Home » Our Columns

Electoral College Follies

Charlie Johnston 27 February 2008 4 Comments

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has the chance to do something right. Last month Illinois became the third state to pass the National Popular Vote Bill, which would direct a state’s presidential electors to cast their votes for whoever wins the national popular vote. But in Illinois, unlike Maryland and New Jersey, the bill has not yet become law. In this state the governor has not yet signed the legislation – and has told reporters he is not sure if he will.

On most matters we show a certain reverence for the founders. Well we should. They created the first democratic republic in history that did not rapidly degenerate into chaos and end in dictatorship. Their achievement is profound: while the United States is one of the youngest nations on the planet we have the oldest continuous form of government. That achievement is doubly impressive if one is aware that, historically, democracy has been one of the most volatile, unstable forms of government known to man. The founders somehow managed to separate the nitro and the glycerin of freedom and create something that would last rather than blow up every time it is jarred.

When in high school I, too, thought the Electoral College a strange, antiquated institution. While in college I came to recognize some of the magnitude of the founders’ achievement. Rather than assuming they had tossed it into the Constitution as some sort of bizarre joke I thought it more useful to do some investigation on what, exactly, was on their minds. (Incidentally, when he was a senator, the late Pres. John Kennedy wrote a very lucid explanation of the Electoral College and why it has served the nation well). The group behind this push, National Popular Vote, Inc. (NPVI), helpfully explains that among the main reasons the Electoral College was originally needed was because of the lack of cell phones, computers, calculators, the internet and other modern inventions. Can they possibly be that stupid?

A presidential election, though held on a single day, is not a single election. It encompasses 50 discrete elections, one in each state. To give an example, suppose the Cubs and the White Sox were in the World Series (you Southern Illinois Cardinal fans can substitute the Cards and the Royals – or better yet, an NLCS between the Cards and the Mets). The White Sox win three games by a score of 10-0. The Cubs win four games by a score of 1-0. The White Sox, in essence, win the popular vote 30-4. But the Cubs win the series because it was not one seven-day long contest to see who could score the most runs. It was seven individual games. Perhaps you think a presidential election should not be the collective decision of the states, but a single expression of the national popular will. Consider some of the real reasons the founders adopted the Electoral College and how these reasons relate to modern circumstances.

First, the states are different sizes. In order to prevent small states from losing all influence and just being swept along by big-state interests in national affairs, the small states’ weight in the electoral college is slightly larger than the big states in comparison to their population, because of the uniform rule of two senators per state, regardless of size (the total number of electors each state gets is equal to the sum of its members of the U.S. House and Senate). Abolish the Electoral System and every presidential election hence would be contested – and decided – in five to eight major urban areas. Small, and even medium size states, might never again even see a presidential candidate. Rural influence on presidential elections would evaporate entirely. After a few elections voters in small states and rural areas would figure out their vote was utterly meaningless. Participation in elections would likely drop because of the futility of it. Tensions between rural and urban interests would become dreadful, perhaps intractable. Even the invention of cell phones hasn’t changed that.

Second, there was the fear of regionalism, that some areas of the country with common interests might band together to hijack national presidential elections by the intensity of their votes. Were it not for the Electoral College this would have actually happened in 1860. There were several southern states in which Abraham Lincoln did not get a single popular vote. Despite having a minority population, the south, by the intensity of its commitment to the slave culture, could have hijacked that election from the rest of the country. The Electoral College prevented that. The Civil War was a great battle both over slavery and national union. The crisis would not have been averted without an Electoral College, only postponed and intensified. The likely end result would have been the Balkanization of what is now America. One of those little filigrees the founders added, to give stability to this great democracy, worked to save the nation and put an end to the sort of regionalism that had, in earlier times, been catalyst for destruction of democracies. Abolishing the Electoral College would likely resurrect the spectre of regionalism. Take a look at the map. West of the Mississippi River every state except California and Texas would become powerless in national elections unless some of them banded together and, as the old south did in 1860, voted monolithically. In the southeast, which states other than Florida and, perhaps, Georgia, would have any influence? Look carefully at the map before glibly injecting this old element of instability back into the prospect of national union that the founders most painstakingly and brilliantly worked to eliminate. The invention of calculators doesn’t change this a whit.

Third, there is the matter of vote fraud. It truly puzzles me that proponents of this plan seem to honestly believe it would make fraud more, rather than less, difficult. The founders created the Electoral College, in part, to make it more difficult for unseemly combinations to conspire to hijack an election. Read that as vote fraud and special interests. It is rare that a conspiracy of fraud in only one state could hijack an election (Evidence of massive fraud in Illinois and Texas, either of which could have changed the election, exists from the 1960 election, but it is the exception, rather than the rule. Even had Nixon chosen to contest the result, he would almost certainly have combined himself to one or both of these states, rather than the even more nightmarish scenario of a national recount). Imagine that polls show an election to be a dead heat in the late going. Conspirators do not have to come up with multiple conspiracies in several states to cheat the electorate: they need only confine themselves to electoral corruption mainstays such as Chicago, Texas, Louisiana, Los Angeles and such. Massive vote fraud in any one would be sufficient to gain a tainted victory where only the national popular vote counts in a dead heat. One need only look at the experience of western democracies where a single, national vote does determine the outcome of the chief executive to see that fraud changing the outcome is easier, not harder than under our “archaic, antiquated system.” The invention of the computer makes such “unseemly combinations” much easier.

