The Electoral College Versus Democracy

I have posted before–several times–about the anti-democratic elements of the Electoral College. Whatever its origins–whether, as some scholars insist, it was a concession to the slave states, or as defenders contend, it was an effort to give added electoral heft to smaller states–it hasn’t just outlived its initial purpose. It now undermines democracy and national unity.

There is ample evidence that the Electoral College advantages white rural voters–substantially. Research suggests that every rural vote is worth one and a third of every urban vote. Small states already have an advantage by virtue of the fact that every state–no matter how thinly or densely populated–has two Senators.

A recent column from the New York Times emphasizes these disproportions, and points to other, under-appreciated elements of the Electoral College system.These paragraphs outline the crux of the problem

The Electoral College as it functions today is the most glaring reminder of many that our democracy is not fair, not equal and not representative. No other advanced democracy in the world uses anything like it, and for good reason. The election, as Mr. Trump would say — though not for the right reasons — is rigged.

The main problem with the Electoral College today is not, as both its supporters and detractors believe, the disproportionate power it gives smaller states. Those states do get a boost from their two Senate-based electoral votes, but that benefit pales in comparison to the real culprit: statewide winner-take-all laws. Under these laws, which states adopted to gain political advantage in the nation’s early years, even though it was never raised by the framers — states award all their electors to the candidate with the most popular votes in their state. The effect is to erase all the voters in that state who didn’t vote for the top candidate.

Today, 48 states use winner-take-all. As a result, most are considered “safe,” that is, comfortably in hand for one party or the other. No amount of campaigning will change that. The only states that matter to either party are the “battleground” states — especially bigger ones like Florida and Pennsylvania, where a swing of a few thousand or even a few hundred votes can shift the entire pot of electors from one candidate to the other.

Winner-take-all has an even more pernicious effect–it disincentivizes voting by people who are in their state’s political minority. If your state is red and you are blue, or vice-versa, it’s easy to convince yourself your vote is meaningless. (For federal offices, it is.)

The result is that Joe Biden must win the popular vote by a significant margin, or risk losing the Presidency. If Biden wins by five percentage points or more — something that would require winning by more than seven million votes — no problem.

If he wins by 4.5 million more votes than the president? The odds drop to 75%.

Anything less than a 4.5 million vote margin, and Biden’s odds drop “like a rock.” If he wins the popular vote by “only” three million-Hillary Clinton’s margin–we’re looking at a second Trump term.

There is no argument of which I am aware that turns that analysis into a democratically-acceptable result.


  1. Hear hear! Abolish the EC!

    Also, the Senate either has too much power or too few members. Let any state with over 10m people have 3 Senators, any with less than 2m have 1, and the rest have 2.

    EXPAND the House of Representatives to reduce the population served by 1 Rep to no more than 250,000. Yes, that’s 1,305 representatives, who will collectively be harder to buy off by special interests and will be more accountable to a smaller constituency that is not gerrymandered to their advantage.

    Last, and just for kicks, MOVE the US Capitol to the geographic center of the country – somewhere out in Kansas or Nebraska. Federal property in D.C. can be designated a museum and some can remain a key government administrative center.

    Wait, you didn’t ASK what I’d do if put in charge?


  2. Copied and pasted from the History section of the Wikipedia definition of the Electoral College; “Initially, state legislatures chose the electors in many of the states. That practice changed during the early 19th century, as states extended the right to vote to wider segments of the population. By 1832, only South Carolina had not transitioned to popular election. Since 1880, the electors in every state have been chosen based on a popular election held on Election Day.[1] The popular election for electors means the president and vice president are in effect chosen through indirect election by the citizens.[32] Since the mid-19th century when all electors have been popularly chosen, the Electoral College has elected the candidate who received the most popular votes nationwide, except in four elections: 1876, 1888, 2000, and 2016. In 1824, there were six states in which electors were legislatively appointed, rather than popularly elected, so the true national popular vote is uncertain. The electors failed to select a winning candidate, so the matter was decided by the House of Representatives.”

