What is the Purpose of the Electoral College?
The Electoral College is meant to protect minority voting interests from the majority and to prevent special interests not in the public interest. In all cases the purpose of much of the Constitution that creates the United States’ “Mixed-Republic“, including the Electoral College, is to safeguard our Republic against different forms of tyranny and corruption.
The problem is that rule changes over time have largely undone the Electoral College’s original aristocratic purpose by creating a winner-take-all system. Below we discuss the purpose and fairness of the Electoral College and the winner-take-all system and muse on other options.
Is the Electoral College Fair?
While the Electoral College’s purpose is virtuous and fair on paper (it creates an appointed aristocracy who chooses the President; putting popular democratic sentiment aside for the good of the country), the original system isn’t used in its original form any more.
Instead, since the 1820’s the Electoral College has been augmented by state-based rules and customs we call the “winner-take-all” system (which awards votes to state-based majorities, which ironically doesn’t protect state-based minority interests).
Electoral College Vs. Winner-Take-All
In other words, the winner-take-all system and Electoral College aren’t the same thing.
- The Electoral College is an aristocracy to pick the President as called for by the Constitution.
- The winner-take-all system is state based laws, rules, and custom that say the President should be picked by democratic elections in each state via a state-based majority popular vote.
Which ever one we think is best aside, it is notable that the founders didn’t create a direct democracy, they purposefully created a Republic meant to avoid the tyranny of the majority and to protect minority voter interests.
Given this, it only stands to reason that we would ask not only is the EC fair, but is the actual system practice fair as well?
TIP: The popular vote is an advisory vote, but we can see in practice that the advisory vote is almost always followed. Our voting system is complex and don’t cover every detail here, but you can learn more about how the Electoral College works here.
TIP: In our current winner-take-all system 48 states and D.C. award all their electoral votes to the party that won that state’s popular vote. This is true even if that state wins by only 1 vote. The majority of each state matters 100%, the minority not at all. It isn’t that their vote doesn’t count; it does in many ways, it is just that it doesn’t win elections.
TIP: Voting works differently for the President than it does for other positions. Here we are focusing primarily on the winner-take-all system, the founders generally agreed that direct democracy worked best at the local level and that higher positions should be appointed (like we do with Supreme Court Judges). Learn more about how voting works in the United States.
Is the Current Voting System Fair?
Whether or not we consider the original system fair, winner-take-all fair, or another system more fair is somewhat a matter of semantics and opinion.
However, to the extent one considers the original system “fair”, they have to consider the current system “unfair” as the current one mostly undoes the purpose of the original.
To restate the above, the voting system of today (with its winner-take-all system) doesn’t really fulfill its initial purposes of protecting minority voting interests, nor, in many cases, does it protect against special interests (see Citizens United and Lobbying).
Rather, today the system mainly works as a handicap for the less populous rural states (which at times depend on the handicap to win; see Trump won the electoral college but lost the election).
That, paired with advents like gerrymandering (which also effects Congressional, State, and Local elections), mean that what we have today is pretty far from what the founders had in mind, and pretty far away from what one would causally consider “fair“.
The winner-take-all system simply favors state-based majorities over national majorities, and that is hard to defend using logic and reason (even with arguments for federalism considered).
Frankly, if that was what the founders wanted, they would have said so. It isn’t, it was more like a result of popular demand on a state-level by States’ Rights factions (Progressive Reformers and Solid South Social Conservatives; who also notably successfully won everyone the right to democratically elect senators).
Any good intentions or arguments for democracy aside, the grand result of all this is still an ironic tyranny of a majority. The system doesn’t fully adhere to cautionary tales of tyrannical majorities, it just trades one majority for another and calls it Republicanism and Federalism.
Some may think a purely democratic system is best, some may think the current state-based democratic system is best, but the founders thought that none of the aforementioned were best. In fact, the second Generation of Americans essentially waited until the founders were gone to start us on our current path.
Ultimately, opinions and rebuttals aside, the result of the above is that our current state-based winner-take-all rules and customs can be shown to be unfair using the same exact logic that is used to justify the framer’s creating a Republic with an electoral college in the first place and the exact same argument given [in these days by Republicans] against favoring a national popular vote… as in all cases, from Plato to Madison to today, the arguments for and against democracy are the same.
Consider: Red district/blue district and gerrymandering. Here we often get maps that have been drawn to ensure majority interests. Minorities aren’t protected. Just look at “the black belt.”
Consider: Strict voter ID which favors those in demographics who are more likely to have IDs and excludes those who aren’t. Minorities aren’t protected.
Consider: When corporations and the ultra wealthy donate and lobby, minority interests and the general will aren’t represented over corporate wills. Minorities aren’t protected. Etc.
If The System isn’t “Fair” Why Do We Use it?
So, if we know that the system isn’t “fair” by some measures, why do we do winner-take-all and not the original system or the national popular vote?
The answer should be obvious already: politics.
Namely, the national popular vote means cities win, the winner-take-all favors the less populous rural states, and politicians rarely want to change the EC rules or Gerrymandering after they get in power.
It really isn’t a grand conspiracy, and it is hard to agree on what a better system would be, but certainly acting like the founders created the winner-take-all system or that modern Republicans are being Republican by supporting it is annoyingly disingenuous.
The bottom line here is that much like the three-fifths compromise, a ruling that was originally meant to protect the minority has become a special interest over time. Thus, where the Electoral College satisfies the Federalist #10 and #68 written by Madison and Hamilton respectively, the system in practice arguably doesn’t.
