The Case Against
the Electoral College
November 8: It appears
that the unthinkable has happened. A candidate who lost
the popular vote may have been elected president. To
remedy this clearly undemocratic result and the general problem of
most states being entirely ignored because they are not competitive,
the Center advocates a direct popular election with a majority
. Here are some recent commentaries on this
- Rob Richie and Steve Hill make the case
against the Electoral College in the Hartford
- John Anderson publishes an op-ed in
- Steve Hill writes a commentary that runs
Call. A modified version ran on November 2
in the Christian Science Monitor;
- The Daily
Herald (IL) writes
about fixing the Electoral College before disaster strikes
- Summary of Congressional
to abolish or reform the electoral college. The
Center for Voting and Democracy has researched congressional
efforts over the past 20 years to change the electoral college
system of choosing the president. This section provides summaries
of those efforts and the identities of congressional opponents of
the electoral college past and present.
The Hartford Courant [and
The Case Against the Electoral College
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
November 9, 2000
The nation holds its breath as it awaits the
results of the ballot recount in Florida. It's as simple as this:
the winner of Florida's popular vote wins the presidency.
But the simplicity of the Florida drama is far
different from our bizarre rules to elect the president. Democrat Al
Gore won more votes than Republican George Bush in the national
popular vote. But Bush may be on his way to the White House.
Blame for this democratic anomaly rests squarely
with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. The
Electoral College is a clumsy device that never would be imitated by
a state for electing its governor -- or by a town electing its
dogcatcher. It has been the subject of more proposed amendments than
any other part of our constitution, but like an appendix, we keep it
because it hasn't ruptured... yet.
Here's how it works. The presidential race is
conducted in each of the 50 states as a separate contest, with each
state having a number of electors roughly proportionate to its
population. To win, a presidential candidate needs to receive the
highest numbers of votes in the right combination of states to win a
majority of the electoral vote.
The perverse incentives created by the Electoral
College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. Most states
are effectively ignored by the candidates, as they are seen as non-
competitive. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even
the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- are pitched
to swing voters in the key battleground states.
The Electoral College's democratic deficit is
compounded by the use of plurality elections -- ones where the
candidate with the most votes wins, even if less than a majority.
Plurality elections mean that a popular majority can be fractured by
the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any potential
ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the tens of
thousands of voters who supported Ralph Nader -- but who primarily
preferred him to George Bush.
So what can be done? Over the years, leading
national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted
Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume and John McCain have supported approaches to
amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to
institute a national direct election.
There are important questions to resolve,
however. What if, for example, the highest vote-getter only received
35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility
presents problems of legitimacy.
To prevent this problem, most direct election
amendments call for a second "runoff" election between the top two
finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote.
But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning
our highest office. A strong leader should command majority support.
Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates
would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and
the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be
more than a hundred million dollars. Voters would have to trudge out
to the polls one more time.
Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold
and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should
allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a
single election. The most efficient and inexpensive method is
instant runoff voting.
Instant runoff voting simulates a two-round
runoff in one election by allowing voters to cast their "runoff"
choices along with their first choice. Instead of having a second
election, ballot-counters just need to determine the runoff choices
of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the
runoff. The system is
used in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland and likely will be the
subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its
federal and state elections, including the president.
If George Bush is elected, his challenges will be
great in bringing the nation together despite his loss in the
popular vote. Rather than accept an Electoral College system that
can distort popular will and take most states out of play in
electing our national office, his support for direct election of the
president with a majority requirement would send a powerful message
that on issues of fundamental democratic fairness, we should move
beyond short-term partisan and parochial interests.
Win, lose or draw, it is time for George Bush, Al
Gore and our political leaders to join together and push for a
constitutional amendment that abolishes this 18th-century
[Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively,
the executive director and the western regional director of The
Center for Voting and Democracy and co-authors of "Reflecting All of
Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, see www.fairvote.org
or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.]
Electoral College outlives
By John B. Anderson
November 2, 2000
George W. Bush and Al Gore
have been criticizing each other for "fuzzy math." But how's this
for fuzzy math: There is a real chance that the presidential
candidate who wins the most votes this year will not win the
That's right -- that old whipping horse, the
Electoral College, once again may be the subject of well-deserved
scorn. The candidate with the most votes is elected in every other
election for federal office and in nearly all elections of any
consequence here and abroad. But instead of a simple national vote,
the Constitution requires the presidency to be decided by 51
separate elections in each state and the District of Columbia -- all
but Nebraska and Maine winner-take-all -- with electoral votes
allocated based on the size of each state's congressional
The last popular-vote winner defeated by the
college was Grover Cleveland in 1888. Since then, we have amended
the Constitution to elect senators directly, to guarantee women's
right to vote and to lower the voting age to 18. We have passed the
Voting Rights Act to provide access to the ballot regardless of race
or ethnicity. The Electoral College has escaped this move to greater
democracy only because of institutional inertia.
