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October 2004
Preserving the Balance: Understanding the Electoral College
By Beth Gould


Electoral College Projections for 2004 Presidential Election
States colored black: projected Democrat; white: projected Republication; grey: swing states

In these tense days before the November Presidential election, most people have seen U.S. maps filled in like a red and blue patchwork quilt, projections of which candidates will win each state. There’s plenty of talk about ‘battleground states’, with the candidates paying so much attention to Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana and Missouri that it would seem that these sparsely populated states held all the power in the upcoming election. And in a way, they do. But Louisiana has a population of 4.5 million while California has 35 million; why is their opinion so important? Because the Electoral College says so. Much maligned, the Electoral College is a display of the federal balance of power and compromise. It was the fairest way that the Founding Fathers could devise to elect a president that could preside over the entire nation, preserving the balance between the executive and legislative branches, and between states’ autonomy and the federal government. Put into place by Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution at a time when 13 states comprised the Union, and later refined by the 12th and 23rd Amendments, the Electoral College serves to make the U.S. a republic rather than a democracy, but also helps to ensure stability and the legitimacy of the office of president.

What is the Electoral College?
Each state is allocated a number of Electors equal to the number of its Senators (always 2), plus the number of its Representatives (which may change each decade according to the size of each state’s population as determined by the Census). Prior to each election, the political parties (or independent candidates) in each state submit to their chief election official a list of individuals pledged to their candidate for president and equal in number to the state’s allotted electoral vote. These people are called Electors.

On Election Day, people in each state cast ballots for the party slate of Electors representing their choice for president and vice president. In fact, if you look closely at the ballot when voting, you’ll see above your candidate’s name, in tiny print, the words ‘Electors for,’ which means that you aren’t actually voting for Bush, Kerry or Nader, but instead for the people pledged to vote for them on your behalf when the Electoral College convenes on the third Monday in December.

On that day the Electors meet in their respective state capitals and cast their votes—one for president and one for vice president. To prevent each state from voting only for a local candidate—the “favorite son” of their home state, which would reduce their legitimacy and the likelihood that they could properly govern the whole nation—the Electors must vote for at least one person from outside their state, either the president or the vice presidential candidate.

There isn’t much tension surrounding the outcome of this vote, because there are seldom ‘faithless’ electors (a person who votes for a different candidate than the one they are pledged to). There have been 7 such electors in U.S. history, and they have never changed the outcome of an election.

The Electoral votes are sealed and transmitted to the President of the Senate who, on the following January 6, opens and reads them before both houses of Congress. The ticket of president and vice president with the most Electoral votes, provided that it is an absolute majority (one over half the total), is declared the winner.

Why all the complex rules surrounding something as simple as voting? Wouldn’t it be easier, and more equitable, to just have a pure democracy, where everyone’s vote was counted equally, and the most popular candidate takes the prize? One of the overlooked benefits of the Electoral College is its role as a symbol of the federal system of government and representation, in which important political powers are reserved for component states, allowing them a degree of power and autonomy. The Senate was designed to represent each state equally regardless of its population, and the Electoral College was designed to represent each state’s choice for the presidency. Its abolition in favor of a nationwide popular election would lead to the nationalization of the central government to the detriment of the states. It reinforces the idea that the collective opinion of the individual state populations is more important than the national population taken as a whole.

Overrepresentation of Rural States
Because the Electoral College permits the possibility of electing a minority president, it risks a failure to reflect the national popular will. In 2000, Gore had overwhelming support in a few large states, while Bush maintained a slim popular lead in enough states to win the Electoral College. Even though Gore’s total numbers were greater, he had a narrower distribution of support, causing his eventual loss. (The blame for the disenfranchisement caused by the Florida recount and the actions of the Supreme Court are separate issues, not related to the Electoral College.)
The Founding Fathers believed that it is more important for the president to represent the widest distribution of people than the largest number, because the popular difference between the two candidates would likely be so small that either could govern effectively. Today no one region contains an absolute majority (270) of electoral votes required to elect a president, creating incentive for candidates to pull together coalitions rather than exacerbating regional differences.

The distribution of Electoral votes in the college tends to over-represent people in rural states because of the number of Electors that each state gets regardless of population. The result is that in 1988, for example, the combined voting age population (3,119,000) of the seven least populous jurisdictions of Alaska, Delaware, the District of Columbia, North and South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming carried the same voting strength in the Electoral College (21 votes) as the 9,614,000 persons of voting age in Florida, making Floridian’s votes carry about one third the weight of their counterparts.

Proponents defend the overrepresentation of rural votes by pointing out that the U.S. Senate—with two seats per state regardless of population—over-represents rural populations far more dramatically. But since there have been no serious proposals to abolish the Senate on these grounds, why should such an argument be used to abolish the lesser case of the Electoral College? Because the presidency represents the whole country? But so, as an institution, does the Senate.

Third Parties and Voter Turnout

The winner-take-all mechanism whereby the ticket that wins the most popular votes in the state wins all the Electoral votes (with the exception of Maine and Nebraska) makes it extremely difficult for third party or independent candidates to make much of a showing in the Electoral College. This restricts choices available to the electorate, reinforcing the two party system.

The Founding Fathers believed that the two party system would contribute to the political stability of the nation by protecting the presidency from transitory third party movements. The Electoral College forces third party movements into one of the two major political parties, who have every incentive to absorb them in their continual attempt to win popular majorities in the states. The result is two large, pragmatic political parties tending to the center of public opinion rather than dozens of smaller political parties catering to divergent and possibly extremist views.

A criticism of the Electoral College is that it potentially depresses voter turnout, because each state is entitled to the same number of Electoral votes regardless of how many people actually vote, giving no incentive to encourage voter participation. This enables a minority of citizens to dramatically affect the election’s outcome. This is a valid concern, and although there have been many examples of unfair voter treatment and disenfranchisement throughout U.S. history, it has yet to occur in an attempt to manipulate the Electoral College.

It is easy to criticize the Electoral College, especially when viewing a voter projection map awash in red, but as the original intention of the College was to preserve the stability of the country, we can also point to its successes. With the exception of the Civil War era, with its own exacerbating circumstances and controversies, we have never had an armed insurrection in response to a contested election. We have never had a president rejected by any region, due to the balancing power of the Electoral College. There have not been revolutions, bloodshed, or upheaval, no matter how unpopular or inept our presidents may be. If stability was the goal in the establishment of the Electoral College, we only need to look at the lack of armed conflict surrounding our elections to see that it has succeeded.

For more information on voting and the Electoral College, visit the Federal Election Commission’s website at


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