Is the Electoral College Worth Saving?

It is possible that Al Gore may pile up such large majorities in several large states that he will win more popular votes than George W. Bush even though Bush captures the presidency by winning a majority of electoral votes. If that happens—and nothing like this has happened since 1888—there will be a demand that the Electoral College be abolished. Indeed, a bill to do this has already been introduced in Congress.

This would be a mistake. Our system of choosing a president is a good idea even though its value now is not what the authors of the Constitution had intended. When they created the Electoral College, it was because they did not see how any presidential candidate after George Washington (whom everyone knew would be the first president) could have a sufficiently national reputation to acquire a popular-vote majority.

To deal with this, the Framers did two things. First, they assigned electoral votes to each state that equaled its total number of senators and representatives and arranged for those electoral votes to be cast by a group of electors, selected in any way the states chose, who would meet in each state capitol to cast the electoral votes. Those votes would then be sent to the nation’s capitol and counted before a joint meeting of the House and Senate. The initial requirement to win the presidency was that a candidate had to receive a majority of electoral votes. (There are 538 electoral votes because the District of Columbia has been given three even though it has no membership in Congress.) The states are free to decide how their electoral votes are to be apportioned. Almost everywhere they have said that the candidate with the most popular votes will get all the state’s electoral votes.

But since the Framers assumed that many candidates would not have a national reputation, they imagined that no one would win a majority. In that case, the House would pick the winner from the top five (later reduced by an amendment to the top three) finishers in the following way: Each state would get one vote, but that vote would have to be cast by a majority of the state’s representatives. If there was no majority, the state would not be able to vote. This system would obviously give a great advantage to small states, a fact that helped the idea get adopted at the constitutional convention. And if no candidate won a majority, the House could select a president from among the three people with the most electoral votes. Under the rules adopted in 1803 that require each elector to vote separately for president and vice president, that has happened only once, in 1824.

It soon became clear that candidates could get a national reputation. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all won the presidency easily. The electoral college now seemed like a silly, antiquated idea.

It is not. The great benefit of the college is that, as it operates, it discourages the formation of large third parties. The winner-take-all system means that voters realize that to influence the outcome, they must vote for either the party in office or the major party out of office. Sometimes, of course, they vote for third parties, and on occasion some of these groups actually carry states. In 1968 George Wallace carried five states with 46 electoral votes. But generally the voters know—as Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan will find out—that they favor one of the two major parties, each of which under the winner-take-all system tends to appeal to the centrist voter.

Suppose we abolished the college and chose presidents by direct popular vote. On at least 15 occasions since the popular vote began to be counted (around 1828), neither of the major party candidates got a majority. Clinton did not get it in either 1992 or 1996, and neither did Lincoln, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, or Nixon (in 1968). In those cases, there would presumably be a runoff election to pick the winner.

Knowing this is a likely outcome, small parties would have a powerful incentive to run candidates, not because they thought they could win but because it would give them a chance to bargain with one of the two stronger candidates. We would have a replay on the national level of what now goes on in New York where “parties,” some not much more than letterhead organizations with an attractive label, decide whether (if they are liberal) they will support the Democrat or (if they are conservative) they will back the Republican. France has this kind of multiparty system for its presidential choices.

Now think back and ask what this bargaining between also-rans and major candidates might produce. In order to attract these other votes in the runoff, I suspect that Lincoln, in order to become president, would have had to weaken his opposition to slavery, Wilson his regulatory impulse, and Truman his support for civil rights. (Strom Thurmond did so well in 1948 that he won 39 electoral votes.) Today, Bush might have to yield some policy views to Buchanan and Gore to Nader.

There is no end to the number of parties we might have that would stake a claim on the two major parties. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Ventura, and the National Rifle Association might all decide they want to get into the act.

The genius of our presidential election method is that it produces a clear winner. Minor parties may have some influence, but only by offering policy views that a major party later chooses to adopt. They cannot force the major party to do that as the price of winning. Moreover, the system rewards both big states (by giving them a lot of electoral votes) and small ones (by giving them more votes than their population would dictate).

There are things that could be done to improve the system. Maine, for example, allocates its four electoral votes differently than other states. Half of them go to the candidate who gets the most votes statewide; the others go to the candidate who carries one or both of Maine’s two congressional districts. If adopted nationwide (and that would require a constitutional amendment), it might make the electoral vote more naturally match the popular one.

But the great advantage of the present system is that, for reasons the Framers never anticipated, it makes the country a two-party nation, an outcome that makes it easier for the president to govern and easier for the voter to choose. “Direct election” sounds good, but it will almost certainly alter the fundamental dynamics of American politics.