The Electoral College is widely regarded as an anachronism, a nondemocratic method of selecting a president that ought to be superseded by declaring the candidate who receives the most popular votes the winner. The advocates of this position are correct in arguing that the Electoral College method is not democratic in a modern sense. The Constitution provides that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” And it is the electors who elect the president, not the people. When you vote for a presidential candidate you’re actually voting for a slate of electors.
But each party selects a slate of electors trusted to vote for the party’s nominee (and that trust is rarely betrayed). Because virtually all states award all their electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote in the state, and because the Electoral College weights the less populous states more heavily along the lines of the Senate (two Senators and two Electoral College votes for every state, and then more electoral votes added for each state based on population), it is entirely possible that the winner of the electoral vote will not win the national popular vote. Yet that has happened very rarely. It happened in 2000, when Gore had more popular votes than Bush yet fewer electoral votes, but that was the first time since 1888.
There are five reasons for retaining the Electoral College despite its lack of democratic pedigree; all are practical reasons, not liberal or conservative reasons.
A dispute over the outcome of an Electoral College vote is possible—it happened in 2000—but it’s less likely 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. In last week’s election, for example, Obama received 61.7 percent of the electoral vote compared to only 51.3 percent of the popular votes cast for him and Romney. (I ignore the scattering of votes not counted for either candidate.) Because almost all states award electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, even a very slight plurality in a state creates a landslide electoral-vote victory in that state. A tie in the nationwide electoral vote is possible because the total number of votes—538—is an even number, but it is highly unlikely.*
Of course a tie in the number of popular votes in a national election in which tens of millions of votes are cast is even more unlikely. But if the difference in the popular vote is small, then if the winner of the popular vote were deemed the winner of the presidential election, candidates would have an incentive to seek a recount in any state (plus the District of Columbia) in which they thought the recount would give them more additional votes than their opponent. The lawyers would go to work in state after state to have the votes recounted, and the result would be debilitating uncertainty, delay, and conflict—look at the turmoil that a dispute limited to one state, Florida, engendered in 2000.*
2) Everyone’s President
The Electoral College requires a presidential candidate to have transregional appeal. No region (South, Northeast, etc.) has enough electoral votes to elect a president. So a solid regional favorite, such as Romney was in the South, has no incentive to campaign heavily in those states, for he gains no electoral votes by increasing his plurality in states that he knows he will win. This is a desirable result because a candidate with only regional appeal is unlikely to be a successful president. The residents of the other regions are likely to feel disfranchised—to feel that their votes do not count, that the new president will have no regard for their interests, that he really isn’t their president.
The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes induces the candidates—as we saw in last week’s election—to focus their campaign efforts on the toss-up states; that follows directly from the candidates’ lack of inducement to campaign in states they are sure to win. Voters in toss-up states are more likely to pay close attention to the campaign—to really listen to the competing candidates—knowing that they are going to decide the election. They are likely to be the most thoughtful voters, on average (and for the further reason that they will have received the most information and attention from the candidates), and the most thoughtful voters should be the ones to decide the election.
The Electoral College restores some of the weight in the political balance that large states (by population) lose by virtue of the mal-apportionment of the Senate decreed in the Constitution. This may seem paradoxical, given that electoral votes are weighted in favor of less populous states. Wyoming, the least populous state, contains only about one-sixth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, but its three electors (of whom two are awarded only because Wyoming has two senators like every other state) give it slightly more than one-half of 1 percent of total electoral votes. But winner-take-all makes a slight increase in the popular vote have a much bigger electoral-vote payoff in a large state than in a small one. The popular vote was very close in Florida; nevertheless Obama, who won that vote, got 29 electoral votes. A victory by the same margin in Wyoming would net the winner only 3 electoral votes. So, other things being equal, a large state gets more attention from presidential candidates in a campaign than a small states does. And since presidents and senators are often presidential candidates, large states are likely to get additional consideration in appropriations and appointments from presidents and senators before as well as during campaigns, offsetting to some extent the effects of the malapportioned Senate on the political influence of less populous states.
5) Avoid Run-Off Elections
The Electoral College avoids the problem of elections in which no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast. For example, Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992 both had only a 43 percent plurality of the popular votes, while winning a majority in the Electoral College (301 and 370 electoral votes, respectively). There is pressure for run-off elections when no candidate wins a majority of the votes cast; that pressure, which would greatly complicate the presidential election process, is reduced by the Electoral College, which invariably produces a clear winner.
Against these reasons to retain the Electoral College the argument that it is undemocratic falls flat. No form of representative democracy, as distinct from direct democracy, is or aspires to be perfectly democratic. Certainly not our federal government. In the entire executive and judicial branches, only two officials are elected—the president and vice president. All the rest are appointed—federal Article III judges for life.
It can be argued that the Electoral College method of selecting the president may turn off potential voters for a candidate who has no hope of carrying their state—Democrats in Texas, for example, or Republicans in California. Knowing their vote will have no effect, they have less incentive to pay attention to the campaign than they would have if the president were picked by popular vote, for then the state of a voter’s residence would be irrelevant to the weight of his vote. But of course no voter’s vote swings a national election, and in spite of that, about one-half the eligible American population did vote in last week’s election. Voters in presidential elections are people who want to express a political preference rather than people who think that a single vote may decide an election. Even in one-sided states, there are plenty of votes in favor of the candidate who is sure not to carry the state. So I doubt that the Electoral College has much of a turn-off effect. And if it does, that is outweighed by the reasons for retaining this seemingly archaic institution.
