The Purpose of the Electoral College

The Electoral College process defined in the U.S. Constitution, Article II, Section 1 and the 12th Amendment, has numerous purposes and should be supported rather than dismissed.  Its primary purpose is to maintain the principles of federalism upon which this unique nation is founded.  

We are a union of sovereign states which voluntarily sought to join that union under the condition that each state admitted would be co-equal with every other state.  The Electoral College method of choosing the President and Vice President ensures each state, whether large or small in land mass, resources, or population, has some voice in selecting the nation’s leaders.

We are a constitutional republic, not a democracy.  If we were to choose the President and Vice President under a “democratic” method of the nationwide popular vote, the outcome of every Presidential race would always be decided by a handful of urban centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.  We would no longer be a government “of the people” but rather a government of a few urban cities and their leaders.  How would such a government be representative of the vast numbers of rural and suburban counties in our country?

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The county-level election results for 2016 clearly demonstrate the need for the Electoral College process to protect our nation from being ruled by a few urban centers.  Of the approximately 3,100 counties in the U.S., Clinton won only 568 (18%) of them!  Trump was truly a populist candidate, winning the majority popular vote in 82% of our nation’s counties.  In fact, in ten states where Clinton won the statewide popular vote, a majority (in some cases an overwhelming majority) of the state’s counties chose Trump:  Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Virginia.   Clinton only won eleven states with both a state-wide majority and a majority of counties (California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Colombia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington).  That is hardly a referendum for the winner of the national popular vote to automatically govern all counties of the United States.  

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I will use statistics from two states Clinton won to further illustrate the risk of having the urban vote decide the Presidential race without input from all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) via the Electoral College process.  

Clinton won New York state with just over 4 million votes, including a majority win in four of New York City’s five counties (Staten Island/Richmond County cast a majority of votes for Trump).  Those four counties encompass only 246 square miles but accounted for 1.9 million Clinton votes or 46% of her statewide vote and 3% of her nationwide popular vote.  Requiring Hillary’s 1.3 million national popular vote lead over Trump to dictate the outcome of the 2016 Presidential race would essentially allow the votes of a 246 square mile piece of one state to decide the election outcome for the 3.8 million square mile landmass of the entire U.S.  Allowing one city to have such an enormous influence on the Presidential election is not only preposterous, but dangerous.  

A similar situation exists in California, where the most populous county in the country (Los Angeles County) also cast 1.9 million votes for Clinton or 3% of her total votes.  Like New York City, the Democratic Party voters living in Los Angeles could, theoretically, have decided the election results if only the national popular vote was considered.  Is it right for one county which is only .03% of the nation’s total number of counties to have a 100-fold greater influence on the election than any other county?  That is the net result of using only the nationwide popular vote to decide the Presidential race.  

Thankfully, we do NOT elect the President and Vice-President by direct popular vote.  Instead, the popular vote of each sovereign state is considered based on each state’s chosen method of elector apportionment.  

All states except Maine and Nebraska allocate electors based on the “winner takes all” method, where the winner of the state-wide popular vote receives all electors.  Maine and Nebraska have a more representative method where they allocate two electors based on the state-wide popular vote (analogous to the Senate) but the remaining electors are apportioned based on the popular vote of each legislative district (analogous to the House).  Even better than the ME-NE system might be a system of fractional apportionment by county, where the majority popular vote of each county contributes a proportional fraction of the state’s election results to the choice of total electors.  

Absent a constitutional amendment to institute the Maine-Nebraska system for the entire nation, it is unlikely that powerful “blue” states like New York and California will give up any of their winner-take-all Democratic Party electors to their state’s conservative legislative districts.  It is also unlikely that “red” states like Texas will give up winner-takes-all Republican electors to liberal districts like the state’s capitol.  

The Maine-Nebraska system certainly seems more “fair” for those who want their personal vote to have more influence in the outcome of the Presidential race.  (Your vote would actually be considered twice, when apportioning the elector for your district and when apportioning the electors for the state-wide popular vote.)   It is doubtful that any more states will individually (by state legislative action) or collectively (by constitutional amendment) chose a legislative district (or county) method of apportionment, even if it is a more “representative” method of apportionment.  Still, voters in conservative counties of New York (and CO, IL, MD, MN, NV, NH, NM, OR, and VA) should be more than a little concerned that the population centers of their states may have disproportionate sway over their state’s elector apportionment.  

Above all be wary of anyone who advocates for a “National Popular Vote” (NPV) method of apportionment.  This is a means of requiring a state to allocate its electors based on the national popular vote, erasing the sovereign state’s voice in the election, and negating the purpose of the Electoral College and our nation’s principles of federalism.

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