    Copied and pasted from the blog today; “Whatever its origins–whether, as some scholars insist, it was a concession to the slave states, or as defenders contend, it was an effort to give added electoral heft to smaller states–it hasn’t just outlived its initial purpose. It now undermines democracy and national unity.”

    Original decisions made by slave owners and/or GIVING “electoral heft to smaller states” has been highly questionable since the beginning of the inclusion of the Electoral College in the Constitution. While the Constitution was somewhat “wisely” written open to definition by founding fathers who knew not what the future would bring to the United States of America; this was and is a poorly made decision to affect future elections deciding only president and vice president elections by the few rather than the majority of the country. This is blatantly evidenced by the 2000 and 2016 “elections” of George W. and “The Donald”.

    Both 2000 and 2016 presidential SELECTIONS were decided by the Citizens United and Dark Money; removing all possibility of popular vote being considered by the Electoral College members. The 2000 “recount” in the one state where George W.’s brother was governor was and is highly questionable. Trump especially was appointed by a dangerous Trifecta, Citizens United, Dark Money and Russia, which is still at work in this 2020 election. I see no way out of this dilemma to an honest election as the destruction of the United States Postal Service is well underway and the Pandemic continues to endanger all American lives and will effect the popular vote already in danger due to purging voters and fewer polling places.

  3. So, Marv, what do you propose activists do? All sorts of Democratic activist groups are pounding the media and the roads and streets. What shall the rest of us fools do?

    Meanwhile, as long as the Senate is operated by the draconian hand of the majority “leader” it fails to fulfill its Constitutional duty to legislate; it is merely a political instrument for a few deranged and corrupt FOOLS like Mitch McConnell. The Senate rules MUST eliminate the filibuster and EVERY piece of legislation coming from the House MUST have a floor vote.

    Of course, all this action by any fools you choose to pick requires that Republicans be turned out of office at every level everywhere.

  4. I remember Tony Judt’s remark about “Bush’s useful idiots.” Before he died with Lou Gehrig’s disease, we had a long conversation and he agreed that FOOLS would have been a much better word.

    From The Nation Magazine:

    “The most important magazine article of 2006 never appeared in an American publication. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s “The Israel Lobby” first saw the light of day in The London Review of Books. Thanks to the Internet hundreds of thousands of Americans have been able to read this piece, which, for one unflattering reason or another, nobody in America would publish.

    Now comes another piece in The London Review of Books that would have served the world better had it appeared in an American publication. It is ““Bush’s Useful Idiots,” Tony Judt’s essay on “The Strange Death of Liberal America.”

    Judt is a corking good historian currently running New York University’s Remarque Institute. In this piece he directs his anger toward the corps of men and women who, though presenting themselves as liberals, supported the Iraq disaster from the git-go. Of them he writes, “Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the ‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.”

    Who are the useful idiots who served Bush so well in bringing defeat and disgrace down on our country? He names some of them–Michael Ignatieff, Leon Wieseltier, David Remnick, Thomas Friedman, Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Paul Berman, Peter Beinart–but without too much head-scratching, others could be added to Judt’s list.

    It was publications as well as individuals who in Judt’s estimation did the liberal Judas goat act: “Magazines and newspapers of the traditional liberal centre–the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Washington Post and the New York Times itself–fell over themselves in the hurry to align their editorial stance with that of a Republican president bent on exemplary war. A fearful conformism gripped the mainstream media.” He might have added that only the prospect of what is beginning to look like defeat may loosen that grip.

    These people should be called out for what they did because, as Judt writes, “those centrist voices that bayed most insistently for blood in the prelude to the Iraq War–the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman demanded that France be voted ‘Off the Island’ (i.e. out of the Security Council) for its presumption in opposing America’s drive to war–are today the most confident when asserting their monopoly of insight into world affairs.”

    My God! People still not only take Friedman seriously, they kiss the man’s fanny wherever he goes. Just the other day he likened the failure of the military’s drive to pacify Baghdad to the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive in Vietnam, and the next thing you know somebody’s asking George Bush about Friedman’s latest assessment–and the President seems to be agreeing. It’s all nonsense, of course, because however terrible the Iraqi misadventure may be, it bears little similarity to the Vietnam misadventure other than the stink of defeat and deceit. Well, if you give a screeching baboon a column in the New York Times, he will be showered with awards and lucrative speaking engagements.