Rejection of the indirect election of a president
is overdue. Many Americans favor its abolition. If the winner of
this year's popular vote is defeated due to the vagaries of narrow
results in a handful of states, legislators will rush to file
constitutional amendments to abolish the Electoral College. I
suspect one will succeed.
Some senators propose awarding electoral votes in
states in proportion to the candidates' share of the vote. Others
support amendments to ensure that if no candidate wins an
electoral-vote majority, voters would pick the winners in a
second-round runoff election.
But direct election is the only viable solution.
Any intellectual arguments in favor of the Electoral College
collapse in the face of most people's visceral reaction against the
presidency going to a candidate whom they understandably regard as
having lost the contest.
Nevertheless, there are important questions to
resolve in proposals for direct election. For example, many
advocates call for a second round of voting between the top two
finishers if no candidate receives 40% of the popular vote.
But 40% is too low for winning the highest office
in the land. If anyone must command support, or at least acceptance,
from a majority of the people, it is the president. After setting a
majority threshold, however, we should not enshrine in the
Constitution the flawed mechanism of a separate runoff election.
Although common in many nations and in many
states and cities, runoffs are an awkward, inefficient process. If
the top two finishers in the presidential contest faced off in a
second, national round of voting, the costs would be exorbitant.
Candidates would have to grub for tens of millions of dollars in
extra cash to run a new campaign, and the cumulative additional
costs to local election administrators would be vast. And voter
turnout easily could drop in the decisive runoff.
Why not instant
Instead, the Constitution should permit other
mechanisms, such as instant-runoff voting, a more efficient and
inexpensive method used in several nations. Rather than select their
favorite choice, voters should be allowed to indicate their runoff
choices by rank-ordering the candidates: first, second, third and so
on. Any candidate with a majority of first choices is the winner.
If there is no winner, the weakest candidates are
eliminated, and a second round of counting takes place. Ballots
count for each voter's top-ranked candidate still in the race -- the
first choice, if not eliminated, but otherwise the first remaining
runoff choice. Rounds continue until there is a majority winner.
Ballot machines can handle this quickly and efficiently.
"Majority rule" is a basic tenet of democracy.
The Electoral College and 40% winning thresholds both fail this
test. Let's send a message to American voters that it is their
votes, and their votes alone, that count when electing our
[John B. Anderson, president of the Center for
Voting and Democracy, represented Illinois in the House and ran for
president in 1980 as an independent.]
The Perils of the
Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore are riding a roller
coaster in the presidential contest, with first one in the lead,
then the other. Even with Gov. Bush in the lead on the popular
voter, some odds makers still give Gore the lead in the projected
Electoral College vote. Bizarrely enough, in the case of such
a head-on collision, the U.S. Constitution trumps the vote of
That's because with the 18th-century Electoral College, each
of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual
contests. What's more, since the rules are Winner Take All and
heavily tilted toward the largest states, it means that a presidential
candidate need only win more votes than anyone else in each of
the 11 largest states to win enough electoral votes to capture
the prize. Not surprisingly, both Bush and Gore are spending more
time in large swing states like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Florida
and Pennsylvania than in smaller states or already-decided states.
So George Bush may win more popular votes nationwide, but Al
Gore could win more popular votes in enough key states to amass
enough Electoral College votes to become president. If that happens,
count on a big disconnect between an already disengaged public
and our national politics.
Since the Civil War, this calamity has only occurred in 1876
and 1888. But the specter hangs over every presidential election
that is remotely close. Leading national political figures like
Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, John McCain,
Kweisi Mfume and Strom Thurmond have supported previous proposals
to amend or scrap the Electoral College.
One reform would be for states to allocate their electoral votes
differently. Without making any changes to the U.S. Constitution,
states could use a proportional allocation like that used to allot
delegates in most presidential primaries. With a proportional
system, a candidate with 55 percent of the popular vote in a state
wins 55 percent of that state's electoral votes, but not all;
if the second place finisher receives 45 percent of the popular
vote, they win 45 percent of the electoral votes, instead of nothing.
If all states adopted this change, the effect would be to downplay
the importance of the 11 largest states, and make all states more
competitive for electoral votes and more attractive to presidential
candidates. This method has a logic and fairness to it that is
compelling. But critics of this reform point out that it also
could increase the possibility that, in a three-way race, no candidate
would receive a majority of the Electoral College vote.
