An electoral college recap

References to the electoral college “meeting”, as it did this morning, might conjure up a vision of all 538 presidential electors gathering in a big auditorium somewhere to make their decision. The reality is more sedate; each state’s electors meet in their own state capital, where they fill out and sign multiple copies of their votes for president and vice-president, to send to Congress and to other federal and state officials.

For several decades no-one much worried about the electoral college, until the disputed election of 2000 made it clear that it could elect as president a candidate who had lost the popular vote. In 2016 it did so, with Donald Trump winning a 74-seat majority in the college from only 48.9% of the two-party vote.

That hasn’t happened this time: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have been chosen by both the voters and the electors. But it could easily have gone the other way, and it could easily do so next time. So why does the United States tolerate this? What actual purpose does the electoral college serve?

We’ve been over some of this ground before, but I thought it’d be useful to collect in one place (in roughly increasing order of importance) the things that the electoral college does – and by implication the things it does not do, despite what you might be told by its defenders.

First, the college gives an advantage to small states, because senators as well as representatives count in calculating the number of electors. Since small states are a bit more likely to vote Republican, that produces a political bias. Critics often seize on this factor: Andrew Shankman, for example, suggests that a big increase in the number of representatives, so as to swamp the effect of the senators, would “make a divergence between popular vote and electoral vote a lot less likely.”

In fact, this effect is quite minor. As I pointed out last month, aligning the college with population would have brought Biden’s share of the electoral vote up from 56.9% to just 58.3%; it also would not have given victory to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

And if you want to give extra influence to smaller states, there’s no need for the electoral college; you could just give an additional weighting to voters from those states in a popular election. But of course no-one would do that, because it would make the affront to democracy explicit rather than hidden.

Second, because representation is based on population rather than number of voters, the electoral college favors states with a high proportion of non-voting residents. Growth states, where there a lot of children and non-voting immigrants, get a bonus at the expense of older and whiter states.

This effect at present is also very small mathematically, but it has more potential for distortion, since states could systematically disenfranchise particular groups of people but still reap the benefit of their population weight in the electoral college. And that was a prime reason for establishing the college in the first place, since it meant the slaveholding states were credited with extra votes for their non-voting slaves. (The slaves’ weight in the calculation was discounted by 40%, but because there were a lot of them it still made a big difference.)

The fourteenth amendment is supposed to stop states doing this, by providing that their representation is to be reduced if they prevent any of their adult male citizens from voting. But faced with any large-scale attack on voting rights that provision is in practice unenforceable, as the experience of the Jim Crow era demonstrated: African-Americans were almost completely barred from voting in the south for the first half of the twentieth century, but no state ever lost seats as a result.

Third, and more important than the first two, is the fact that the electoral college, like any non-proportional system, introduces random errors. Big blocks of electoral votes shift on the basis of very small movements in voter support; conversely, large voter movements in already-safe states have no effect in the college. So in a close election the system is always liable to get the “wrong” result not due to any systematic bias but due to sheer chance.

As a result, and just like in (say) the Australian House of Representatives, marginal seats are the only ones that count. Candidates ignore the states that are safe for one party or the other and focus on a small number of swing states – particularly the ones with a large number of electoral votes. So Pennsylvania gets blanket coverage, while neighboring New York gets none.

This effect could be minimised (although not entirely eliminated) by allocating each state’s electoral votes proportionally instead of by winner-take-all. But no large state is likely to do that on its own, because it would mean depriving itself of influence. To make it universal would require a constitutional amendment, and if you’re amending the constitution anyway, why not get rid of the college entirely?

Fourth, and now it seems to me the most important, is the symbolic import of the college. It amounts to giving the finger to democracy on a national scale: it’s a statement that the US is, in the time-worn phrase, “a republic, not a democracy” (as if the two were somehow incompatible). For many, mostly Republicans but also including a number of “libertarians”, this is apparently a feature, not a bug.

Symbols matter. Those who defend the electoral college are not just indulging a personal dislike of democracy, they are providing ideological cover to a host of other anti-democratic measures: voter suppression, gerrymandering, doctoring of census figures, and the rest. Most obviously, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, they provide the basis for an attempt to have an entire election overturned on the basis that their candidate didn’t win.

After all, if democracy isn’t a value, why should Biden get to win the election? If his seven-million vote margin isn’t important – and with the electoral college system, it isn’t – why, in principle, should any vote margins matter? Constitutionally, states can use any method they like to appoint their electors; without some sort of belief in democracy to underpin their decisions, there’s almost no limit to what they might do.

That exhausts the effects, both practical and symbolic, of the electoral college. When it was established, there was widespread belief in another function: that electors would be people of some stature who could exercise their independent judgement on the candidates, not just follow the lead of the voters. But that idea was already moribund within a couple of decades and has now been killed stone dead. If preventing the Trump presidency didn’t occasion an exercise of independence, clearly nothing would.

Anyone who tells you that the college serves some other purpose – for example, that it forces candidates to campaign with more geographic breadth, a popular but completely baseless idea – is talking nonsense.

And in that way, the existing system does actually have another use, as a litmus test for political debate. If someone defends the electoral college without defending one of the four purposes listed above (indefensible as they might seem), it’s a good sign that nothing else they have to say about the subject will be worth listening to.


5 thoughts on “An electoral college recap

  1. Wrt small-state bias versus first-past-the-post, I did a few simulations in comparing the effects of removing either in a post of mine:
    (In terms of removing small-state bias, the main difference between my method and yours is that I tried to keep 538 EVs instead of simply excluding the two senators per state, on the grounds that fewer seats (especially in bloc elections, which is basically what the Electoral College is) generally produce less proportional results)


  2. ‘The fourteenth amendment is supposed to stop states doing this, by providing that their representation is to be reduced if they prevent any of their adult male citizens from voting. But faced with any large-scale attack on voting rights that provision is in practice unenforceable, as the experience of the Jim Crow era demonstrated: African-Americans were almost completely barred from voting in the south for the first half of the twentieth century, but no state ever lost seats as a result.’

    I think those remarks require qualification. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, when there were substantial Union occupying forces in the South, the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment could be (and were) enforced to a large extent. Once Reconstruction had been abandoned, those protection became for the time being a dead letter; but their continued existence in the letter was of great importance to the achievements of the civil rights era, even if not in itself sufficient. The protections of the Fourteenth Amendment are not absolutely unenforceable; the extent to which they are enforceable varies with circumstances, and important among those circumstances is the extent of the will to enforce them. If there are politicians who suggest that those provisions can’t be enforced, they should justly be suspected of meaning that they have no desire to enforce them. The only way to test definitively the extent to which they can be enforced is to put the effort and the resources into trying to enforce them. If you attempt the impossible, you will fail; but if you don’t attempt it, how do you know it’s impossible?


    1. Thanks J-D – fair points. I wouldn’t suggest that the provision in the 14th amendment is a pointless thing to have; it can have aspirational value at least. But I think it’s mostly going to be useful against a rogue state or two, rather than a movement backed by a national political party.


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