I was Zooming with some friends, and one of them said something about not having an opinion on the electoral college and I said, “Oh, I can help you with that, it’s garbage.” And she laughed and said, “Okay, well, that clears that up.” And then they were like, “no, seriously, how does it work, how can you win the popular vote but lose the election?” And I started explaining a few things and sharing some anecdata and they were like, “No. HOW IS THAT ACCURATE?” And one of them said “You should do a podcast about the electoral college and I said, “well, I talked about it some when I talked about the Southern Strategy,” and they said, “No, it needs a whole episode.”
And I thought about this a while, and I thought maybe that’s not a bad idea. Some of my listeners may be well-versed in the electoral college and how it works and what it does, but some may be just aware that it has something to do with how we elect the president, because honestly that’s all MOST Americans know. So, in honor of these friends I am going to devote the next few minutes to explaining the electoral college (in an admittedly biased way). If it is useful to you, I invite you to share it with all those people in your life who, like most of us, have absolutely no idea what it is or how it works. Also, if it helps make sense of anything for you, leave a review!
The United States Electoral College is the group of presidential electors required by the Constitution to form every four years for the sole purpose of electing the president. Each state appoints electors equal in number to its congressional delegation. Understanding that electoral votes are based on Congressional representation is CRUCIAL to understanding the electoral college (and a lot about Congress and law making in general, but we can get to that another time). We’ll get to the math of that in a minute, but the first thing I need you to understand is that each state is assigned a certain number of electoral votes based on their representation in Congress.
Of the current 538 electors, an absolute majority of 270 or more electoral votes is required to elect the president.
There are certain questions people often ask about the electoral college: why do we have it? How can people who lose the popular vote win the election? Why doesn’t the majority rule?
These are important questions with even more important answers, and in the last fifty years we have REALLY seen why it matters.
In 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected president in an electoral landslide. He won 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. But those numbers are deceiving. Reagan actually only won 50.7% of the popular vote while Carter won 41.7%. How are these things possible?
Also, since 1980 we have had a relatively even split between Republican and Democratic presidents. We had two terms of Reagan, one term of George H. W. Bush, two terms of Clinton, two terms of George W. Bush, two terms of Barack Obama, and one term of Donald Trump. In all that time however, there were only four times when a Republican won the popular vote, and two of them were Reagan. The popular vote tends to favor Democrats, but the electoral college protects Republican power. So this is a highly partisan issue.
Most states, except for Maine and Nebraska, have a winner-take-all approach to the electoral college, which exacerbates the difference between the popular vote and the electoral vote. What that means is that whoever wins the popular vote IN THAT STATE gets ALL the electoral votes, REGARDLESS of how close the vote was. So, if Texas , which has 38 electoral votes, and tends to go red, had a popular vote of 48% Democrat and 50% Republican, which it has been coming closer and closer to doing in recent years, all 38 of those votes go to the Republican candidate.
The Founders in general were not huge fans of direct democracy. They electoral college was specifically designed so that the average person was not electing the president. But more specifically, at the heart of the electoral college, is slavery. As the Wilfred Codrington III in the Atlantic explains, “The populations in the North and South were approximately equal, but roughly one-third of those living in the South were held in bondage. Because of its considerable, nonvoting slave population, that region would have less clout under a popular-vote system. The ultimate solution was an indirect method of choosing the president, one that could leverage the three-fifths compromise, the Faustian bargain they’d already made to determine how congressional seats would be apportioned. With about 93 percent of the country’s slaves toiling in just five southern states, that region was the undoubted beneficiary of the compromise, increasing the size of the South’s congressional delegation by 42 percent. When the time came to agree on a system for choosing the president, it was all too easy for the delegates to resort to the three-fifths compromise as the foundation. The peculiar system that emerged was the Electoral College.” So from the beginning the South had advantages – it had votes for a population that could not vote.
As Codrington further explains, “What’s clear is that, more than two centuries after it was designed to empower southern whites, the Electoral College continues to do just that. The current system has a distinct, adverse impact on black voters, diluting their political power. Because the concentration of black people is highest in the South, their preferred presidential candidate is virtually assured to lose their home states’ electoral votes. Despite black voting patterns to the contrary, five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably red in recent presidential elections. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. It’s the precise reason for the success of the southern strategy.”
