[Second in a series of essays on the current political climate in the United States.
Whenever a contentious presidential election comes up, especially when the popular vote does not match the electoral results, people call for the Electoral College to be abolished. I was one of those people. I don’t think that way now, but I do think a lot of changes are needed.
First, why do we even have it? Initially, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the original plan had Congress electing a president. Congress consists of two houses – the Senate, which has two members per state so states are equally represented, and the House of Representatives, which is apportioned based on districts of roughly equal population, so it represents closer to the popular vote. More on that “roughly equal” later.
It was later decided that having Congress do this might violate the idea that the Executive Branch should be separate from the Legislative branch, so instead the citizens should make that decision. However, a straight popular vote favored larger states, so wasn’t favored by the more rural states. Instead, a hybrid system similar to be separate from Congress was decided on – the Electoral College.
In essence, rather than vote directly for president, voters instead elected a set of “electors” that more closely represented their political beliefs and concerns. These electors were not members of Congress, but were expected to be learned people who would likely have more direct knowledge of national concerns than the common populace. Remember, this is LONG before social media, the Internet, and the ready availability of information. The electors, however, were free to elect whichever candidate they saw fit.
The number of electors per state were equal to the number of senators and representatives in Congress. This maintained the hybrid model such that rural states were still represented more than their strict population numbers.
Over the years, as the common voters had access to more and more information at the national level, states changed their own internal role of electors, with most states pledging electors to vote for the candidate the popular vote chose at the statewide level. In Maine and Nebraska, two electors are pledged to the statewide vote, and the rest are pledged to each district’s vote. However, it is possible for an elector to not vote as they pledged to do so, and vote for a different candidate. Currently, there are about 31 states that now have laws to penalize, force or replace a so-called “faithless” elector.
So what are some of the current problems of the current system?
- Since I mentioned it just now, let’s start with that one. There is still the possibility of faithless electors. Nowadays it seems foolish to “elect the electors”, but that is the way the Constitution is written and it still needs to be followed until an Amendment alters it, and since the Constitution does not place rules on the electors beyond how the vote is conducted, it’s currently up to the states to try and prevent faithless electors.
- The popular vote doesn’t always win. Because the electors are not apportioned evenly according to population but there is greater weight given to less-populated states, not all votes are considered equal. While we wait for the 2020 census results, let’s use the 2019 estimates In Wyoming which has 3 electors, an elector represents about 193,000 voters, while California, which has 55 electors, an elector represents over 710,000 votes. That means a vote in Wyoming has almost 4 times the power than a vote in California. In states which tend to lean heavily to one party or another, a voter for the opposing party’s vote can essentially be meaningless.
- Some people don’t even get to be counted regardless. Originally, only voters in a state could vote, which even excluded residents of Washington, D.C. In 1961, the Twenty-Third Amendment franchised the voters of Washington, D.C. as if it was a state, but with the provision that it could never have more votes than the least-populated state, so they get three electors. Still, the United States have millions of citizens that reside in U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico, that have no electoral representation at all.
So how can we fix?
- Eliminate the concept of electors in general. The states define how the electoral votes are allocated based on votes, and that’s that. There isn’t a secondary human process, and no problem with faithless electors. They only exist now because the Constitution says so. The meaning behind them is no longer valid.
- Enfranchise the citizens who are currently not franchised, at least for the 5 major permanently inhabited territories. Apportion electoral votes under current representation apportionment, but as there are no senators the minimum number is 1. This raises a question about D.C. representation, which may need to be grandfathered in.
- Provide a number of electoral votes to the popular vote. The President represents the country as a whole – the popular vote reflects that. But keeping part of the congressional representation model also addresses the less popular states issue. It also makes sure that EVERY VOTE COUNTS. I propose that the number be no greater than that of the largest state (currently California at 55), and might be fixed at roughly 10% of the electoral college as a whole or something like that.
These might not be the only fixes, and some numbers might need tweaking, but it is a start.