Fourth, the legislation is unenforceable. Under the Constitution once electors are chosen, they have the absolute right to vote for whomever they choose. Long-term practice has led to a gentleman’s agreement in which each elector votes for the candidate who won their state’s popular vote. Once a state has chosen its electors, it cannot bind them to vote for anyone in particular. It would require a Constitutional Amendment to change this. In 2000, the Gore campaign actively tried to persuade electors from states that voted for Bush to be ‘faithless’ and vote for Al Gore anyway. In each of the elctions of 2000, 1988, 1976 and 1972 a ‘faithless elector’ did vote against who they were pledged to. Any serious enforcement clause injected into NPV legislation might well make it unconstitutional.

Imagine, now, a scenario in which Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani were their respective party’s nominees (I choose them for this example because of the big states they come from). The election is close as can be. Without Illinois, Giuliani is the victor. Former Chicago City Clerk Jim Laski has been doing interviews of late explaining the “Chicago Way;” how they would accomplish vote fraud not just by forgery and voting the dead, but actually cutting and pasting the chad on absentee ballots if they were cast for the ‘wrong’ candidate. You’re from New York and you have read about all of this. Do you ask your delegation to vote for Obama? And what about the rest of the country? If the legitimacy of a presidential election came down to believing in the electoral integrity of the Chicago precinct captain, what kind of chaos would ensue? Once this boundary was breached it would be far more likely to destroy the gentleman’s agreement among electors than to enhance national unity. The internet could communicate the news, but not stop the chaos.

Over the last century we have abolished many of the elements of stability the founders injected into our unique system of government. A serious student of the history of democracies would be alarmed at the number of symptoms our culture has developed that have previously been precursors to a democracy’s descent into chaos. The elimination of yet another is not a good idea. Contrary to popular (and uninformed) opinion, the Electoral College was not invented by a mad founder as a practical joke.

The head of NPVI, John Koza, is a computer scientist who teaches at Stanford University. I will defer to his judgment on computer, cell phone, and internet technology, regardless of any commentary by founders I might run across. I would ask that, in return, he show a little more respect for the founders’ achievement and expertise.

As for Gov. Blagojevich, he can do both this state and the nation a signal service by following advice from Nancy Reagan: Just say no.


Charlie Johnston is a regular columnist for The Chicago Daily Observer and a member of its editorial board.


  • Abe (author) said:

    Wow. This should get be printed in a lot more sites. This is the first time I’ve gotten a good idea of what the elctoral college is really all about.

  • Teri O'Brien (author) said:

    Excellent piece, Charlie! A couple of years ago when I first heard of this foolish legislation, which I think is the brainchild of Evan Bayh’s father, I was stunned to read that Republican Kirk Dillard was supporting it. To his credit, when I called to ask him about it, he copped to it, and said it was true. He explained that his support is because he was sick of presidential candidates not coming to Illinois because they didn’t see the point. He mentioned Pres. Bush in 2004 as an example. I’m not sure I persuaded him that the answer to that problem is to work to create something we don’t have, a genuine Republican party in Illinois, rather whatever mess ran a political crossdresser as its gubenatorial candidate in 2006. Perhaps I should send him your column.

  • Todd Nicholson (author) said:

    Your concerns are answered quite effectively in Every Vote Equal, which is made available on the web at http://www.everyvoteequal.com

    To address one point, consider the facts about our Constitution’s framers and the Electoral College. First, they make a big mistake that they had to correct with the 12th amendment. Originally, electors had two votes each, with the first-place finisher becoming president and the second-place finisher becoming vice-president. This caused major problems in 1796 and 1800, including the Jefferson-Burr tie in 1800.

    Second, the framers in no way expected all states to award all their electoral votes to the statewide popular vote winner. That developed over decades, and I think they would be horrified at the impact it has on states — with candidates right now absolutely ignoring most states.

    Third, most of the framers expected elections to typically be decided in the US House, with each state having one vote. They obviously were quite wrong about that.

    James Madison wanted a national popular vote even in 1787. There’s no doubt in my mind he would want it today.

  • Electoral College Follies | The Next Right Step (author) said:

    […] years ago I wrote this little piece on the Electoral College. It was originally published in the Chicago Daily Observer and then, a day later, in the Illinois Review – I was a columnist for both journals at the […]

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.