If the Electoral College decides, why vote?

Excerpt from August 2004:

Election 1888 - A Time the Electoral College Worked

In the 1888 campaign, Cleveland promised to reduce trade tariffs-a policy which would have greatly benefited southern states only. The proposal succeeded in winning Cleveland the south and the popular vote, but it also turned most of the other states, and thus the Electoral College, over to Harrison. In this case, the Electoral College worked as designed by "protecting" the country from a president who might have continued to show favoritism to one part of the country.

Election 2000 - A Time it Did Not

However, nothing like that happened in Election 2000. Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush promised anything that would have unfairly benefited any area or group of people.
What happened in Election 2000 was pure fluke of mathematics. Forget about the candidates involved, the guy who got the most votes lost. With all due respect for those who defend the Electoral College-most Americans just don't like that.
While surveys of political scientists have supported continuation of the Electoral College, Public opinion polls have shown up to 75 percent of Americans favored abolishing it.

Comments by JesseGordon:

My bottom line, although I wish Gore had won, is that the Electoral College DID work in 2000. And it worked in 2000 for pretty much the same reasons it worked in 1888 - limiting the influence of one region.

The split in 2000 - now well-known as the urban "blue states" versus the rural "red states" - is not so different than the 1888 split between the south and the rest of the country. The blue states - a sure bet for Kerry - are the Northeast, the West Coast, and the industrial Midwest. That list comprises a large percentage of the population but a much smaller percentage of the number of states. People in the "red states" might well consider the dozen "blue states" like 1888 non-southerners viewed the south.

The 2000 election was pretty much a tie in the popular vote. So what do we do in the case of a tie? Well, the Constitution is very clear on that-the electoral system is set up so the winner is the one who wins more states, even if those states don't represent much in terms of population. That was Bush - he won 30 states and Gore only won 20. Gore's 20 states had more population that Bush's 30 states - i.e., Bush won a lot of small states while Gore won fewer large states.

Maybe that doesn't seem fair. But it IS the way the Constitution was set up, and it was INTENDED to have exactly that result. The 2000 election was no "fluke of mathematics" - a major reason for establishing the Electoral College was to give the small states more power at the expense of the large states. The Founding Fathers called that "The Great Compromise" and they meant it, because it persuaded the small states to join the Union. The idea was, the House would have membership in proportion to population (favoring the large states) and the Senate would have an equal number of Senators from each state (favoring the small states). The Electoral College would sum up the two, which favors the small states, but a little less than the Senate does. So Bush won BECAUSE the Constitution says that small states should be given more power in the presidential election - and Bush won more small states than Gore did.

Let's look at the numbers in more detail, since people get confused with why the Electoral College empowers small states less than the Senate does. In my analysis on I compare how many people one Elector represents in the smallest state (population-wise) and the largest state (I updated the numbers for newer census numbers)
- Wyoming gets 3 votes in the Electoral College (2 Senators plus one Rep)
- Wyoming's population is 501,000
- So Wyoming get one Electoral vote per 167,000 people. (501,000 / 3).
- California has 55 Electoral votes (2 Senators plus 53 Reps)
- California's population is 35.5 million.
- So California gets one Electoral vote per 645,000 people. (35.5 million / 55).
- Comparing the Electoral votes per person, Wyoming's people get almost 4 times as much representation as do Californians in the Electoral College
Now let's do the same numbers for the Senate:
- Wyoming gets 2 votes in the Senate
- So Wyoming get one Senate vote per 251,000 people. (501,000 / 2).
- California gets 2 votes in the Senate
- So California gets one Senate vote per 1,780,000 people. (35.5 million / 2).
- Comparing the Senate votes per person, Wyoming's people get over 7 times as much representation as do Californians in the Senate.
So, sorry to Gore supporters and - the Electoral College worked as intended in 2000. If you don't like the way it worked, you CAN work to change it - see for how....

