Electoral College – History and Injustice
November 14, 2016
Published on EthicalMarkets.com
The following is an excerpt from the whole system book Global System Change: A Whole System Approach to Achieving Sustainability and Real Prosperity. The book describes the major political, economic and social system changes needed to maximize the long-term well-being of society. It also discusses the intentions of the US Founders and how they can be implemented in modern political systems.
The US Constitutional Convention of 1787 was tumultuous. Probably no delegate to the Convention was completely satisfied with the outcome. Each delegate brought their biases and vested interests to the table. But the need for a new government was great. As a result, the delegates were compelled to work together and reach compromises in several areas. Two areas with the greatest conflicts and compromises involved slave versus free states and large versus small states. To appease these competing interests, significant compromises were made in the Executive and Legislative branches of government.
One of the most important compromises in structuring the Executive branch was the means of electing the President. Some delegates advocated direct election by the people (i.e. popular election). But several delegates from small and slave states opposed this. Small states were concerned that this would give large states more influence in electing the President. Slave states were concerned that a popular vote would lower their influence in presidential elections because slaves did not vote.
The method finally chosen was based on an even more important compromise made during the Convention – the means of representation in the national Legislature. Many delegates argued that representation in both branches of the Legislature (the Senate and the House of Representatives) should be based on the population of the states. However, most delegates from small states refused to go along with this approach. They argued that this would cause small states to be overwhelmed in the national government.
The compromise finally reached allowed for proportional representation in the House of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate. Reflecting the tragic reality of that time in history, slave states were allowed to count three-fifths of their slaves when determining their level of representation in the House of Representatives. (This terrible aspect of US history was finally resolved by the Civil War and Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibited voter discrimination based on race.)
The means of electing the President had been debated but not resolved during most of the Convention. The Convention was taking longer than expected. Many delegates were anxious to finish.1 Finally, in September 1787, a few days before the Convention ended, a compromise was reached on electing the President. A process, later known as the Electoral College, was agreed and established. Under the process, each state chooses electors who vote for the President. The number of electors in each state is equivalent to its combined representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. Since each state has two US Senators, total electors per state are two plus the number of US Representatives in that state.
In the same way that equal representation in the Senate gives small state citizens relatively greater representation in the Legislature (because there are fewer citizens per Senator in small states), it also gives citizens of smaller states greater influence in presidential elections. In other words, the vote of a citizen in a small state has more influence in electing the President than the vote of a citizen in a large state. Small states supported the Electoral College because it gave them relatively greater influence in presidential elections. Slave states supported the system because it allowed them to count slaves when electing the President without giving slaves the right to vote.
The US Constitution was and is an enlightened political document. But it also was a product of its time. As Thomas Jefferson said, the Constitution must evolve with the times. And it has. Several of the relatively few amendments to the Constitution involve voting rights. As noted, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited voter discrimination based on race. The Nineteenth Amendment allowed women to vote. The Twenty-Fourth Amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes or other taxes as a condition of voting. And the Twenty-Sixth Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
In 1787, the US was a confederation of essentially independent states. Compromises were made to encourage small states and slave states to join the union. The Electoral College was one of those compromises. But the Electoral College is unfair and undemocratic in several important ways.
First, as noted, it gives citizens in small states more influence in electing the President than large state citizens. This violates the spirit of equality and democracy upon which the US was founded. The Declaration of Independence declares that all citizens are equal. But the Electoral College says that they are not. Citizens in small states are presumed to be worth more or have higher status than citizens in large states. In other words, the Electoral College makes citizens unequal.
Second, the Electoral College creates the unbelievable and totally unacceptable situation in a democracy where the loser sometimes wins. In most elections, the person who gets the most votes wins. However, in the US, the presidential candidate who receives the most votes from US citizens sometimes loses because the Electoral College gives small state citizens greater influence in presidential elections than large state citizens. In 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016, the Electoral College caused the candidate who received the most popular votes to lose.2
In 2000, Al Gore received about 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush, but nevertheless lost the election.3 In 2016, Hillary Clinton received potentially over two million more votes than Donald Trump, but also lost the election.4 In other words, in one of the most important elections in the world (because it affects so many people in the US and around the world), the person who gets the most votes sometimes loses. It is difficult to imagine a greater violation of democratic principles than this.
Third, the Electoral College is unfair in the sense that it often causes presidential candidates to focus on citizens in a few swing states and pay less attention to citizens in most other states. Most states reliably vote for the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate. This causes many election efforts to be focused on a few undecided or swing states. After elections, the new President can be obligated to do more for swing states because more promises frequently were made there. In this way, the Electoral College implies that swing state citizens are worth more or have higher status than most other citizens in the US.
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, it was important to give enhanced status to small and slave states because they were being asked to give up power and join a stronger federal government. However, the priority of the new US government was citizens, not states. At both the state and federal levels, the people control government, as shown by the first three words of the US Constitution, “We the People”. After ratification of the Constitution, the states were united into one nation created for the benefit of the people and controlled by the people. The interests of the people take priority over everything else, including the states.
Partly to win support for ratification, the Constitution allowed state legislatures to choose US Senators. However, this practice was ended in 1913 by the Seventeenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Amendment changed the method of electing US Senators to popular election. Another amendment is needed to replace the Electoral College with popular election. The Executive branch of the US Government is so powerful that the people must control it by directly electing the President, in the same way that citizens directly elect Senators and Representatives. Failure to do this subverts democracy.
It is time to end the unfair and undemocratic situation where the loser of one of the most important elections in the world sometimes becomes President, some citizens are held to be less important and valuable than other citizens, and presidential candidates are compelled to give higher priority to meeting the needs of citizens in swing states than in other states.
