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 requirement .  Here are some recent commentaries on this topic.

  • Rob Richie and Steve Hill make the case against the Electoral College in the Hartford Courant .
  • John Anderson publishes an op-ed in USA Today.
  • Steve Hill writes a commentary that runs in Roll 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 bills 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 elsewhere]

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 anachronism.

[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.]

USA Today

Electoral College outlives usefulness
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 election.

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 delegation.

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.

Alternative proposals

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 runoff?

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 leaders.

[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.]

Roll Call

The Perils of the Electoral College
Steven Hill
October 2000

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 the people.

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 20039.]

Major Electoral College proposals of the past two decades
Eric Olson

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 election, a 50% runoff election, eliminating the Electoral College without specifying the mechanism, proportional representationretaining 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: http://thomas.loc.gov/

50% Runoff 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 bill (H.J. 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 college.  Abstract 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

40% Runoff 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 proposals.

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 vote)

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, Mathias)

1993 Wise House bill (H.J. Res. 28) 30 cosponsors (mostly Democrats, including Glickman, Bonior, Tim Johnson, but some Republicans such as as Greenwood and Molinar, along with independent Sanders)

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, Luther, Barcia

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

Proportional representation by state, based on direct popular vote.

1977 Thurmond Senate bill (S.J. Res. 18)  Three cosponsors.  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 two.
*Summary doesnít state what it does with the Electoral College

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 Electoral College

Retains Electoral College, provides for a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of EC.

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 same proposal.

Electoral College Study Bill

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.

Daily Herald (IL)

Fix system before we elect 'loser president' 
By Burt Constable
October 26, 2000
http://www.dailyherald.com/oped/col_constable.asp?intID=36825276

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 select Bush.

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 be president.

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 are counted.

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 "loser" president.