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Why The Electoral College Is a Good Idea!

Updated on July 17, 2013

I. Introduction

A lot of individuals criticize the electoral college, and have proposed different reforms to it, which includes disposing of it altogether with a direct national popular election. Most of the reform proposals have their problems. It is better to keep the electoral college with maybe only a few minor reforms.

II. The Creation of the Electoral College.

Many delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention originally considered having the national legislature elect the President. The Convention’s Committee of Detail believed that a national legislature composed of a House of Representatives (House) that the people had elected, and a Senate elected by the legislature of each state would offer the best judgment on the person most qualified to be president. This concept, however, violated the concept of the separation of powers between the different branches of government, which included the executive and legislative branches, that the delegates at the convention favored so much. James Wilson wanted the President, Senate and the House of Representatives to represent a “popular mandate” to prevent any of these three bodies from having an interesting in helping the other, and so he opposed this presidential selection method. Gouverneur Morris believed that the legislature electing the president would make the president and the executive branch “the mere creature of that body.”

Another convention proposal was to have the American people directly elect the president. In this case, larger states more decisively wanted such a system, because they would have more influence in each election outcome, by likely having more voters. Elbridge Gerry feared that ordinary people were too uninformed and that presidential contenders would easily mislead them. He favored a more republican form of government where there would exist a strong a wall of separation between the people and the decision makers in government.

Smaller states worried that they would have no influence in electing the president, and therefore, were more inclined to having the national legislature elect the president. James Wilson pointed out that the Senate had equal representation among the states, and that this equal representation in the Senate would check any influence the larger states had in electing the president.

Despite the larger states’ desires for the people directly electing the president, convention delegates favored the legislature electing the president. The New Jersey and Virginia plans to draw the national legislature both originally called for the legislature to elect the president. Convention delegates, however, waited until they had agreed on the makeup of the national legislature –the Congress- before deciding how to elect the president. This final legislative plan, known as the Connecticut Compromise, influenced the debates on how to choose the president.

The calls for the direct election did not gain any more fruition after the Connecticut Compromise. Instead, the delegates discussed whether the Congress or an independent body would choose the president. Delegates to many larger states likely became less inclined to having a direct election of the president because they might not have that much more representation when citizens casted their votes. Many of the larger states, such as Virginia, were slave states. The three-fifths compromise had given these slave states more representation in the House of Representatives because slaves counted as three-fifths of a person when counting the states’ populations to determine their representation in the House. Slave states, therefore, often had higher representation in the House because of the partial inclusion of slaves in their census. These slaves, however, could not vote in presidential elections. Only a small number of citizens could vote in a state any way. Larger states would, therefore, likely not exert too much more power in presidential elections over smaller states.

Smaller states had more to benefit from an electoral college than a direct popular vote. Under the final plan for the electoral college, each state had an electoral vote for every member they had in the House and then two more to represent each state having two Senators. While minutes of the constitutional convention debates do not mention an advantage to smaller states, constitutional and election scholars generally recognize an advantage given to smaller states with the two electoral votes because of their two senators.

Additionally, the Constitution has the House decide the president when no presidential candidate receives an electoral vote majority. What is significant about this arrangement is that each state has one vote for deciding the president in such a circumstance. A state’s U.S. House members vote to decide which candidate will receive that one vote. If a state has 11 representatives, for instance, its 11 representatives will vote to decide which candidate will receive the one vote from that state. This system provides large and small states with equal representation.

The electoral college is similar to the idea of the legislature directly electing the president. It essentially puts the presidential selection process into the power of another body separate from Congress. This method prevents the fear of the executive branch from becoming an extension of the legislative branch.

Having the electoral college also helps the states to determine the president with little hindrance from Congress. States choose the electors rather than Congress. That means the electors will reflect the state instead of Congress. Representatives in either the House or Senate will not likely influence electors, in other words, into voting for a particular presidential candidate. If members of Congress elected the president they would of course think about their constituents in their home state, but they might become influenced by other members of Congress who do not represent their state. The electoral college prevents such outside influences. To prevent outside influences, the Constitution declares Representatives, Senators and “persons holding an office of trust or profit in the United States” cannot become electors.

III. The Current Makeup of the Electoral College.

The electoral college has changed little since its creation over two hundred years ago. Each receives its number of electoral votes based on the number of people it has in the United States House, plus two more representing the two Senators every state has. Every state is guaranteed at least three electoral votes, because every state is guaranteed at least one representative in the House and then two Senators. A state’s number of electoral votes can change every ten years when the United States government conducts a census of each state’s population to determine the number of representatives it has in the House. Under the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution, the District of Columbia receives three electoral votes corresponding to the minimum number of electoral votes a state can have. The Twenty-third Amendment is one of the few changes made to the electoral college.

