A year ago, Americans watched the loser of the national popular
vote win the electoral vote (with a little help from his friends).
In a continental republic of equal citizens, why shouldn't every
voter's ballot count equally in a single nationwide vote for
president? If one person, one vote is the best way to pick a state
governor, why isn't it also the best way to pick a national
In our last
column, we exposed the tainted roots of the electoral college,
which facilitated slavery and other widespread disfranchisements.
Today we shall critique ten more modern arguments on behalf of the
Many of the arguments on this top ten list are superficially
clever, but ultimately makeweight. Often they sweep too broadly and
"prove too much," with unattractive logical implications.
In general, most pro-electoral college arguments (both those listed
below, and other, more minor arguments we have not listed)
unwittingly but unavoidably condemn direct popular election of
governors, a deeply established American practice.
Granted, a few arguments for the electoral college do have the
right logical shape-explaining why presidential elections should
differ from gubernatorial ones - and thus do not have the flaw of
proving too much. But these arguments are not weighty enough to
outbalance the strong principle of one person, one vote.
Here, then, are the top ten and the reasons they do not persuade:
Number 1: The Argument From Political Interest
Some might prefer the electoral college because it advantages a
given political interest-say rural voters or racial minorities. But
does today's electoral college systematically favor any given
faction? Not likely.
True, the electoral college was designed to and did in fact
advantage Southern white male propertied slaveholders in the
antebellum era. And in election 2000, it again ended up working
against women, blacks, and the poor, who voted overwhelmingly for
Gore. But it's just as easy to imagine an alternative election 2000
scenario in which Gore won the electoral vote while losing the
national popular vote. Indeed , most pundits going into election day
thought this the more likely scenario.
Analytically, the electoral college privileges small states by
giving every state three electoral votes at the start. This tends to
help Republicans, who win among rural whites. But the college also
exaggerates the power of big states, via winner-take-all rules. That
tends to help Democrats, who win among urban minorities.
In today's world, the two opposing skews largely cancel out.
Republicans often win more states overall, but Democrats often win
more big states. The net effect is to add to the political deck a
pair of jokers-one red and one blue-who randomly surface to mock the
equality idea by giving the prize to the candidate who lost the
national popular vote.
In any event, even assuming it could be shown that the electoral
college systemically helps some interest group, this is hardly a
principled argument in its favor. Our Constitution should not rig
elections to favor any particular faction or party. We should treat
all presidential voters equally, just as we do gubernatorial voters
Number 2: The Tennis Analogy
Electoral college defenders also make the following argument:
"A tennis player can win more points overall, and even more
games, yet still lose the match. So too with many other sports-for
example, a baseball team might get more hits or win more innings but
still lose. So what's the problem if something similar happens with
the electoral college?"
The problem is that elections are not sporting events. It matters
who wins, and the idea is not simply to make the thing exciting or
random. All tennis points are not created equal; but all American
citizens are. To talk of tennis is simply to sidestep rather than
engage the moral principle favoring one person, one vote.
The tennis trope is a silly analogy, not a serious argument. It
also proves too much, calling into question our standard mode of
picking state governors. Ditto for a variant of the tennis analogy,
which casually dismisses direct popular election as
Number 3: The Media Argument
Electoral college defenders argue that without the electoral
college, candidates will spend all their time trying to rack up big
victories in big cities with big media, ignoring the rest of the
But this objection also proves too much. The very same thing
might be said of the California governor's election. And the
electoral college itself often focuses candidates narrowly on a few
swing locations to the detriment of most other regions.
Number 4: The Geographic Concentration Argument
Defenders also contend that the electoral college prevents purely
regional candidates from winning by requiring the winner to put
together a continental coalition popular in many different regions.
Really? Then how did Lincoln
win the electoral college without winning a single Southern state,
or even being on the ballot south of Virginia? Didn't the elections
of 1796 and 1800
also feature sharp sectional divisions between north and south?
Moreover, if geographic spread is a good argument for a
continental electoral college, why isn't it an equally good argument
for an intrastate electoral college for vast and populous states
like California and Texas?
Finally, under direct election, presidential candidates would
continue to wage broad national campaigns appealing to voters in
different states and regions: one simply cannot reach 50% without
getting lots of votes in lots of places.