Correction, Nov. 13, 2012: This piece incorrectly stated that a tie occurred in the Electoral College in 1824. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also misstated the situation in which candidates would have an incentive to seek a recount if the winner were determined by the popular vote. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Thanks to Texas State Representative Scott Hochberg and Barnard professor Scott Minkoff for the corrections.
Once again, presidential politics is in the air—and on the television. And on the radio. And on the web, on billboards, and bumper stickers. In a presidential election year, it seems as if our nation’s full attention is focused on the hopeful candidates for the Oval Office. "I approve this message" is the refrain that echoes in our consciousness from the warm days of summer until the chilly mornings of November.
Of course, it has not always been this way. In the young Republic, candidates remained aloof from any campaign mounted on their behalf. Surrogates may have slung dirt, made exaggerated claims for their candidate, or articulated the candidate’s political philosophy, but men from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams felt it beneath their dignity to campaign openly for the office. By the time Abraham Lincoln emerged as a political leader, however, the public had begun to expect candidates to address the concerns of the voting public. Before the twentieth century ended, all the elements we take for granted today were in place, including televised party conventions and debates between candidates, emailed fund-raising pleas, robo-calls, pollsters, and twenty-four-hour news coverage.
But if the campaigns have changed, the capacity of a presidential election to shape and reshape our national history has not. And this is why they are so important to us as history teachers and historians. Some, like FDR’s election to a fourth term, set critical precedents, leading to amendments to the constitution. Others, like the 1824 election, brought changes in the nomination process. And, in others, like the election of Abraham Lincoln, the very course of our national history was determined. In our own lifetimes, presidential campaigns have signaled major changes in our cultural norms and values, measured by the election of a Catholic to the presidency, the selection of a woman as a vice presidential candidate, and the entrance into the White House of an African American.
Our fascination as historians with presidential elections also rests on the unexpected drama that sometimes accompanies them, from the tragic assassination of leading candidates to riots outside the party conventions to the appeal to the Supreme Court to resolve a close and contested election. It rests as well on their impact on the two-party system that defines our politics, for when votes were tallied it sometimes spelled the doom of established parties or the ascendency of new ones. During presidential elections we can chart significant shifts in political loyalties and the role of changing demographics in election results. We recognize that even the vocabulary of an election—from slogans like "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" to "Rum Romanism and Rebellion" and "Hope" to voter blocs such as "soccer moms," "values voters," and "energy voters" —can offer clues to these important political trends. Finally, presidential elections challenge us to unravel historical cause and effect as we evaluate the role of personality and charisma, the brilliance or bumbling of campaign strategies, and the impact of unexpected events that occur during the presidential race.
In this issue of History Now, our scholars look at five significant and unusual presidential races. In his essay, "Adams v. Jackson: The Election of 1824," Edward Lengel takes us back to 1824, when four candidates—John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford—vied for the presidency and the charge of a self-serving, if not immoral deal between two of them tainted the victory of the winner. Lengel gives us a stirring and insightful account of what history books have often called the corrupt bargain between "the Puritan and the Blackleg."
In "The Making of the President: Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1860," Harold Holzer reexamines one of the most fateful elections in our history, offering new insights into the election of Abraham Lincoln. Holzer reminds us that "accidents and false assumptions" played a critical role in this election, chief among them the erroneous Southern conviction that Lincoln intended to end slavery if he were elected and that Douglas was equally dangerous to their "peculiar institution." Holzer points out the significance of political organization and the unexpected personal appeal of Lincoln as a candidate in determining the outcome of the election.
In "The Contentious Election of 1876," Michael F. Holt looks closely at an election Democrats called "the Fraud of the Century." Acknowledging that the creation of an unprecedented Federal Electoral Commission helped make this an unusual election, Holt nevertheless argues that there were other, equally intriguing aspects to this election that require explanation, including high voter turn out and the apparent disconnect between economic conditions and political results.
Matthew Dallek carries us into the twentieth century with his essay on "Franklin Delano Roosevelt—Four-Term President—and the Election of 1944." In this examination of FDR’s unprecedented run for a fourth term, Dallek focuses on Roosevelt’s motives and on the historical circumstances in which the nation found itself in 1944: a returning prosperity and a growing expectation of victory in World War II. Dallek also factors in the personalities of the two candidates, FDR and Dewey—and the effectiveness of their respective campaigns.
Finally, James Gormly brings us to the controversial first presidential election of our century, the Gore-Bush contest. In "Hanging by a Chad—or Not: The 2000 Presidential Election," he takes us through the campaign, with its focus on a few "swing states"—Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, and then through the tense days between November 8 and December 13, when Gore conceded the election to George W. Bush. Gormly explains how the election wound up in the venue of the US Supreme Court and suggests that it was this, more than the candidates’ political positions or party platforms, that made 2000 a unique and memorable election.
As always, we have included lesson plans. Our interactive feature for this issue is an interactive timeline looking at presidential elections since 1789.
Let me close with an appeal that you exercise your right—and obligation—to vote this November. Voting is democracy in action!
CAROL BERKIN, Editor