Pondering the Electoral College

by Don Boudreaux on November 4, 2008

in Politics

There’s much talk of how the Electoral College is undemocratic and, by implication, an obnoxious burden on ‘the People’s’ right to choose their U.S. President.

Lots of sound counterarguments in defense of the Electoral College are possible.  Here I offer just one – namely: if we don’t think it undemocratic to elect representatives to Congress to carry out our political desires on tax policy, environmental regulation, national defense, why is it undemocratic to do largely the same when it comes to choosing a President?

In effect, a vote for presidential-candidate X is a vote for someone to meet in an assembly called the Electoral College — someone whose platform is that he or she supports candidate X for President.  The members of that assembly then vote on who will become the next President of the United States.

It’s true that there are differences between electing representatives to the likes of Congress and the state house, and electing electors to gather every four years in the Electoral College to vote on a single issue.  One obvious difference is that, in Presidential campaigns, the competing agenda items (that is, candidate X and candidate Y) do the actual campaigning.  But I don’t see this (or any other) difference as so fundamental as to make the Electoral College an assault on democracy if electing representatives to legislatures is not regarded as an assault of similar magnitude.

A related, but potentially more serious, objection to the Electoral College — indeed, the objection that, I’m sure, motivates most people who object to it — is that it can result in a minority of popular voters getting the candidate of their choice over the candidate receiving the greatest number of popular votes.  As the New York Times editorial (linked to above) said:

The main problem with the Electoral College is that it builds into
every election the possibility, which has been a reality three times
since the Civil War, that the president will be a candidate who lost
the popular vote.

This objection, too, is weakened when one considers that such outcomes can occur in legislatures based upon geographical representation where there is uneven distribution of the voting population across the electoral districts.

The 25 most-populated U.S. states have a total population of about 235 million people.  The population of the 25 least-populated states totals just about 70 million people.

With each state sending two Senators to Capitol Hill, it’s clearly possible that a majority of U.S. Senators will vote for a bill even though, if citizens themselves directly voted on the bill, the vote would go in the other direction.

For example – to pick the simplest case – if all 50 senators from the least-populated states were joined by a single senator from one of the most-populated states in voting for bill Z, bill Z would pass the Senate.  Assuming that senators vote according to the preferences of those persons who elected them to office, it’s quite possible that were bill Z put to a popular vote, it would fail.  The much greater population of the states whose senators voted against Z could well significantly swamp the pro-Z votes of citizens of those states whose senators voted in favor of Z.

A similar outcome is possible in the U.S. House of Representatives, although not as likely as in the senate.  Those who are interested in how this outcome might play out in the House of Representatives can read the following italicized paragraphs:

Consider the following example using real population estimates from seven real congressional districts in the U.S. (approximate population figures are in parentheses):

Delaware’s 1st (855,000)
Minnesota’s 4th (615,000)
Montana’s 1st (945,000)
New Mexico’s 3rd (606,000)
South Dakota’s 1st (755,000)
Vermont’s 1st (610,000)
Wyoming’s 1st (515,000)

Suppose that the U.S. Representatives from each of these districts vote on bill Z.  Voting ‘Yea” for Z are the representatives from Vermont, Wyoming, Louisiana, and New Mexico.  Voting ‘Nay’ are the representatives from Delaware, Montana, and South Dakota.

If these are the only seven representatives voting, the bill passes by a vote of four to three.  But (assuming that each representative voted in a way that reflects majority sentiment in his or her district), the popular vote would have gone against bill Z.  (The combined population of the three districts whose representatives voted no is 2,555,000.  The combined population of the four districts whose representatives voted yes is 2,346,000.)

Of course, seven members of the House of Representatives make no quorum.  It nevertheless remains possible, with a quorum or more of the House voting, for the 400-plus members from elsewhere to be precisely divided on bill Z so that we can imagine the outcome being determined by the votes of these seven representatives.  It’s also possible that the population differences, often of 15,000 or 25,000 persons, separating one district from another will be such that the combined population of the districts whose representatives voted with the (slim) majority to carry the bill to victory is lower than the combined population of the districts whose representatives voted with the failed minority on the bill.

I understand that other complexities can be introduced (e.g., a state’s or a congressional-district’s population is not the same thing as its number of registered voters).  I also have no idea how likely is the kind of outcome that I describe above.

But I do know that such an outcome in the U.S. Congress is possible.  I would also guess that such outcomes have indeed occurred.  And yet, despite this possibility, no mainstream pundit calls for a ditching of geographic-based electoral representation for the Congress.

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