-- Jesse Gordon, Aug. 2004
Please send follow-up questions or responses to

Anonymous asked this question on 3/8/2000:

Hey Jesse, I'm very confused about electoral votes. Let me see if I've got some portion of it right? each party chooses it's own electorates? The number of electorates is determined by the number of congressmen for that state? The "people" vote for a president. This vote is then "cast aside" and the electorates go to Washington to cast their votes? They can vote for anyone they want, i.e. Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or the family dog? If I'm not mistaken, a candidate that didn't win the peoples majority can still win the presidency? At what point does this process seem redundant? What prevents electoral abuses? Why can't "we the people" in order to achieve a more perfect union, just get rid of the "middle man", who may just vote for the man in the moon, and get the president WE want? This process seems unfair and suspect. When I was in school, I understood the electoral was a way of reaffirming the Peoples Vote, you know - everyone wants Reagan so the people vote for him and then the electorates went out and voted the same way as the people. I understand now that this is far from true if the electorate can vote for "whoever" they want. So when can we lose the electoral college put the power back in our hands? Thanks so much if you can help me understand this. Thanks so much even if you can't...

JesseGordon gave this response on 3/8/2000:

There are two different "electorates" that you're talking about. The first are "party delegates" who go to the party convention to choose a candidate. The second are "electors" who choose the president. Here are the details:

The party delegates are the people who we actually vote for in the primaries. A delegate is a person, usually a party stalwart, who then goes to the party convention, usually held around July. The delegates then vote for which candidate will represent their party in the general election.

Yes, as you say, they can vote for Mickey Mouse if they like; but most states require that their delegates vote for the person for whom they are committed, at least on the first ballot. If there's not a majority on the first ballot, however, then anything goes on the second ballot, even Mickey Mouse.

Basically, each party determines the rules for its delegates, and each state determines how their delegates are selected. Some states have primaries and some have caucuses; some states allow only registered party members to vote for candidates and some are "open primaries". And the Democrats like to have more delegates than the Republicans, too, which means nothing other than a larger convention.

All of the party delegate rules can be changed at the will of the state or the will of the party. On the other hand, in the general election, there ARE rules, which are determined by the Constitution. The big picture in your question -- why can't we just have the people vote -- is because the Constitution isn't set up that way. To change it, we'd need an Amendment. So until then, here's what we're stuck with:

In the general election, we vote for Electors, who are just like Delegates in the primary -- after the election, they go vote for the President. They meet -- that's called the Electoral College -- and vote for the candidate they're committed to. In theory, they too could vote for Mickey Mouse, but that hasn't happened yet! The same sort of rules apply as at the party conventions -- they're committed on the first ballot, but if there's no majority, they go to a second ballot, which is wide open. There are some rules in the Constitution about the Congress assisting in the decision if the Electoral College gets deadlocked.

The number of Electors, as you describe, is set to the same number as each state has for Congressmen plus Senators. DC and Puerto Rico get some electors too.

The thing that prevents "electoral abuse" is that the Electors are usually pretty responsible people, who want the process to work. In theory, because the Electoral representation is winner-take-all in each state, a candidate could win the popular vote (have more people voting for him) and lose the Electoral vote. But that's just a theory -- they almost always match. And when they don't, or even when it's close, you'll hear a huge hue and cry to drop the Electoral College and cut out the "middle man."

The system was set up this way because in the 1790s, communication and transportation were lousy. The Electors had to traipse to DC and tell the rest of the country who the people in their state wanted. The system was set up for the Olden Days -- it is outdated today, obviously.

Maybe someday, the hue and cry will be loud enough to amend the Constitution -- but I think it's kind of fun having a clunky old system.

Anonymous asked this follow-up question on 3/9/2000:

Jesse, Thanks for answering all my questions.
Yes, the old system is kind of clunky and I guess it could be fun, but let's look at this from a practical point of view. By the time all is said and done and everyone goes to their parties and it all works out well in the end with the people getting the president they voted for, how much money did the people of the United States spend to get this president? If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But it is broke. With transportation being what it is and communications that are REAL TIME, I'm sure there is a much cheaper solution. We don't NEED ($$$) someone to go to Washington to repeat what we've already said in a general election. So this brings us to my last question. Why is a hue and cry necessary to invoke reform? If government is looking for a place to cut taxes and such, Isn't it in the job description of our congress to say "hey wait a minute folks. This is costing you too much. Let's get rid of a lot of steps." I don't think the people would cry, "NO, NO! We like it the way it is!" hahaha. Thanks again Jesse. I guess this is just my own form of hue and cry. Peace

JesseGordon gave this response on 3/9/2000:

The first question is, "Is the system broken?" I'm not so sure it is -- the guy who wins the popular vote DOES win the Electoral vote, after all. It would be a strange election indeed if it didn't come out that way -- but of course, you're right, it COULD. So let's assume there is a POTENTIAL of it being "broken."