The defense for the electoral college is that it protects small states – and we’ll get to that, it does, in a sense – but the strategy of the electoral college has always been as much disenfranchisement as it has been protecting rural voters. It’s a lucky happenstance that those two things go hand-in-hand. The more you disenfranchise urban, black voters and other voters of color the easier it is to bolster rural white votes, which is precisely what the electoral college does, which is, by the way, precisely why Republicans want to see it kept exactly the way it is.
Okay. So the electoral college has a craptacular history. But that doesn’t explain why it is so problematic TODAY. It seems pretty intuitive, right? Big states with big populations have way more votes that states with small populations (New York outweighs Wyoming CONSIDERABLY) so that sounds about right, right? The states with the most people have the most power in the electoral college.
One would think so, but this is where it comes back to the point I made earlier about electoral votes being based on congressional representation. That’s important to understand because what you need to know about congressional representation is that it is not proportional AT ALL.
Here are the rules – there are 435 members in the House of Representatives. There can be no fewer than one Representative per state, and no more than one for every 30,000 persons.
Here we can see how the proportions automatically get a little wild. Regardless of how small you are you get representation – which is necessary, obviously. But those with bigger populations do not get “scaled up” or proportional representation. It’s capped for the more heavily populated areas. The more heavily populated areas actually have FEWER representatives per capita than the sparsely populated areas even though they have a lot more representatives.
If we wanted fair and equal representation where everybody had equal voice the House would have to be MUCH bigger to accommodate for small states being represented and larger states being represented proportionally.
This may not seem like a big problem on its face, but in practice it means that smaller, rural states have much more representation in the House than more populated states do. Those rural areas have an outsized voice for their size, economy, and population.
On the one hand, this protects smaller states. On the other hand, it kind of keeps more populated states that are the center of the economy, at the mercy of places with very few people that honestly don’t add much to the nation’s finances. Now, I am not one to judge people on what they produce financially, but this makes a difference in how we view policy.
People in urban, densely populated areas tend to be more liberal, and there are a few reasons for that. For one, these areas tend to be more diverse and culturally inclusive. But, perhaps more important for policy, when you live in close quarters with a lot of people, you see the importance of things like social safety nets, networks, and policies that take care of communities. When you are part of a large community you tend to favor policies that will buoy that community. Urban dwellers appreciate policies that benefit the group because they are part of a group.
Rural dwellers don’t necessarily have that perspective. They are more isolated, and while the myth of the small town is strong in America, rural dwellers tend to be more isolated and not dependent on the community. They don’t see the need for policies that benefit the group because they are not a part of a densely populated group. Living in relative isolation they don’t necessarily see the need for policies that buoy the community. It’s really ironic because the appeal of the small town is supposed to be that the community is tight knit, and everybody knows each other and takes care of each other – but those who live in those communities don’t favor policies that support communities.
Of course, I’m speaking in really broad generalizations, here. There are plenty of people in urban areas who support more conservative policies and people in rural areas who vote blue, but the trends are that urban voters vote blue and rural voters vote red.
Okay – so what does this have to do with the electoral college?
Go back to the beginning – electoral votes are based on your representation in congress. Which MEANS that just like in congress, rural areas have an outsized voice in the electoral college.
I have noted before, California has 55 electoral votes. The population of California is 39.51 million. That means each Californian (assuming each Californian could vote) is worth 0. (5 0s) 00000139205 of an electoral vote. Wyoming has 3 electoral votes. Obviously much less than California. But it has a population of 578, 259. So one vote in Wyoming is worth 0. (5 0s) 00000518798. If you do the math there a Wyoming vote is worth more than 3.5 times more than a California vote. For everybody’s vote to be weighted the same California would need about 205 electoral votes.
This is why the GOP is so adamant that the electoral college remain intact. It enshrines conservative power.
Everybody knows that Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are the states to watch during election season (more on swing states in a minute), but in many ways it is those small rural red states that have decided elections a number of times.