In 1969, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to end the Electoral College system. But the measure was blocked in the Senate, mostly by Senators from states with lower voter turnout.5 (Under the Electoral College, a state’s influence in the presidential election remains the same regardless of how many citizens vote.) Respectful dissent and debate are healthy in a democracy. But the narrow interests of some citizens and states should not be allowed to violate the basic rights and equality of citizens in other states. The Electoral College is an absolute violation of democracy, fairness and even common sense because it makes citizens unequal and sometimes allows losers of elections to win.
Those who wish to maintain the status quo and perpetuate an unfair advantage develop various arguments for retaining the Electoral College. One of the main arguments is protecting the interests of small states. But small states are protected in the Federal government through equal representation in the Senate.
Some people might say that equal representation in the Senate also makes citizens unequal. Therefore, if the Electoral College is changed to popular election, then representation in the Senate should be made proportional. But this possibly is an insincere argument intended to maintain the status quo. Changing representation in the Senate would be difficult. Saying that the Electoral College should change only if the Senate changes probably means that neither would change.
Equating equal representation in the Senate to the Electoral College largely is not a valid argument for at least three reasons. Three of the most odious aspects of the Electoral College are allowing losers to win, compelling presidential candidates to focus on swing states, and making citizens unequal. The first and second odious factors are not issues in the Senate. Since the Constitution was amended to require popular election of Senators, losers never win. Also, senate candidates campaign in their own states. As a result, citizens are not ignored by senate candidates as they often are by presidential candidates.
The argument that equal representation in the Senate makes citizens unequal like the Electoral College largely is invalidated by the fact the Senate is balanced by the House of Representatives. The two must work together to pass laws. As a result, if the lack of proportional representation in the Senate caused citizens of large states to be treated unfairly, the House often could block such action. But there is no similar balance or protection in the Executive branch.
Another argument for maintaining the Electoral College is that states elect the President, not citizens. But that compromise, developed to induce some states to ratify the Constitution, no longer is needed. More than 100 years ago, we removed the compromise that allowed state legislatures instead of citizens to elect US Senators. We are long past being a group of independent states seeking to band together. We are one people and one nation. Perhaps the most important principle and aspect of this is that we are all equal. The Electoral College no longer is compatible with who we are because it makes citizens unequal.
Any argument made in support of the Electoral College never can come close to overcoming the negatives of allowing losers to win and making citizens unequal. Therefore, it is essential that US Senators and Representatives put citizens’ basic right to equality and the Constitutional spirit of democracy ahead of personal or vested interests by voting to change the Electoral College to popular election of the President.
The same applies to the states. Once a constitutional amendment to popularly elect the President is submitted to the states for ratification, there is a chance that small states or states with low voter turnout might oppose it. If this occurs, these states essentially would be claiming that their citizens are more valuable than citizens of other states. Of course states should protect their interests. But this ‘protection’ should not involve violating the basic rights and equality of citizens in other states.
There is widespread support in the US for replacing the Electoral College with popular election of the President. An approach called the National Popular Vote (NPV) has been established to circumvent the Electoral College and ensure that the will of the people is achieved in electing the President. Under the NPV, states agree to assign their electors to the winner of the national popular vote.6 Several states have signed the compact. Once states representing a majority of electoral votes (270) commit to the NPV, it would take effect. However, it is not clear if the NPV would be allowed because the Constitution prohibits a state from entering into an agreement or compact with another state without the consent of Congress. As a result, constitutional amendment probably is the more appropriate means of eliminating the Electoral College.
The President currently is elected at the state level due to the Electoral College. As part of an amendment to popularly elect the President, a national election system could be established. This could improve election efficiency, reduce the risk of election fraud and guarantee citizens’ right to vote. The US election system is managed by over 3,000 counties that often have different rules, procedures and equipment.7 This frequently causes problems and delays during elections. It also greatly increases the risk of election fraud because it is much more difficult to monitor thousands of different election systems.
European elections often are managed by national election commissions that establish nationwide standards and practices. Establishing a similar system in the US would greatly reduce the risk of election fraud and substantially improve the efficiency and reliability of the election process.
The right to vote is not specifically guaranteed in the Constitution. Instead, it is implied in amendments. Establishing this right in an amendment to popularly elect the President would reduce voter discrimination, disenfranchisement and other voting barriers because citizens could sue if their right to vote was violated.
Throughout US history, there has been strong support for reforming the Electoral College. Over the past 200 years, about 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to change or eliminate it. Among all proposals to amend the Constitution, more have been related to changing the Electoral College than any other issue.8
Beyond the reasons given above, there is another important reason for ending the Electoral College. All aspects of slavery have been removed from the US Constitution, except the Electoral College. Slavery has not played a role in the Electoral College since former slaves were made equal citizens and given the right to vote. However, the Electoral College was developed in part to protect and perpetuate the institution of slavery. As such, it is stained with the abomination of slavery. This relic of unfairness and legacy of suffering should have been removed from our Constitution long ago. There should be no further delay in ending this injustice.
Frank Dixon oversaw the sustainability analysis and rating of the world’s 2,000 largest companies for many years as the Managing Director of Research at Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, formerly the largest corporate sustainability research firm in the world. Institutional investors used Innovest research to develop high-performing socially responsible investing products. Extensive corporate sustainability experience made it clear that flawed systems compel all companies to degrade the environment and society. Frank Dixon developed the TCR® approach to provide a practical and profitable way for companies and investors to engage in system change. Following Innovest, he provided sustainability and system change consulting to companies in the US and Europe. Most recently, he wrote the Global System Change series of books. Using a whole system approach, the books identify the major economic, political and social system changes needed to achieve sustainability and real prosperity.
Frank Dixon has an MBA from the Harvard Business School and is an advisor to Ethical Markets Media
More information about Global System Change and TCR is available at:
Copyright © 2016 Frank Dixon