Five myths about the Electoral College
1. The framers created the electoral college to protect small states.
The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had a
variety of reasons for settling on the electoral college format, but
protecting smaller states was not among them. Some delegates feared
direct democracy, but that was only one factor in the debate.
Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The
important division was between states that had slavery and those that
didn't, not between large and small states. A direct election for
president did not sit well with most delegates from the slave states,
which had large populations but far fewer eligible voters. They
gravitated toward the electoral college as a compromise because it was
based on population. The convention had agreed to count each slave as
three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating each state's
allotment of seats in Congress. For Virginia, which had the largest
population among the original 13 states, that meant more clout in
choosing the president.
The electoral college distorts the political process by
providing a huge incentive to visit competitive states, especially large
ones with hefty numbers
of electoral votes. That's why Obama and Romney have spent so much time
this year in states like Ohio and Florida. In the 2008 general
election, Obama and John McCain personally campaigned in only five of
the 29 smallest states.
The framers protected the interests of smaller states by
creating the Senate, which gives each state two votes regardless of
population. There is no need for additional protection. Do we really
want a presidency responsive to parochial interests in a system already
prone to gridlock? The framers didn't.
2. The electoral college ensures that the winner has broad support.
Supporters argue that the electoral college format
prevents candidates from targeting specific groups and regions, instead
forcing them to seek votes across the country. But that's not the way it
has worked out in recent presidential contests. Generally, Republicans
have tried to stitch together an electoral college majority from the
South, Southwest and Rocky Mountain states, while Democrats have relied
on the large states on both coasts and the Midwest, leaving certain
swing states (hello, Florida!) as perennial battlegrounds.
Any system of electing the president requires some
version of broad support, but the electoral college does little to
promote that goal. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al
Gore but won in the electoral college. His victory came largely from his
support among white men. He did not win majorities among women, blacks,
Latinos, urbanites, the young, the old or those with less-than-average
income. In short, Bush claimed the White House with the backing of one
dominant group, not with broad support.
3. The electoral college preserves stability in our political system by discouraging third parties.
The electoral college offers no guarantee of such
"stability" - in fact, history suggests otherwise. The Republican Party
was born as a third (or even fourth) party, and it quickly established
itself as a major force in the 1856 and 1860 elections. In 1912, Teddy
Roosevelt ran as a third-party nominee, and though he didn't win, he
easily bested his former party's candidate, the Republican incumbent,
William Howard Taft.
The electoral college system gives a third-party
candidate more opportunities to create mischief than a direct election
does. Think about what could happen in a neck-and-neck contest: If a
third-party nominee won enough states to prevent either major-party
candidate from winning the 270 electoral votes needed for a majority,
the House of Representatives would decide the outcome. Each state
delegation would have one vote; Vermont and Wyoming would count the same
as Texas and New York. That's hardly a recipe for stability.
In addition, under the electoral college, a third party
can tip the balance in a closely contested state. In 2000, Ralph Nader
siphoned votes away from Gore in Florida. Had Nader not run, Gore could
have won the election.
Direct elections, especially those without a runoff,
prevent such problems. Coming in third or fourth would gain a party no
leverage in the selection of the president.
4. In direct elections, candidates would campaign only in large cities.
Under any system, candidates try to spend their time in
places where they can reach the most voters. But in a direct election,
with every vote counting equally, candidates would have an incentive to
appeal to voters everywhere, not just those in swing states. Because the
price of advertising is mainly a function of market size, it does not
cost more to reach 10,000 voters in Wyoming than it does to reach 10,000
voters in New York or Los Angeles.
It's the electoral college that shortchanges voters.
Because it makes no sense for candidates to spend time or money in
states they either cannot win or are certain to win, thriving cities
such as Atlanta, San Francisco and El Paso get no love from White House
Making every vote count in every state would have other
benefits. It would stimulate party-building efforts and increase
turnout. People are more likely to cast a ballot if they think their
5. Electors must vote for the candidate who wins their state.
In theory, this is true. In practice, however, electors
may vote for whomever they please, and on rare occasions, they do. In a
tight election, such behavior might deny either candidate a majority of
the electoral vote and throw the election into the House of
For generations, pollsters have found that a clear
majority of Americans support direct election of the president. The
longer we cling to the electoral college, the longer we'll have
presidential campaigns that leave large numbers of voters feeling left
out, along with a system that distorts the public's preferences.
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