    So how can we explain to ourselves the route that brings these big liberal names to become apologists for pre-emptive war, kidnapping, abolition of habeas corpus, wiretapping, torture, for the destruction of one-third of Lebanon and the deprivation of the means of livelihood, food, medicine and education of the several million Palestinians? How could these liberals become advocates for the squashing of the two fragile democratic or quasi-democratic Arab political entities in the Middle East: Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority? “Why,” Judt asks, “has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?”

    He is kind enough not to say that their stance has anything to do with good pay and cushy jobs. If you’re an American citizen, conformity is enforced by the giving and taking away of jobs, fellowships, travel, prize money and so forth. If you’re not an American citizen, the midnight arrest and vanishment is a darn sight worse than banishment, although Condoleezza Rice insists we make sure not to send the vanished to places where they torture or conduct “harsh interrogation.”

    Nor does one have to be a liberal to know the pressure to toe the line. Corey Robin, also writing in the London Review, says, “Journalists afraid for their careers aren’t likely to question their government in time of war. And they haven’t. ABC’s Ted Koppel, reputed to be one of the most aggressive interviewers in the business, admits that ‘we were too timid before the war’ in Iraq. The PBS anchor Jim Lehrer says: ‘It would have been difficult to have had debates [about occupying Iraq]…you’d have had to have gone against the grain.’ The few journalists who bucked the trend were swiftly punished. After criticising the media for its coverage of the war, Ashleigh Banfield was ‘taken to the woodshed’ by her bosses, according to a Newsday report, and her career at NBC was finished. A Wall Street Journal reporter sent a personal e-mail describing the terrible situation in Iraq: her editors pulled her out of the country and off the story.”

    Judt’s explanation for liberals’ enlisting in the cause of the iron fist and the fat head is “Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with ‘Islamo-fascism.’” If ever a term was cooked up in the propagandist’s retort, it is “Islamo-fascism.” How well it rolls off the tongue!

    Whatever the reasoning or the motives, we have been betrayed. The trahison des clercs yet again.

    Nicholas von Hoffman a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky, due out this month from Nation Books.

  5. My copy of Bob Woodward’s RAGE arrived yesterday. After pouring into the book, I quickly went to the index and table of contents to read several sections on the general election. This discussion today is about the Electoral College, right? There is no mention at all about the Electoral College during Woodward’s recount of all the interviews with Trump. The President said to Woodward he surprised all his critics in 2016, and he said we will surprise everyone again in November. The only surprise I remember is that though Hillary won the popular vote, she lost The Electoral College. I find it curious, that as detailed and inquisitive Woodward is once again in his latest book, there is no mention of The Electoral College even when the President gloated about his surprise.

  6. Vernon,

    “So, Marv, what do you propose activists do? All sorts of Democratic activist groups are pounding the media and the roads and streets. What shall the rest of us fools do?”

    I’m sure if Tony Judt was alive he would agree with me that you won’t do anything that will be effective. As I have mentioned, previously, like Nazi Germany, there is little or no, as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer so well put: CIVIC COURAGE.

  7. Peggy, that distinction is irrelevant since a republic and democracy mean the same thing.

    Rural Indiana is the externality of capitalism because they receive the direct byproduct of our pollution corporations. They get the brunt of our dirty air, water, and soil. As generation after generation moves into the urban communities to avoid their deteriorating lifestyle, you’d think they would start making changes, but it’s only entrenched their resentment of the urbanites. They’ve not woken up to the fact that their political beliefs need revising because they are voting against their self-interests.

    Fear of change keeps rural folks stuck. These same fears keep many people stuck, and it lets others take advantage of them. Even idiots like Trump can seize the concerns of the people who collectively vote against their self-interests.

    Religion uses these fears as well. Churchgoers are paying a pastor to reinforce their fears by fearing the power presiding over this entire mess and by telling them this power lies without instead of within. It’s not us versus them because there is just the US.

