electoral system with direct, popular vote nearly passed. President Richard Nixon supported it. So did the Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters among many other groups. It was blocked in 1970 by a filibuster led by southern senators. 

They had a lot to lose if black people in the south could cast votes for president that mattered. These votes could be joined with votes of those everywhere in the country who sympathized with the civil rights claims of black people. The white advantage in presidential selection could be lost. As everyone knows, that same grip on power was transferred from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. The irony is that the Democrats in the south would have been better off with the popular vote method of choosing the president.