Right now the total number of electoral votes is 538, representing 538 different electors. This count includes the 435 House members that Congress set in the early twentieth century, the one hundred U.S. Senators, and then the District of Columbia’s three electoral votes. With the number of House members set at 435, and the number of electoral votes from the District of Columbia set at three, the total number of electoral votes will not change unless a state is added.

Under the Constitution each state chooses its electors in a way that the state legislature directs. How states have chosen their electors has probably been the biggest change that has occurred in the electoral college. Originally, many states chose their electors without ordinary citizens casting a vote. In 1789, the first presidential election, five states did this. The number of states doing this expanded to nine in 1792, and remained the same in 1796. This practice caused many of these states to have some of their electoral votes split between different party candidates. It is not clear why having state legislatures caused divided electors. The state legislatures may not have been interested in finding people loyal to particular parties.

By the early nineteenth century, many ordinary citizens perceived their state legislators as corrupt, and so they pressured their legislators to have electors selected through a statewide popular vote. More and more states started having their electors chosen through a popular vote. After the Civil War, every state has selected its electors through a popular vote. The only exceptions were Florida in 1868 after it was just readmitted to the Union, and Colorado in 1876 because it had just been admitted as a state.

Some states-such as Illinois, North Carolina, Maine and Maryland- that had their electors determined by popular vote did not initially set up the unit rule, better known as the winner take all system. These states had some of their electors chosen only from certain districts within the state, but not from the state as a whole. This system also sometimes caused a party split between electors within a state. Certain electoral districts within a state may not support the same party as most people in the state support. For that reason, different electoral districts may select electors of different parties, and the electors representing the state has a whole may not represent the same party as electors elected from certain districts.

Today only Maine and Nebraska use the district system rather than the unit system. Under both their systems, each Congressional district has the people residing within the district choose an elector. Maine has two Congressional districts, and so two of its electors come from one of these districts respectively, while the other two represent the state as a whole. Similarly, Nebraska has three Congressional districts; so three of its electors represent a district while two of its electors represent the entire state. In 2008, Nebraska split its electors because of this system. While Nebraska voted for the Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama carried Nebraska’s Second Congressional District housing Nebraska’s largest city of Omaha. Obama, therefore, received an electoral vote from Nebraska while the other four electoral votes went to McCain.

The composition of ballots has also caused electoral vote splitting from certain states using the unit rule. Many states had the names of the electors listed on the ballot in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. States using this somewhat complicated ballot required people to vote for each elector individually. Occasionally, electors from different parties would win. California, for instance, had two Democratic electors and eleven Progressive winning electors in 1912 by using this ballot. Why did such a ballot cause the occasional electoral vote split? Did ordinary voters come to know the names of individual candidates who sought to become electors? Such a ballot system suggests that voters may have thought more about the electors they were electing than they do today. Perhaps some people saw presidential elections as being about choosing electors who can then decide on a president. Did these ballots reflect that mindset, or did such ballots condition such a mindset? The answer is not clear. Maybe party leaders chose candidates for the electoral college because they had been active in politics, and were therefore somewhat well known. Some voters then may have simply voted for names they knew, and so they split their votes between parties. These voters may not have thought any further about the qualifications of candidates for the electoral college, or even the candidates for president.

All fifty states, however, now use a system in which people vote for a whole slate of electors for the same party. Someone, for example, votes for either the Democratic electors supporting the Obama-Biden ticket, or the Republican electors supporting the Romney-Ryan ticket. Elector splitting, therefore, no longer occurs using the winner take all, or unit system. Today voters do not seem to think about the electors they are sending to choose the president. They see themselves as voting for who they want to become president. The separation between the voters and the president may exist in a more of a technical sense now. These ballot changes may reflect this mindset, or they may have influenced this mindset, or both. Modern ballots, in other words, may have enhanced the common perception that voters were directly electing the president instead of electors.

Now that ordinary voters choose the electors in each state, there is the question as to candidates for the electoral college from which voters technically choose are decided. Thirty-four states have state party conventions that pick the electoral candidates. Ten other states along with the District of Columbia have each state party’s central committee decide the electoral candidates. Five other states use a combination of these methods. Pennsylvania has the party’s presidential nominee selected the electoral candidates for that party.

After that comes election day when registered voters within a state vote for the electoral candidates of a particular party who will -if elected- vote for the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees. (Voters and the people in the party who chose these electoral candidates assume that these electoral candidates will vote for the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominee, because they have pledged to do so. There is, however, nothing requiring winning electors to vote for their party’s nominees.) The Constitution gives Congress the power to determine the date for determining the electors, and in 1845 Congress set the day for the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Whichever party receives the most votes in the presidential election in that state has its winning electors vote to elect the president and vice-president. Presumably the winning electors will vote for the president and vice-president candidate of the party’s ticket.