    This analysis has already taken place behind closed doors with the oligarchs. They are well aware of what they are doing and are briefed by the IC. They fear democracy (people power) on all its levels and have since our inception. They also know that despite the electoral college restricting democracy, the people still can overtake them if our willpower became strong enough. This is what Marv is encouraging people to do, but we have layer upon layer upon layer of control mechanisms keeping us in place. The number one control mechanism is our media.

    I met some bright people in North Carolina who were also scared to death that “looters and rioters” would be coming for their stuff. You couldn’t find 9mm ammunition in any of the stores because gun owners were stockpiling.


  8. Marv,

    Your sense of reality is quite different from most. We have plenty of civic courage. What we lack is youth and the opportunity to use it other than at the ballot box. We can all write letters and sign petitions and make calls, etc., etc. But the vote in an honest election is the real voice of the people. Call them fools if you must, but compared to purposeless rants, their courage outshines any pseudo-intellectual whining.

  9. Vernon,

    You gotta be kidding. “We have plenty of civic courage.” Please point it out to me. Why doesn’t the media call Trump a fascist and explain how he is using his seemingly support for Israel as a basis for keeping the Jewish leaders quiet about the “runaway” anti-Semitism.

    By the way, how is your novel coming?

  10. Todd; “a republic and democracy is the same thing” gets an argument from me. Per my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “republic, a political order whose head of state is not a monarch and in modern times us usually a president.” “democracy, government exercised either directly by the people or through election officials.”

    The GOP has bastardized the current Republican political party by act, if not by word, turned our head of state into a monarch and allow him to run his monarchy by chaos and lies. They have ignored democracy, Rule of Law and the Constitution to bring us to this point.

    The Democratic elected Representatives in the House are trying with their shaky majority and their minority in the Senate to give the people the power and protection promised to us by the Constitution.

    I am seeing a return to comments on this blog that Democrats are doing nothing and what we are doing is wrong or not enough. The majority of commenters here are doing as much as we possibly can and we have not stopped speaking out and taking what action we can since 2015 when Trump came down that escalator. We do not always agree but we do not lose sight of our primary goal to unite in the fight against Donald Trump.

  11. By the dictionary definition of a republic, government without a monarch, we used to be one now we are not, we have King Trump.

    King Trump made it perfectly clear on ABC last night that he has no intention of being President or King for Democrats. Apparently we are too poor on the average for admission to the castle of Mara Lago.

  12. While we play nuanced and definitional games and call one another out Trump blatantly lies and continues to profit via our political misdemeanors. I again urge my fellow contributors to use our time and energy in defeating the common foes, Trump and his enablers. Success or failure in academic brawls will be meaningless if we fail to stop this wannabe Hitler from assuming another four year term who if elected will assume that we have given him a green light to an authoritarian future, one in which such academic gamers may earn a visit from the gestapo.

    So muzzle those who wish to exercise their First Amendment rights? No, just a voluntary and strategic timeout for the next seven weeks lest there be no First Amendment rights to exercise afterwards as Trump completes Bannon’s admittedly Leninist effort to “destroy the administrative state” and (by popular or electoral vote or both) assumes the role of Big Brother.

  13. Gerald, I have no plans to stop writing about the problems or the solutions because I don’t think anybody will vote or not vote in Indiana based on my best argument. Nor do I believe that you will persuade voters. We don’t have that much influence.

    Folks in Indiana can’t even get the Socialist Equality Party on the ticket or the Green Party. I don’t see why not since the Democratic Party doesn’t have a chance to carry this state. Once again, it’s no wonder so many registered voters don’t make it to the polls and why there are so many unregistered voters.

    The only way to get people to vote in this country would require a mandate or get penalized on your taxes or not be able to renew your license. There would have to be a contingency punishment or negative consequence.

    Simultaneously, we make voting mandatory; we offer more choices with a governmental system built on Democratic Socialism and finance campaigns through public financing, making all public official bribes punishable by fines and prison time.