To avoid such confusion, why not simply do away with this 18th-century
anachronism? All other federal elections are by a direct vote
of the people. Why not elect the president in a simple, national
vote? All voters then would be given equal attention no matter
where they lived.
One concern is that direct election could allow a candidate to
win with only 35% or 40% of the vote. To avoid minority rule,
the president should be required to command majority support.
Two-round runoffs, which are used in most southern primaries,
are one way to achieve this goal. The top two finishers face off
in a second election, ensuring that one of them will win a majority.
A more efficient and inexpensive method would be to use an 'instant
runoff.' An instant runoff simulates a two-round runoff in one
round of voting by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot
their top choice as well as their second and third "runoff" choices.
The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs,
and improves on their benefits. The instant runoff is likely to
be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002
and consideration in several state legislatures in 2001.
Direct election of the president using an instant runoff would
be the fairest and most efficient way to ensure that the nation's
chief executive commands support from a majority of voters. That's
certainly more than can be said for the antiquated Electoral College.
It is time to upgrade the democracy technology we use in electing
our most powerful office.
[Steven Hill is the western regional
director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and co-author of
"Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information,
see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC
Major Electoral College proposals of the past two
Numerous amendments over the past 20 years have addressed the Electoral
College. These proposals have called for eliminating, reforming or studying
the Electoral College. Options include a 40% runoff
a 50% runoff election, eliminating the Electoral College without
specifying the mechanism, proportional representation, retaining the Electoral College or studying it. The
Center for Voting and Democracy supports direct election, but
opposes direct election proposals that would establish a 40% runoff
threshold. For more details on each bill, go
to ìThomas,î which is the official website for Congressional
bills. It is found at:
election: direct popular election with a
runoff election between the top two candidates if no candidates
receives a majority of the popular vote.
1996 Campbell House bill (H.J.
Res. 180) Two cosponsors: Jacobs and Green
1997 Campbell House
Res. 43) No cosponsors
*Also appears to eliminate the
constitutional requirement that President and VP cannot come from
the same state.
Eliminates Electoral College, unclear further details.
1988 Exon Senate bill (S.J. Res.
362) Two cosponsors (Levin and Inouye) Provides for direct
election of President and VP, and eliminates the electoral
doesnít mention 40 percent threshold, although does note: ìRequires
such elections, other than runoff elections, to be held not later
than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in NovemberÖ
Election: direct popular vote with a second runoff election if
no candidate receives at least 40% of the popular vote. Note:
The Center for Voting and Democracy opposes these
1970s Burlison House bills ñ too
numerous to identify.
Many bills in the 1977 ñ 1979 era, didnít check before
1977. Some bills had
few cosponsors, some many (H.J. Res. 228 in 1977, for example, had
24 cosponsors, including John Anderson, Gephardt, George Brown, Pete
Stark, Gibbons, Pepper, etc.).
Other Burlison bills had Pease,
Vento, W.D. Ford, Downey, Kildee, Mollohan, Fazio, Stokes, Coelho,
etc.1979 Bayh Senate bill (S.J. Res. 28)
Note: Bayh also had similar 1977 and 1979 bills, both S.J. Res. 1,
with 44 cosponsors in 1977 and 38 cosponsors in 1979. 36
cosponsors (including todayís Leahy, Levin, Kennedy, and
Inouye). Bi-partisan (including Dole, Baker, Chafee,
Danforth, Hatfield, Tsongas, Ribicoff, Packwood, Cranston, Pell,
Stevenson, Mathias, Javits, Jackson, W.H. Ford) Failed on Floor
Vote: 51 Yes; 48 No (constitutional amendment needs 2/3
1981 Pryor Senate bill (S.J. Res. 8)
22 cosponsors (Bipartisan, including many of those listed below on
Pryorís 1983 bill).
1983 Pryor Senate bill (S.J. Res.
17) 19 cosponsors (including todayís Baucus and Levin)
Bi-partisan (including DeConcini, Glenn, Jackson, Pell, Boren,
Chafee, W.H. Ford, Metzenbaum, Proxmire, Stafford, Dole, Hatfield,
1993 Wise House bill (H.J. Res. 28)
30 cosponsors (mostly Democrats, including Glickman, Bonior, Tim
some Republicans such as as Greenwood and Molinar, along with
1995 Wise House bill (H.J. Res. 117)
13 cosponsors ñ all Democrats: Frank, Mfume, Danner, Jacobs,
Green, Owens, McDermott, Traficant, C. Collins, Dellums, Studds,
1999 LaHood House bill (H.J.
Res. 23) Only Wise cosponsored.
