The Ribald Reign of King George the Second

Reforming the Electoral College

--November 26, 2000

As the weeks pass and ballot-box wrangling in the courtroom weaves toward its conclusion, two outcomes are becoming more certain. On the one hand, it's clear that Al Gore has won the most votes in the presidential contest, by a comfortable if close margin of about half a million votes. On the other hand, it appears more and more likely that George W. Bush will be declared our next President.

This mismatch has occurred because a successful candidate wins the Presidency based on a majority of electoral votes, not a winning margin in the popular vote (the actual count of those who have voted). This article is dedicated to understanding the source of that mismatch in this election, and to charting a course toward sensible reform.

The Electoral College and the Election
Key to understanding this nation's quandary is the Electoral College system implemented under the United States Constitution. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution states that "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector." These Electors then proceed to cast their votes for the President of the United States. The candidate who receives the majority of electoral votes becomes the next President.

This innocuous-sounding constitutional clause is the reason that Al Gore, while winning the most votes of Americans, has not won the Presidency. To see why not, reread the part of the above quote that's underlined. If the quote simply read "the whole Number of Representatives," then the number of Electors for a state would be proportional to the population of a state, since Representatives (referring to members of the House of Representatives) are apportioned once a decade according to the relative populations of the states. However, each state also has two Senators regardless of that State's population, and that means that for each state 2 extra Electors are thrown in.

Because the number of Electors for a state is not strictly tied to the population of a state, some states get more Electors per person than others. For example, South Dakota, which has 1 Representative for its 696,000 residents in the 1990 Census, also has 2 Senators because it is a separate state. That makes for 3 Electors, or 1 Elector for every 232,000 people. New York, on the other hand, has 31 Representatives for its 17,991,000 residents as counted by the 1990 Census. It also has 2 Senators because it is a separate state. That makes 33 Electors, or 1 Elector for every 545,181 people. Making a comparison, the results are striking: a resident of South Dakota has 2 1/3 times as much voting power in the Presidential election as a resident of New York.

The general pattern for voting power under the Electoral College system is that each resident of a large state like California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas has relatively little voting power. On the other hand, each resident of a small state like Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota or Utah has a lot of voting power relatively speaking.

In this election, George W. Bush benefitted strongly from the current system. Most of the states that Al Gore won are states with large populations, and most of the states Bush won have small populations. Under our current electoral system, a big-state Gore voter had less than half the voting power that a small-state Bush voter had. This, my friends, is why George W. Bush will probably become our next President, squeaking by Al Gore's 267 electoral votes with 271 of his own.

Sensible Reform
There are some who will say that there's nothing wrong with an outcome in which the winner of the popular vote nevertheless loses a presidential election. We'll leave a thorough examination of such arguments to a future article, but I'll note that most of these arguments are based on a preference for a President who represents states or a set of certain minorities rather than a President who represents a strict majority. However, for the purposes of this article we'll assume that a system in which each person's vote is equally weighted, and in which the most popular candidate is elected, is preferable. The task is then to devise some kind of reform so that in future elections the popular vote winner is also the winner of the presidential election.

The most common cry for reform is to simply eliminate the Electoral College system and decide the presidential contest according to a popular vote count. However, critics have quickly and rightly pointed out the problem with such a plan: if there's another close election, we'd have to recount votes in every single precinct in the country. Think the Florida recount's a mess? Try multiplying that by 50 and you'll get a picture of the implications of abolishing the Electoral College.

These same critics usually stop their counterargument there and conclude that we've just got to keep the system the way it is, warts and all. But there's another possibility that hasn't been widely remarked upon, a reform that is based upon understanding the makeup of the Electoral College as we've described it above. If the number of Electors per state were simply equal to the number of members of the House of Representatives, dropping inclusion of Senators for the count, then it would be much more difficult for a popular winner to be an electoral loser. Indeed, if the reform had been instituted for this election, Al Gore would have easily captured enough electoral votes to become the next President.

Of course, such a reform has not been currently instituted, and the old rules of the game have seemingly resulted in a President other than Gore being selected. The purpose of this particular article is not to contest the results of the current election. Rather, this article points out that regardless of one's party affiliation, those who believe in the principle of "One Person, One Vote" have a strong interest in avoiding future contradictions like this year's. This article has also offered a solution - one that isn't really being talked about. But if enough of us who believe in true democracy apply ourselves with gumption and grit, then perhaps we can make a change and move in the direction of more consistent political representation. If we really believe in the ideal of democracy, then it is up to us to do something about it.

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