Number 5: The Argument From Inertia
Other electoral college defenders have argued that a change in
presidential selection rules would radically change the election
game: because candidates would no longer care about winning
states-only votes-campaign strategies would change dramatically and
for the worse.
It's hard to see why. Given that, historically, the electoral
college leader has also tended to be the popular vote leader, the
strategy for winning shouldn't change dramatically if we switch from
one measure to the other.
Granted, had direct election been in place in 2000, the
candidates might have run slightly different campaigns. For example,
Bush might have tried to rack up even more votes in his home state,
while Gore might have avoided badmouthing the state (aka
"messing with Texas"). But these likely changes of
strategy are neither big nor bad.
Again, why would a system that works so well for state governors
fail for the presidency?
Number 6: The Senate Anxiety
Others have claimed that the principle of one person, one vote
would likewise doom the equal representation of states in the United
This argument at least raises a fair point. The equality idea
that favors the abolition of the electoral college does raise
questions about Senate malapportionment-why should the thirty four
million citizens living in California get no more Senators than the
half million citizens living in Wyoming?
But the electoral college issue is nevertheless distinguishable.
On election day, Americans vote in 33 (or 34) separate Senate races,
each featuring a different candidate match-up. These votes cannot
simply be added together. To try to add them up-x % for "the
Democrat" and y% for "the Republican" is artificial
in the extreme, given that 33 different Democrats are running
against 33 different Republicans in 33 different races.
In contrast, presidential votes can be aggregated across
America-indeed, it is artificial not to add them together,
and the violation of equality is much more flagrant when a person
who plainly got fewer votes is nevertheless named the winner.
Number 7: The Third Party and Plurality Winner Problem
Another argument often raised is this one: "Direct election
could either lead to a low plurality winner (say, 35%) in a three-
or four-way race, or would require a high cutoff (say, 45%) that
would require a runoff. Allowing runoffs would encourage third party
But the very same thing is true for states, which manage to elect
governors just fine. Moreover, a low plurality winner in a three- or
four-way race is possible even with the electoral college (which has
also attracted its fair share of spoilers-just ask Ross Perot or
Finally, the problem could easily be solved in a direct national
election by a system called single transferable voting, in which
voters list their 2nd and 3rd choices on the ballot-in effect
combining the first heat and runoff elections into a single
"instant runoff" transaction.
Number 8: The Recount Nightmare
Other electoral college fans are haunted by the specter of
recounts: "If you thought the recount in Florida was a
disaster, can you imagine the nightmare of a national recount?"
But if California, Texas, New York, and other large states can
handle recounts for governors' races, a national recount should
likewise be manageable, especially with new technology that will
make counting and recounting easier in the future.
Moreover, the electoral college does not avoid, and at times can
worsen, the recount nightmare: a razor-thin electoral college margin
may require recounts in a number of closely contested states even if
there is a clear national popular winner. But the recount issue does
remind us that direct national election would ideally involve
uniform national standards for counting and recounting votes.
Number 9: The Modern Federalism Argument
Many supporters of the electoral college parade under the banners
of "federalism" and "states' rights." But direct
national election would give state governments a better role than
they now enjoy.
Under direct election, each state government would have some
incentive to make it easier for its citizens to vote-say, by making
election day a holiday or by providing paid time off-because the
more state voters that turn out, the bigger the states' overall
share in the national tally. Direct national election would thus
encourage states to innovate and compete to increase turnout and
Of course, national oversight would be appropriate to keep the
innovation and competition within proper bounds: No deceased or
infant voters, please! Presidential elections would thus continue to
reflect a mix of federal and state laws, and respect proper state
innovation within a federal framework--in short, federalism at its
Number 10: The Futility Argument
A final argument against reform sounds in realpolitik: Adopting
direct popular election would require a constitutional amendment,
and no such amendment is likely given the high hurdles set out in
Article V--two-thirds of the Congress and three-quarters of the
But the premise of this argument is wrong. In fact, as few as
eleven large states acting together could operationalize direct
national election. So could as few as four-yes, four-key persons
acting in concert. More on all that in our next column.