Election Universe

One Voter One Vote

August 09 2013, 21:01


Is the US electoral college violating a time-honored principle?

For  people  with only a passing knowledge of  US elections,  the whole idea of an electoral college is a source of puzzlement.  How in the world is it possible for a candidate who loses in the popular vote to still win the presidency?  Why is it that instead of the voters-at-large choosing who gets to be President, a  largely anonymous group called electors gets to do so?  Whatever happened to the “one person, one vote” principle?

While the American Founding Fathers  had sufficient reasons for instituting the electoral college system,  it is easy for one to feel that the whole thing  smacks of the tyranny of the few and that it goes against the very nature of democracy.

What exactly is the electoral college? What does it do? And why do some people think that it is an anachronism that needs to be replaced immediately?

The United States Electoral College is the body that elects the President and the Vice President of the United States every four years.  It is composed of electors who are chosen by popular vote on a state-by-state basis.  The number of electors in each state is equal to the number of members of  Congress to  which the state is entitled. The Twenty Third Amendment has granted  District of Columbia with the minimum number of electors permissible for a state, which is currently three.

There are 538 electors in total, a figure arrived at from the number of congressmen (435), senators  (100) and the three (3) from the District of Columbia.  A candidate needs a minimum of 270 electoral votes to win.

The overriding reason the electoral college exists is that the Founding Fathers believed that the popular vote could not be trusted to elect the right President.   Also, they felt that larger states such as California and Texas would essentially decide the election.  Indeed, if popular vote were the basis,  the president would be determined by how the biggie states  New York and California vote, consigning the smaller states to irrelevance.

Yet population size is hardly the indicator of a state’s importance to the Union. Midwest states, for instance,  have a low population density but are economic powerhouses which contribute significantly to the country.  Conversely, Southeast Florida has one of the highest population densities among the states and yet it could be argued that its interests do not necessarily mirror what is good for the country.

The Forefathers reasoned, sagely it seems, that just because there is a lot of people living in an area does not mean that the political agenda of such area should carry undue influence on the politics of the entire nation.

One of the most stinging criticisms leveled against the  Electoral College is  that it’s a  winner-takes-all system and that it’s skewed toward regional demographics that gives swing states  disproportionate influence in electing the nation’s top two leaders.

Indeed, candidates don’t split the number of electoral votes–the candidate with the most popular votes in a given state (and the District of Columbia) gets all the Electoral College votes.

Yet the electoral college system is not without proponents who believe that the system should stay primarily because it ensures one very important thing – the certainty of the outcome.  After all,  while  a dispute over the outcome of an Electoral College vote is possible,  it’s less likely to happen than a dispute over the popular vote.   The reason is that the winning candidate’s share of the Electoral College invariably exceeds his share of the popular vote.

Proponents of the electoral college system also argue that the setup guarantees that the winner is everybody’s president. Since no region commands enough votes to elect a president, the candidate is motivated to  make sure that his appeal transcends that of his known bailiwick and is encouraged to reach out to as many regions as possible.