  14. How deeply disappointing that since the beginning of the republic Southern yahoos and whiners – and those who exploit them – have done such an effective job of tilting the power of the government they despise to work on their behalf. How shortsighted of our founders not to have seen the potential of the South for mischief, for imposing their brand of evil on commerce, and for taking the government in so many directions that violate the self-interest of the nation. Did they not perceive the depth of the racism that motivated those men? Did they not see that these right wingers’ cause was better served (and still is) by ignorance rather than knowledge? Did they not foresee that this thorn in the side of the Republic would grow, like a parasite, into an abscess that would endanger the political health of the nation?

    Although there are millions of Southerners who don’t buy into the subversive agenda, those in power have little problem with it, as proven by the conduct of the president (now a Southerner) and the Senate over the past four years. Their minds will not be changed. Their hearts will not be changed. Their lust for power and the spoils of corruption will continue to grow. Their ambitions are diametrically opposed to those of us who understand and care about democracy, equal justice, and the rule of law.

    What I’m suggesting is that these people have earned the right to rule their own country in their own way. They’ve never wanted anything else. Then they can wallow in the murky morality and hyper hypocrisy and perpetual cruelty that seem to meet their needs while, perhaps, doing less damage to the rest of us. If you disagree, please begin your argument with your plan for reducing the hatred of Southerners of power for those of us who disagree with them. Follow that, if you will, with a scheme for having them re-consider their abdication/perversion of the rule of law.

  15. Terry,

    “What I’m suggesting is that these people have earned the right to rule their own country in their own way. They’ve never wanted anything else. Then they can wallow in the murky morality and hyper hypocrisy and perpetual cruelty that seem to meet their needs while, perhaps, doing less damage to the rest of us.

    If you disagree, please begin your argument with your plan for reducing the hatred of Southerners of power for those of us who disagree with them. Follow that, if you will, with a scheme for having them re-consider their abdication/perversion of the rule of law.”

    Unfortunately, you couldn’t have stated the over-riding issue better. Your last sentence says it all.

  16. Todd – As an old sign carrier for First Amendment rights, I would be the last to tell you to stop exercising such a franchise. I am asking for a strategic pause with an existentialist election in mind. As for how to get more voters to the polls, I buy your means and any others that will ensure greater participation, and as to ultimate goals, I favor Nordic democracy – but first of all we must in my view be in a position to realize both our intermediate and ultimate goals, and that requires a win in November which in turn requires a positioning to make such a win possible, temporarily suspending our within disagreements until November 4, 2020, which I consider a small sacrifice to make in view of the dreadful alternative which I have set out earlier.

  17. Conservatives and liberals claim they know why the Electoral College was adopted. Both offer up revisionist, politicized history instead of the real reason it was adopted, a reason that is clearly outlined in the Federalist Papers.

    The Founding Fathers had a deep fear of democracy and want to build checks into the system to combat runaway democracy. Those checks include separation of powers and staggered national elections, etc. But another check was the Electoral College.

    The Founders did not think the average voter had the intelligence, temperament or the knowledge to pick the Chief Executive, i.e. the President. So they designed a system in which voters (actually whoever the state legislature designates) pick a slate of electors who then meet in state capitols to debate about who would be the best President and cast their ballots. Interestingly, Alexander Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers that the independence of the EC would also ensure that someone not be elected who is controlled by a foreign government.

    Electors were never intended to be a rubber stamp for the public’s will. (Electors were not even limited to choosing candidates who were running for office.) From Day 1, the EC has never operated as intended by the Founders. It quickly became a rubber stamp for the popular vote within the states.

    The EC as it operates today has positives and negatives. A huge positive is that any recount is confined to a state or two. Considering our system of federalism, a nationwide recount would be a nightmare But it has some negatives as well. The vote of people living in competitive states is much more important than those living in non-competitive states.

    The EC does give a slight advantage to more rural states due to how the electors are divvied up, but that advantage is slight.

    Right now the Rs are loving the EC while the Ds want to abolish it. That’s not a function of ideology though. Like gerrymandering, which party supports it is a function of which party is currently benefitting from the system. Once the Ds start winning Texas regularly, the Rs may well be the ones wanting to get rid of the EC.

  18. Gerald,

    I agree with your assessment. I don’t want to hurt your effort. I’m taking my voice somewhere else. I believe there are answers to Donald Trump outside of partisan politics. Since that’s the case, by staying, I’ll just be putting a damper on your efforts for no good reason, since the blog has never supported my position.