So now, let’s talk about swing states!
Because of the winner-take-all approach to the electoral college in almost all states there are some states that are considered safely “red” or “blue” and nobody really bothers campaigning there. California is a reliably blue state, even though it gave is Reagan and Schwarzenegger, two notable Republican governors, and New York is a reliably blue state, which is misleading because it is really New York City that is reliably blue surrounded by much more moderate to conservative leaning rural farm areas, plus Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester. Texas is historically red, though those margins are getting thinner and thinner. As a result, there isn’t a lot of campaigning in those states even though they have some of the most electoral votes. States that are reliably red or blue are often ignored during the campaign season. Republican presidential candidates don’t do a lot of campaigning in California because those electoral votes are going to go to the Democrat. The downside of this for voters is that a Republican vote in California basically doesn’t count. It doesn’t mean anything. Same in New York. All those rural voters in New York who consistently vote Republican are basically throwing away their presidential vote because the city will carry New York’s vote (that’s why the down ballot matters so much!).
So who are these people campaigning to? Who is deciding the election?
The election basically comes down to a few states that are not reliably red or blue every election. States like Florida, Michigan, Maine, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and recently Georgia, and Colorado are not sure bets.
The voters in these states decide the election. Voters know their votes count because their states electoral votes can sway the election. Swing states are where elections are won or lost so those votes are more highly sought after than the votes in foregone states. Because in the foregone states not every vote really counts for that much.
Finally, there is something that has come up this election that some people are worried about more so now than they have been in the past and that is the idea of “faithless electors.” a faithless elector is an elector who does not vote for the candidates for president for whom they pledged to vote and instead votes for another person or abstains from voting. As part of United States presidential elections, each state selects the method by which its electors are to be selected, which in modern times has been based on a popular vote in most states, and generally requires its electors to have pledged to vote for the candidates of their party if appointed.
The reason this has been in the news recently is a) in 2016 Republicans worried they may have faithless electors who wouldn’t vote for Trump even though he won, and b) now in 2020, Trump is encouraging Republican legislators and governors to put Trump electors in place who will vote for him regardless of what the outcome of the state’s popular election was.
Honestly, faithless electors are not generally a thing we worry too much about. We’re just freaked out about it now because for once the electoral college did not work in favor of the GOP and they are freaking out about it and trying desperately to find some OTHER way to steal the election.
So in short, the electoral college was designed to protect small states and slave states. It was also designed specifically to be undemocratic be keeping the “regular citizen” from deciding who was going to be president and vice president and putting that decision in the hands of a select few. It was specifically designed to be an anti-democratic system.
And the way it works today is to privilege rural areas and put the election in the hands of a few swing states where votes matter. That makes a difference in campaign fundraising, campaign spending, and campaign messaging.
Finally, I’m always amused by people who throw their hands in the air and say, “well, what system would you have us use in its place?” Umm…a democratic one? As if the idea of one person, one vote is just too overwhelming for some people to think about.
And the response to that is that then big cities will control the elections. But that’s not it – PEOPLE will control the elections. And people happen to be concentrated in cities. And I say this as somebody is most definitely not in a big city.
Listen, things are wild out there and it shouldn’t take a degree in poli sci to understand how we choose a president and vice president.
When people learn about this stuff, they are always shocked. Why don’t we learn about this in government classes, they say? Well, that’s a good question. First, did you learn about it? Or did you just forget? If you forgot, why wasn’t it impressed upon you that this was important? Or did you just learn that the electoral college is the system by which we elect the president, and each state has some votes and it’s not a popular vote. Did you learn where electoral votes come from? What it means to “protect small states” or the history of the electoral college? Who benefits from you not knowing how the electoral college works – those in power, that’s who? If more people knew how the electoral college worked, we’d be PISSED. And that’s not conducive to a harmonious high school government class. Always ask yourself if somebody benefits from you not knowing something. If the answer is yes, then you were kept in the dark.
So, my friends from earlier this week, I hope I did what you asked. You can always send me an email or leave a comment. Or anybody else, for that matter. This is complicated stuff.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.