2000 Leach House bill (H.J. Res. 113)
Introduced October 12, 2000; no cosponsors
representation by state, based on direct
Senate bill (S.J. Res. 18)
Hatch, Talmadge, Scott. If at least 40 percent
aggregate electoral vote, they win; but if tie or no one gets 40
percent, the House and Senate choose between the top
*Summary doesnít state what it does with the Electoral
1979 Cannon Senate bill (S.J.
Res. 51) Four cosponsors.
Thurmond, Goldwater, Talmadge, H. Byrd. If at least 40
percent aggregate electoral vote, they win; but if tie or no one
gets 40 percent, the House and Senate choose between the top
two. Repeals provisions of Constitution relating to the
Retains Electoral College,
provides for a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of
1992 Gorton Senate bill (S.J.
Res. 312) Seven cosponsors. Current are: Bond, Warner,
McConnell, Stevens, McCain.
Former Senators: Seymour, Garn *Also note that 1992
Rep. Gillmor had his own bill (H.J. Res. 513, no cosponsors) with the
Electoral College Study
1985 Gekas House bill
(H.R. 507) Seven
cosponsors: (bi-partisan): deLugo, Rangel, Bentley, R. Lehman,
Lagomarsino, C. Collins,
Blaz. Establishes commission to analyze and study the
merits and failings of the EC.
Fix system before we elect
October 26, 2000
If most American voters cast ballots for George
W. Bush, but Al Gore still manages to end up in the White House,
folks would suspect the election was fixed.
But that scenario is possible unless we fix our flawed Electoral
College system. By barely beating Bush in 11 key states, Gore could
capture the 270 Electoral College votes needed to lock up the
presidency, even if the overwhelming majority of our nation's voters
The last "loser president" was elected in 1888 when Benjamin
Harrison lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
Just because "the dreaded specter of a clear popular loser
becoming the Electoral College winner hasn't happened in this
century," doesn't mean we should wait to fix the system, notes Akhil
Amar, a prominent constitutional law professor at Yale Law School.
"A car with a defective airbag might seem to run quite well until
there's a collision ...," Amar said during his 1997 testimony before
a House subcommittee studying the issue of Electoral College reform.
"If 'we the people' would want to amend the Constitution after the
'loser president' materializes - and I tend to think we would - why
are we now just waiting for the inevitable accident to happen?"
Despite decades of public criticism and the logic of Amar and
other Electoral College opponents, nothing has changed. While we are
careful - justifiably so - about rewriting the Constitution, the
Electoral College system is not one of those Founding Fathers'
notions worth protecting.
"The biggest reason it was set up was to protect slavery," Amar
tells me Wednesday, noting that for 32 of our first 36 years as a
nation, the Electoral College elected "a slave-owning Virginian" to
Without the Electoral College, Northern states that let free
blacks vote would have had more votes and more power, and a state
wanting to elect a particular candidate could have doubled its clout
instantly simply by extending voting rights to women, Amar says.
Justification for the Electoral College is rooted "in racism and
sexism," Amar says, noting no other political bodies (whether
foreign nations or our own states and cities) think enough of the
Electoral College system to use it for their elections.
The 15th Amendment in 1870 gave black men the right to vote. A
half-century later, the federal government decided women, too, could
be trusted with the vote. But the Electoral College survives into
the 21st century.
The winner-take-all system (except in Maine and Nebraska where
electors can split the state's votes) is unfair to third-party
candidates such as Ross Perot, whose 18.9 percent of the 1996 vote
was rewarded with 0.0 percent of the Electoral College vote. This
year, it will be unfair to Ralph Nader, whose backers will be
invisible to the Electoral College unless they turn their back on
their candidate and vote for Gore as the candidate closest to Nader
on the issues.
That's why Amar favors the instant-runoff election concept I
praised in Tuesday's column. Call The Center for Voting and
Democracy at (301) 270-4616 or see www.fairvote.org for details.
"People say it's too complicated. It's not at all," Amar says,
explaining how the instant-runoff concept is much easier to
understand than the convoluted Electoral College.
With instant-runoff, a voter select the candidate he wants to
win, his second choice and so on. The candidate with the fewest
first-place votes is eliminated and second choices on those ballots
We use the concept "all the time," Amar says, providing an
example. "My wife tells me to go to the grocery store and pick up
brand X, but if they don't have that, then get brand Y."
That precaution saves us from bringing home a "loser" brand of
frozen peas. Let's use it to protect ourselves from electing a