Then the second question is, "What does it cost to fix it?" The way to look at that question is to compare the costs saved (by removing the Electoral College) with the costs we'd have to spend to change it (via a Constitutional Amendment).

Neither of the costs here are very high in financial terms -- I think the Electors are volunteers, doing it as a duty of the Party Faithful. And the financial cost of an amendment aren't too high either -- people LOVE to volunteer for that sort of thing!

The real costs here are the political costs, which means this is a question of "political economy." The first rule of political economy is that you can only act when the time is ripe. You can't pass a constitutional amendment without a lot of dedicated people (and even then it's hard!) which means the political cost is very high. To muster up that political will, there has to be that hue and cry based on a BIG reason -- a crisis, or a candidate with a mission who gets a "mandate", or SOMETHING. Then this issue would be ripe for change.

The crisis in this case, I think, would have to be that the winner of the Electoral vote was the loser of the popular vote. People would be disillusioned; politicians would be screaming from soapboxes; the press would be full of the history of the Electoral College; and maybe an amendment would then pass. But not now; not without that sort of crisis -- it just has too high a political cost.

The process you're talking about, where we "fix" the Electoral College on financial grounds and for reasons of efficiency, would be something like what Gore talks about with "Reinventing Government". Gore believes pretty fervently in that stuff -- he's written a book or two on it -- but you may notice, it hasn't come up during the presidential campaign. That's because it's DULL -- wonks like me LOVE it, but the general public falls asleep when Al starts in on how we should get rid of mohair subsidies (really -- we DO subsidize mohair coats; and Gore DOES make speeches about it). He cites the same reasons that you do -- it costs money; it's outdated; it's inefficient; it's BROKEN.

But it's hard to change the system -- even when the system is paying for things as dumb as mohair (by the way, the subsidy originated in the Korean War, when soldiers needed mohair coats in the winter, so the Feds started subsidizing it on "security" grounds, and the subsidy just stayed on forever, like the Electoral College did). Gore's method of garnering the political will was to couch numerous outdated & expensive things like that in a catch-all "fix" of "reinvention." The "reinvention" part is supposed to cover the political economy costs -- it's worked Spectacularly (if you ask Gore) or Hardly at all (I suspect George W. will start saying soon).

Read the original book on "Reinventing Government" (a non-partisan book -- Gore liked it, but so did Gov. Weld (R, MA) )for more than you'd ever want to know about political economy and how the momentum of federal programs is hard to change. I summarize the concepts in two articles: one in a Democrat context, , and one in a Republican context, .

-- Jesse

Anonymous rated this answer:

Thinks for the brilliant insight Jesse. I only hope you weren't too bored by my questions. Thanks

A viewer asked this question on 8/5/2000:

I have never understood the electoral college. How can a candidate win popular vote but lose an election because he is elected by the electoral college. Why vote?

stevehaddock gave this response on 8/5/2000:

Because the voters elect the electoral college, and in almost all cases, they are bound to vote for the candidate who you voted for.

The system goes back to the early days of the United States. The original electoral college was the Congress and the Senate, who got together every four years. Each got two votes which had to be for candidates from different states. This is how George Washington got elected. Twice. Unanimously.

However, this meant the people had no direct say in who the president would be (in addition, the Senators were appointed by the State Legislators, not by direct election. Only Representatives were directly elected).

In the early 19th century, the system was changed, but the electoral college remained. Under the new system, each state was given a number of electors equal to the total number of senators and congressmen that state had. Then the electors were elected by direct vote of the people. Electors were "pledged" to a candidate and had to vote for that candidate.

However, the rule is that ALL of a state's electors go to the winner of the popular vote in that state - they aren't apportioned.

However, as you have pointed out, that could lead to the winner of the popular vote losing the election. Theoretically, since you get all the electors even if you win by one vote, if the more popular candidate won the popular vote by a wide margin in the small states, but lost the popular vote by a narrow margin in the large states, he would win the election but lose the electoral college.

However, it rarely happens in practice. The last time it happened was in about the 1870's when Grover Cleveland had a narrow margin in the popular vote, but Benjamin Harrison won a narrow margin of the electoral college. It hasn't happened since, even in strong three way races like in 1948 and 1968.

There has been talk of direct popular election of the president. However, that would require a constitutional amendment, and it is unlikely to happen. Say a president wins with a minority of the popular vote. The only way Congress would want to change the constitution is that they are a different party than the president.

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