    Good luck! I mean it.

  19. Thank you, Paul, for focus on Sheila’s argument for today: The efficacy of the Electoral College and our democracy. Your observations are consistent with mine.

  20. I really do not have decided bias one way or another concerning the Electoral College. Was it at least partially concession to slave states?As was the 3/5 compromise. Was it a concession to small states? Indeed it was. Delaware would not have been the first state without the Electoral College and equal representation in the Senate. BUT THE CITATION OF BOTH BEING UNDEMOCRATIC WOULD GIVE THE FOUNDERS A SURPRISED CHUCKLE! THEY CREATED A FEDERAL REPUBLIC…NOT A DEMOCRACY. STATES WERE AND ARE CO-EQUAL IN A FEDERAL UNION. MORE THAN 1/4 OF STATES WOULD HAVE TO SACRIFICE THE EC THUMB ON THE SCALE GIVES THEM CHOOSING THEM. To approve a constitutional amendment it would their votes. Two small population states, Maine and Nebraska, have proportional elector allotment. An extraordinary altruistic thing for them. And about all you can hope. I regard find raising for this cause an expensive employer of several folks tilting at wind mills at contributors expense. I would also consider such a diversion from the important question of the day a true delight to the Russians. Folks, the rule of this game will not change.

  21. It’s nice to think that a democracy and a republic are the same. Functionally the difference is this: In a democracy everyone has the ability to have a say in what we do, either through a vote for leaders or directly on each issue as it arises. In our republic, it was clear from the start that many “people” would not be deemed equal enough to have a vote and therefore had no say whatsoever in what was done. As long as we have the Electoral College, it will remain so.

  22. I haven’t read your blog in months, but decided to check it out today to see IF you wrote about the peace agreement signed yesterday, but NO! I see you’re still beating that old horse – the electoral college- to death. Biden is toast. You’re even starting to lose the Never-Trumpers!

  23. Becky – you cannot call this a true peace agreement without Palestinians – they did not help to craft the agreement which allows Israel to annex parts of the West Bank.

    • Noura Erakat, a human rights attorney and assistant professor at Rutgers University, “This is an Israeli plan. It consolidates all of its colonial takings for the past five decades, and it markets them somehow as a peace plan… the fact that Palestinian weren’t even there today should make clear to everybody this is not a deal. This is a plan to consolidate Israel’s colonial takings.”
    • Diana Buttu, a Palestinian-Canadian lawyer and former spokesperson for the PLO, wrote in Newsweek: “Lasting peace requires justice and valuing Palestinian lives and needs equally to those of Israelis. It means allowing Palestinians to exercise their rights, including the right to live in freedom and genuine self-determination in their homeland. And it must be rooted in fairness and international law, not what extremist Israeli leaders say is acceptable.”

    Who the heck is Danielle Pletka?

  24. I still hold hope for the National Popular Compact where states would award all their electoral votes to which ever presidential candidate won the popular vote nationally. That would eliminate the need for a constitutional amendment. Fourteen states with 189 electoral college votes (including two smaller states) have already voted for the compact. When states with 270 electoral votes join the compact, having decided this is the way they would award their electoral votes, the current electoral college equation would be neutralized.

    Small states argue that eliminating the Electoral College will cause presidential candidates to campaign only in more populace states. That’s already the case and will continue with or without the current Electoral College formula. It’s also the case that candidates already gravitate to the most persuadable, vote-rich states, narrowing their focus further. Thankfully (and sometimes not so thankfully) modern communications via TV, radio, and the internet bring the candidates to all of our living rooms daily. The Founding Fathers would be amazed.

    I just want the U.S to live up to its ideal that on election day, our votes ALL count equally.

  25. Becky; when Trump ends his White Nationalist, racist, bigoted, violence in the streets by his federal troops against Americans of all colors in a peace agreement, I will agree with him. Our own “dead horse” dilemmas should be his first concern. But we already have enough Trump Towers in this country; no money to be made here by his family.

    Personally; I welcome your view, we do need to know what Republicans find to support about Trump as the election looms closer.

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