The Electoral College – A Sanctity of Federalism or a Betrayal of Democracy?


Last November, Donald Trump won the US Presidential Election. Well, legally speaking he did. In terms of the popular vote, he lost by just under 3 million. Many people have been wondering how this happened. Why didn’t the candidate with the most votes win, for surely that is how democracy works? The answer is simple: the Electoral College.

The Electoral College – Background

To understand the Electoral College, one must first understand federalism. The USA is a federalist nation, meaning that the national government shares power with the 50 states within it. This principle is so deeply entrenched within the USA’s legal system and government, that its very name embodies it; the United States. Federalism was initially set out at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 by the ‘Founding Fathers’ and was later expanded by the 10th amendment of the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. Prior to this convention, America operated under the Articles of Confederation where each state was sovereign. However, problems arose when dealing with nationwide issues such as currency, postage and the military. The Philadelphia Convention was organised to tackle these issues. Instead, it created a whole new system of government with one defining principle; federalism.

Philadelphia Convention.jpg

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy

Unbeknownst to many, the Electoral College is the mechanism which the USA has employed to indirectly elect almost all of its Presidents. It is an alternative to the people directly electing a President by holding a national election where the winner of the popular vote wins the White House.

The Electoral College was developed alongside federalism at the Philadelphia Convention. The ‘Founding Fathers’ wanted a system that would represent the voices of the smaller states in Presidential elections; they believed that electing the President using the popular vote would give too much power to the citizens of larger states, at the expense of those from smaller ones. In this sense, they believed that the Electoral College would strengthen federalism as low-population states would have an amplified voice in Presidential elections so that their views were not downtrodden by the swathes of voters in larger states.

The Electoral College – In Practice

Under this system, each state is designated a number of electors, equivalent to their number of seats in congress. For example, California has 55 electors as it has 53 Representatives in the House and, like all states, 2 Senators. Some weeks after the Presidential election is completed, all 538 electors have the job of voting for a President and Vice-President. It is this result which puts people in the White House. How they vote is based on the outcome of the election in their state.

Forty-eight states (and Washington, D.C) employ a winner-takes-all method of determining how electors vote. This means that the Presidential hopeful who gets the most votes – a simple plurality – wins all that states’ electors’ votes. This meant that, in 2000, George W. Bush won all 25 of Florida’s Electoral College Votes despite beating Al Gore by just 540 votes – about 0.01%. In fact, it was these 25 Electoral College Votes that won Bush the election as his 271 toppled Gore’s 266. Critics point out the damage that this system can have on democracy as the President of the USA was decided by some 500 Floridians despite Gore winning 500,000 more votes across the nation.

While the outcome of the election supposedly dictates how electors vote in the Electoral College, this is not always the case. As soon as the votes have been counted, the Electoral College can only be projected – but not confirmed. This is due to faithless electors; Electoral College electors who do not vote for their pledged candidate, whether it be in protest or by mistake – in 2004, an elector, pledged for Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards, cast their vote for John Ewards, presumably by accident.

Yes, contrary to all the principles of representative democracy, an elector may cast their Electoral College ballot against their pledge – against democracy. At least they can in 21 states, as the other 29 have laws which punish faithless electors. What’s more, this phenomenon has only once had an impact on the outcome of the election. This was in 1836, when all 23 Virginian electors abstained from the Vice-Presidential ballot. As a result, the Democrat Vice-President nominee received exactly half of the Electoral College votes and had to await election by the Senate. Despite the limited impact of faithless electors over the years, the mind boggles as to why untrustworthy, temperamental and politicised humans vote in the Electoral College as opposed to simply appointing a President by the outcome of each states’ election.

As discussed earlier, the Electoral College was formulated so that the votes from the heavily populated states of 1787 could not overwhelm the votes of smaller states. The Electoral College embodies this philosophy to this day, as in 2012, Wyoming’s 210,000 voters had 3 electors and California had 54. And it worked perfectly for the rest of time and everyone lived happily ever after. Or not, as each Wyoming elector represented 70,000 votes, while California’s electors represented approximately 179,000 voters each. Those in small states may protest, proclaiming that if there were no electoral college then their vote would be worthless. “The millions of Californian’s and New Yorkian’s will get to decide the outcome of every election!” they would cry. Alas my friend, this is democracy. One vote per one person, each of equal stature. Any alteration to such formula is a betrayal of the very principle that is Demos Kratos. As such, it can certainly be concluded that the Electoral College geographically discriminates against those in more populous states.


The undemocratic, outdated, disproportionate Electoral College? Source: Washington Post

The Electoral College – Here to Stay

Clearly, this system can enormously distort the popular vote. The electoral college has now elected four presidents who, infamously, did not win the popular vote:

  • 1876- Rutherford B. Hayes won the election with 185 Electoral College votes and 47.9% of the popular vote, to his opponent’s 184 votes and 50.9% of the popular vote.
  • 1888- Benjamin Harrison won the election with 233 Electoral College votes and 47.8% of the popular vote, to his opponent’s 168 votes and 48.6% of the popular vote.
  • 2000- George W. Bush won the election with 271 Electoral College votes and 47.9% of the popular vote, to his opponent’s 266 votes and 48.4% of the popular vote.
  • 2016- Donald Trump won the election with 304 Electoral College votes and 45.9% of the popular vote, to his opponent’s 227 votes and 48.0% of the popular vote.

Despite the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College, it remains in place and it will continue to remain in place. I assure you of this fact. You see, the complex and difficult process for amending the US constitution – which would be necessary to change the mechanism for electing the President – requires that 2/3 of both Houses of Congress and 3/4 of the states approve the amendment. What’s moreis that the Senate bears two seats to each state, irrespective of their population – meaning that the small states can easily put down an amendment to restrain the disproportionate benefits which they receive from the Electoral College. And should an amendment make it through Congress – albeit a deliciously abstract and incredibly theoretical, nay, humorous proposition – the hurdle that is the ratification stage would surely see it brutalised by a mob of small rural states.

To put it briefly, the Electoral College is here to stay. Here to bring us controversy. Here to bring us apathy. Here to bring us frustration. Here to bring us countless Presidents elected by legalities, not the people.


4 thoughts on “The Electoral College – A Sanctity of Federalism or a Betrayal of Democracy?

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