About that pesky Electoral College

Thursday, November 10, 2016



"The people elected Hillary Clinton.
The system elected Donald Trump"


"The states and people elected Donald Trump in a system meant to offer voice to both."

The system of government set forth in the Constitution is built to protect states' rights to elect their leader, and was never intended to be a pure democracy. This "system" was chosen by the original people -- the founding fathers. It may need to be revisited now, since we are more divided by urban/rural than states boundaries, but it's working as it was intended, which never had anything to do with putting the "system" above people.

Here's a really extreme example of what they wanted to avoid:

Let's say there are 8 states:

  • Alabama - 2 mil people
  • California - 16 mil
  • Delaware - 2 mil
  • Florida - 2 mil
  • Georgia - 2 mil
  • Hawaii - 2 mil
  • Illinois - 2 mil
  • Kansas - 2 mil

If everyone in California were to want Ronald Trumpster for president, he'd get 16 million votes. If everyone in all the other states voted for Helen Crampton, she'd get 14 million votes.

But the founding fathers thought it didn't seem fair that 7 states would then have an elected federal leader that they weren't happy with. One state was ruling them all.

So instead they tried to design a system balanced between states' interests as a collective and the overall popular voice. I think it's a mistake for us to believe either that it's perfect or totally broken. It's doing the job it was intended.

All the states get at least 3 electoral votes -- 2 for the Senate, and 1 for the House, and then additional House seats depending on size.

Fudging the actual math to suit a simpler example, the electoral votes might be apportioned to have 1 house vote per 2 million people, with a minimum of 1 per state:

  • Alabama - 3 electoral votes
  • California - 3 e.v. + 7 extra House seat e.v. (16 mil / 2 mil = 8 total)
  • Delaware - 3 e.v.
  • Florida - 3 e.v.
  • Georgia - 3 e.v.
  • Hawaii - 3 e.v.
  • Illinois - 3 e.v.
  • Kansas - 3 e.v.

As you can see, in this election, Helen Crampton would win with 21 electoral votes to Ronald Trumpster's 10, and 7 of 8 states are happy instead of only 1/8.

In this extreme example, California's 16 million voices take to the internet and claim the country is not representing the people's voice.

But abolishment of the electoral college would have given voice only to California's people, which, unfortunately for the unhappy 16 million Californians, is exactly what the writers of the constitution hoped to avoid.

Although I wasn't present for the drafting of the constitution, reaching back to my high school U.S. History class (for which I also wasn't really present), I remember this being discussed. The founding fathers were very aware of the risks of diverse geographic challenges in a large and disparate land, and that population growth could end up favoring one particular geographic division over all the others.

I think we sometimes tend to forget that a State is not just a subdivision of the country, but was given special status to many protected rights by the design the founders intended. States are special; this delegation of rights to the states is not extended down to any other locale division (unless a state's constitution wanted it that way). Most of the time we're not noticing its affect on our daily lives, and only occasionally do hot-button legislative issues (like Obamacare) bring this back to our attention, but the balance between Federal and State was always intended to work this way.

In fact, if a large state wanted to distribute its vote more according to land than to popular vote, it could create it's own electoral college to give similar power to each county. In Utah, for example, this would have the effect of severely diminishing the vote of the people of Salt Lake County.

Is this design "fair"? I think fair really is just what works for us. It was certainly intended to be fair for a long time, which is why it was written write into the constitution. 240 years on, a lot has changed, and states' lines are blurred more than ever. Especially with the internet, states operate for the people less than ever as cohesive units compared to other divisions like urban/rural. The needs of the people of Seattle are more like New York City than those of Spokane, WA.

It may be time (and I think it is) to revisit whether the system is working for us anymore, but to describe it as a "system" that is anything other than one to ultimate serve the people is inaccurate.

It's just a system designed to work for a people with very different diversity and geographical challenges than we have today.