In December, the winning electors convene in their respective state capitals. Each elector then casts their votes for president, and then casts a separate vote for vice president. The Twelfth Amendment, the only amendment to the electoral college apart from the Twenty-third amendment, requires electors to vote for president and vice-president separately. Congress and the states enacted this amendment to almost eliminate the possibility of the president and vice-president being from different parties, and to prevent Congress from having to decide the president and vice president. Prior to the Twelfth Amendment, parties would often have two presidential and two vice-presidential candidates. Having one balloting to determine the president and vice-president would, therefore, cause a party’s electors to split their votes four different ways, and prevent a presidential candidate from receiving a majority.

The votes of the electors from each state are mailed to Washington D.C., where the President of the U.S. Senate-the Vice President of the United States-reads out the electoral votes and declares the president and vice president of the United States for the next four years. The U.S. House of Representatives will decide the president, and the Senate will determine the vice president, when no presidential/vice-presidential ticket receives a majority of electoral votes.

At least one Senator and one Representative must sign an objection to the legitimacy of the electors from a certain state. Congress may then vote not to recognize the state’s electoral votes only if the state improperly certified the electors, or the certified electors were not the electors who actually voted. If Massachusetts certified the Romney/Ryan electors, for instance, even though most people in Massachusetts voted for Obama then Massachusetts would have improperly certified the wrong electors, because Massachusetts selects its electors through a direct popular vote. Similarly, if the Romney Ryan electoral candidates voted in December in Massachusetts, rather than the certified Obama/Biden votes, one could say that the wrong electors voted. Most cases of certification relate to close races within a state in which it is unclear which ticket received the most popular votes there, such as Florida in 2000.

IV. The Controversy Over the Electoral College.

The electoral college has always been controversial, most notably because it can occasionally mean that the winner in the electoral can lose to someone else in the national popular vote, such as in 2000. That has made people call for the abolition of the electoral college, and for the national popular vote to determine the winner of an election.

There, however, have been only a few instances where a candidate winning in the popular vote has lost in the electoral college: 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000. In 1824, the House of Representatives ended up deciding the winner because no candidate had an electoral majority. An unconstitutionally created electoral commission made up of members of Congress decided the 1876 election. Samuel Tilden had won the popular vote against Rutherford B. Hayes and led Hayes in the electoral college. Tilden just did not have a majority of the electoral votes, because of disputes as to who had won Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida. The commission made a deal with Hayes to award the disputed electoral votes to him in exchange for Hayes ending Reconstruction. Members of the commission made its decision out of personal interest rather than who they thought had won those states. Because Tilden had led Hayes in the electoral college prior to the commission ruling, demonstrates that the electoral college reflected the popular vote in 1876 just as does in virtually all elections. In 2000, it is not clear that Al Gore -the popular vote winner- would have lost Florida had the U.S. Supreme Court not stopped the recount there. If Gore had carried Florida he would have won in the popular vote and the electoral college.

The benefits of the electoral college outweigh the harm of a rare election in which the elected president loses the popular vote. The idea of limiting the dangers of democracy that some founding fathers-for better or worse-expressed by creating the electoral college no longer works,[i]because we expect electors to vote for a particular candidate. There are still other benefits to the electoral college. It protects smaller states from larger states.[ii] On election night the world can see how a small state, such as Vermont, voted. Knowing how the people in Vermont think might enlighten the world to their interests. Presidential candidates might, therefore, become less enthusiastic about dumping nuclear waste in Vermont. How Vermonters feel might be blocked out in an election determined simply through a popular vote.

Some might argue that Vermont’s three electoral votes,[iii] and the way it has become decisively Democratic in recent presidential elections,[iv] stops candidates from paying any attention to the state. Vermont voters, however, might quickly vote Republican again if a Democratic presidential candidate ran on a platform of dumping waste in Vermont. Other smaller states might come to its defense too, by voting decisively against the Democratic candidate, fearing that the same thing could happen to them.

The idea that a national popular vote would cause candidates to campaign in every state for votes does not bear fruition either.[v] While presidential candidates target large and competitive states more,[vi] it is not clear that they would stop targeting areas with large populations. Vermont has a higher percentage of representation in the electoral college than it has in the American general population.[vii] As of 2011, Vermont has 626,431people, while the United States has 311,591,917 people.[viii] Three out of 538 is a bigger piece of the pie. Obtaining 600,000 votes is not likely to put a candidate over the top the way several million votes from a larger state would. The people of Vermont would become a mere speck of dust for anyone running for president.

Another problem with getting rid of the electoral college is that it would create a lot of third party candidates.[ix] It is probably easier to launch a campaign where one does not have to campaign in a whole series of states after all. The talk of how Congress will have to resolve the election whenever there is a strong independent candidate also discourages such candidates from running, because no one will have enough electoral votes.[x] Most people do not want Congress to resolve an election.[xi] A winning candidate could, therefore, have only 15 percent of the vote, much smaller than the percentage someone who wins only in the electoral college would receive in the popular vote when there are only two major candidates. With the support of only 15 percent of voters it would be hard for them to receive support for their policies.