To those who support the system, consider, neither 2016 Presidential Candidate got 50% of the vote. There was no minority or majority win, just a divisive duopoly driven by special interests.
In words, neither majorities nor special interests were really prevented against in 2016, nor was this the case in 2000. That isn’t “fair”, but the hard part here isn’t spotting the problem, it is agreeing on and implementing a solution.
How the Electoral College Works.
IS IT FAIR? Should small states have more power? Yes, certainly. But, should those states be forced to vote with the state majority? No, of course not, especially in a close race. The winner-take-all approach is an arguably corrupt custom that breaks the same rule-of-reason-and-fairness that the national popular vote would. The problem seems obvious, but a perfect fix is difficult. The current system simply says “if things are close, Republicans win.” That isn’t fair, but it has resulted in about 50% of Presidents being Democrats and 50% being Republicans, which is “fair in some ways.” Likewise, it wouldn’t be fair to let populous states decide the Presidential election while disenfranchising rural voters. The current system isn’t fair; it disenfranchises minority voters in regions and states.
The Popular Vote vs. the Electoral College. The right-wing likes to advocate for our Republican system. And rightly so. At its core, it offers vital protections. However, they rarely ever tell the full story of strict voter ID, gerrymandering, and the fact that the winner-take-all custom favors Red states, sometimes even unfairly. It treats their state majorities in the same way they don’t want the national majority treated. This is a states’ rights issue, but it sets a double standard.
How Might we Change With Voting in the United States?
It is easy to see that the College is fair and smart on paper, and the founder’s documents make it clear that their intention was to prevent majority rule and special interests. However, with state-based winner-take-all custom, is not the system the founders intended and is arguably not “fair.”
The founders didn’t intend the people to vote for the President or Senators, hence the electors. So, acting as though the founders invented the winner-take-all approach is a little disingenuous.
Rather, the current system favors Republicans in elections where neither party can pull off a landslide. However, favoring majorities isn’t necessarily a better solution. Going by the national popular vote would simply flip the injustice from red-team to blue-team. Nothing about that is more fair.
This is to say, while I think we can pretty clearly after discussion show the current system is not “fair”, I don’t have a perfect suggestion for what would be “more fair”. That said, we do speculate and share the ideas of others below.
TIP: The simplest way for a special interest to exert power is to participate in democracy. Think about that for a second. For a fringe faction to take power from a King requires enough force to best their military and stage a coup. Taking it from a Democracy requires political action and more votes or money than the opposition. The President used to be elected directly and so did Senators. Party bosses used to have more control over parties (although, Bernie). Now more power is held by the people in the primaries. The States’ Rights factions and Progressive factions have moved us toward a more democratic and less aristocratic form of government since the 1820’s. I’d like to tell you we are better off for it, and we are in some ways but the founders and Plato’s Republic would suggest that things aren’t as simple as that. See The American Party System: A Lament Progressives’ effort to weaken parties has harmed our democracy. Keep in mind this is also true for the progressively socially conservative States’ Rights factions. See Plato’s How Democracy leads to Tyranny. Or see Why the founders choose a Republic. The Populists sometimes want collective democracy, and sometimes want states’ rights democracy, but the founders thought there was more wisdom in Republican aristocracy at the highest levels of government. Time will show us who was right. In my opinion, our move toward democracy (be it ALEC, Citizens United, Winner-take-all, or the weakening of Union Power and Party Bosses) has negatively effected on our democratic ideals (paradoxical effects).
FACT: 1824 was the first election in which the majority of states used a statewide winner-take-all voting method for choosing their presidential electors. Please note that this was one of the most destructive elections in history and it divided our country. Soon after, the country entered the Civil War. Red team/blue team politics has been divisive ever since. Before 1824, the country had been in “an Era of Good Feelings” in a nearly unified one-party system.
FACT: Only the youngest founders were still around when the system was put in practice. Jefferson died in 1826. The second generation of Americans like Clay, Calhoun, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, etc. put the winner-take-all system in place. Even today, many “northern” states still reject the state-based custom. The custom is on weaker footing than most people believe.
Adam Ruins Everything – Why the Electoral College Ruins Democracy. The right-wing likes to advocate for our Republican system. At its core, it offers vital protections. However, they rarely ever tell the full story about strict voter ID, gerrymandering, and the fact that the winner-take-all custom favors Red states sometimes even unfairly as it treats their state majorities in the exact same way they don’t want the national majority treated.
How Can We Make Voting More Fair?
Keeping in mind I don’t feel there is one “best system” (although something with a checkable receipt and block chain that protects minority and majority interests is probably a good direction), here are some ideas:
Fair voting solutions include ideas like improving primaries, addressing strict voter ID and gerrymandering, run-off voting, and no-confidence voting.
Another thought is that electors could vote proportionally to the state popular vote in instances where no clear majority is won. Again, we have to deal with the will of majorities and minorities instead of what is best for the nation.
There is a lot of wiggle room to make elections fairer, but that requires getting both parties on board. Historically agreement between parties has been problematic. The problem is that there is little incentive to change a system that is working. We don’t need reactionary solutions that focus on the popular vote; we need more safeguards to ensure those elected represent the general will of the people as a whole and not just the will of a particular minority or majority.
Winner Take All vs. Proportional Primaries – STUFF YOU SHOULD KNOW.
MPR News: Instant Runoff Voting Explained. People should be able to vote for more than one candidate to express their order of preference.
Labour’s No Confidence Vote In Jeremy Corbyn (using the U.K. voting system as an example). People should be able to vote “no confidence.” More than half of voting eligible Americas didn’t vote in the past 2016 election.