Some people have talked about having a runoff election, until the winner has at least 40 percent of the vote.[xii] Such a system would be expensive and time consuming. The people who voted for the final winner may not particularly like that candidate, since the many other candidates have thrown a lot of mud at this person during the entire election campaign. These people might also be angry that their first choice did not win. The final winner could still have problems accomplishing anything.

People have suggested methods of amending the electoral college that will not end it. One method is the district plan, similar to what Maine and Nebraska now use.[xiii] Using Congressional districts, however, would allow for further gerrymandering. A party that is gerrymandered by different state legislatures across the country to control the House would also have an easier time winning the presidency. Having electoral districts separate from Congressional districts would still allow for gerrymandering. While the district system would allow for presidential candidates and the media to focus on even smaller segments of the population -for instance Springfield, Illinois-it could allow one party to win more presidential elections. More winners in presidential elections may also lose the popular vote, because of gerrymandering.

Another potential reform would be having a proportional representation system in which candidates would receive a percentage of electoral votes from each state based on the percentage of the popular vote they received in that state.[xiv] Such a system could allow certain groups to more effectively influence an election.[xv] Gun rights advocates who make up 20 percent of a state’s population, for instance, could make a candidate receive 20 percent of a state’s electoral votes.[xvi] This system may make politicians focus on smaller segments of the population more, because they would generate electoral votes. Some legal scholars have even said that proportional representation would provide better representation of minorities, and therefore, guarantee Constitutional equal protection.[xvii] These scholars believe that the current system denies certain minorities equal protection.[xviii]

This system, however, could encourage more independent and third party candidates. Someone could campaign on a single issue in one state, and end up obtaining electoral votes. The attention from having these electoral votes could gradually strengthen these candidates and parties in future. That would create the same problem as having a direct popular vote, where the winner only receives a small percentage of the vote. Numerous third party candidates could also stop anyone from obtaining the needed majority of electoral votes, and so Congress would end up deciding many presidential elections.

One final reform proposal is keeping the electoral college in its current form, but providing the popular vote winner with some extra electoral votes.[xix] This system is probably the best system. Candidates would still campaign in a lot of states and consider the issues important to these states. At the same time, it would become highly unlikely that the winner of the popular vote would lose in the electoral college.

These different proposals are the nutshell of the ways people have suggested amending the electoral college over the last two hundred years. At any rate, there have been a number of bills before Congress to amend the electoral college, and apart from the Twelfth and Twenty-third amendments none of them have yet passed.[xx]

A final concern that people have expressed is what to do about “faithless electors,” electors who did not vote for the candidate for whom they pledged to vote.[xxi] So far there have not been enough cases to change an election’s outcome.[xxii] That could, however, change in a close election. Requiring electors to vote for their pledged candidates would, therefore, make sense.[xxiii] Other people have said that an elector should break their pledge and vote for the winner of the popular vote.[xxiv] Doing that, however, would defeat the purpose of the electoral college.

V. Conclusion

The electoral college is a somewhat complicated system of electing the president and vice-president of the United States. Many people want to change it or do away with it.[xxv] A couple small reforms might make the electoral college better. It, however, works well compared with most other proposals of electing the president. There are, additionally, more pressing problems in the United States besides changing the electoral college.


Bugh, Gary E. “Introduction: Approaching Electoral College Reform” in Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Gary Bugh (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

Bugh, Gary E. “The Challenge of Contemporary Electoral College Reform” in Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Gary Bugh (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

Doherty, Brendan J. “’Elections’: The Politics of the Permanent Campaign: Presidential Travel and the Electoral College, 1977-2004,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 37, no. 4 (December 2007):749-773.

Edwards III, George C. Why the Electoral College Is Bad for America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Josephson, William and Beverly J. Ross, “Repairing The Electoral College,” Journal of Legislation 22 (1996): 145-193.

Korzi, Michael J. “’If the Manner of It Be Not Perfect’: Thinking Through Electoral College Reform” in Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Gary Bugh (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

Limbacher, Carl. “Church Castigates Cuomo for Interfering in Electoral College,”, December 15, 2000,

Melcher, James P. “Exploring the Difficulties of Electoral College Reform at the State Level: Maine and Nebraska Lead the Way,” in Electoral College Reform: Challenges and Possibilities, ed. Gary Bugh (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

Slonim, Shlomo. “The Electoral College at Philadelphia: The Evolution of an Ad Hoc Congress for the Selection of a President,” The Journal of American History 73, No.1 (June 1986): 35-58, 50. [Hereinafter Slonim]


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