Why the Electoral College Works

Why the Electoral College Works

Draft Essay by Mike Miller - November 13, 2000

Since the early 1970's, the League of Women Voters has been pushing for the abolishment of the Electoral College. And now, just days after winning the Senate seat in New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton is pushing to "do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our presidents." The argument is "one person, one vote", meaning that each person's vote should count equally.

However, since we live in the republic called the United States of America, and have a constitutional form of government where the states are supposed to be sovereign (i.e. independent), each state should get an equal vote, roughly proportional to the population. And our country's constitution clearly explains (in Article II, Section 1) that we, the people, do not vote directly for President; rather, the elected Electors in each state vote for president based on each state's popular vote. (See the Wikipedia entry for a quick review). There are good, solid reasons why 700+ attempts to abolish or "modernize" the Electoral College over the years have all failed.

The Electoral College ensures that the winning candidate is popular across a broad cross-section of the country, not only highly polarized, densely populated areas. Take, for example, the presidential election of 2000. As of this writing, George Bush has won 29 states and 2,434 counties, while Al Gore has won only 19 states and 677 counties. Yet the popular vote is incredibly close.

Election map by county

In the state of Florida, Bush won over three-fourths of the counties. This means that, since the popular vote is nearly even for both candidates, Gore won in mostly densely-populated areas while Bush won the majority of the rural areas across the nation.

UPDATE: Here's what the county-by-county map looks like for the Clinton/Trum election of 2016, in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote:

Under a system of a strictly popular vote, a candidate would only have to campaign and demagogue to heavily-populated areas such as southern California, Texas, New York, and Florida. Candidates would never need to campaign in states like Delaware, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Thus, in effect, the country would be run by mob rule, by the citizens of the few, densely-populated areas with similar demographics; it would likely be a system of minority rule despite the intents of those who favor this system.

However, under the current system with the Electoral College, smaller and/or rural states are given a more equal weighting so that in order for a candidate to be elected, he must garner support from a wider cross-section of the population of the country.

The Electoral College, by design, punishes the candidate that appeals only to a limited region of the country.

Another way to state this is in order for a candidate to win, he must be consistently popular across the country. Take this analogy to the game of baseball, as suggested in an article by Will Hively entitled Math Against Tyranny in which he discusses the analysis of physicist Alan Natapoff:

The more Natapoff looked into the nitty-gritty of real elections, the more parallels he found with another American institution that stirs up wild passions in the populace. The same logic that governs our electoral system, he saw, also applies to many sports--which Americans do, intuitively, understand. In baseball's World Series, for example, the team that scores the most runs overall is like a candidate who gets the most votes. But to become champion, that team must win the most games. In 1960, during a World Series as nail-bitingly close as that year's presidential battle between Kennedy and Nixon, the New York Yankees, with the awesome slugging combination of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Bill "Moose" Skowron, scored more than twice as many total runs as the Pittsburgh Pirates, 55 to 27. Yet the Yankees lost the series, four games to three. Even Natapoff, who grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, conceded that Pittsburgh deserved to win. "Nobody walked away saying it was unfair," he says.

Runs must be grouped in a way that wins games, just as popular votes must be grouped in a way that wins states. The Yankees won three blowouts (16-3, 10-0, 12-0), but they couldn't come up with the runs they needed in the other four games, which were close. "And that's exactly how Cleveland lost the series of 1888," Natapoff continues. "Grover Cleveland. He lost the five largest states by a close margin, though he carried Texas, which was a thinly populated state then, by a large margin. So he scored more runs, but he lost the five biggies." And that was fair, too. In sports, we accept that a true champion should be more consistent than the 1960 Yankees. A champion should be able to win at least some of the tough, close contests by every means available--bunting, stealing, brilliant pitching, dazzling plays in the field--and not just smack home runs against second-best pitchers. A presidential candidate worthy of office, by the same logic, should have broad appeal across the whole nation, and not just play strongly on a single issue to isolated blocs of voters.

"Experts, scholars, deep thinkers could make errors on electoral reform," Natapoff decided, "but nine-year-olds could explain to a Martian why the Yankees lost in 1960, and why it was right. And both have the same underlying abstract principle."

Also, there is clear mathematical evidence that each person's vote is more powerful under the current system than it would be under a national popular vote. The idea is rather simple: The larger the number of votes, the less any single vote will have an effect on the overall result.

These insights came quickly, but it was many years before Natapoff devised his formal mathematical proof. His starting point was the concept of voting power. In a fair election, he saw, each voter's power boils down to this: What is the probability that one person's vote will be able to turn a national election? The higher the probability, the more power each voter commands. To figure out these probabilities, Natapoff devised his own model of a national electorate--a more realistic model, he thought, than the ones the quoted experts were always using. Almost always, he found, individual voting power is higher when funneled through districts--such as states--than when pooled in one large, direct election. It is more likely, in other words, that your one vote will determine the outcome in your state and your state will then turn the outcome of the electoral college, than that your vote will turn the outcome of a direct national election. A voter therefore, Natapoff found, has more power under the current electoral system.


It's easy to see the effect of size. Your vote matters less in a larger pool of votes: it's the same drop in a bigger bucket and less likely to change the outcome of an election. However, in a ridiculously small nation of, say, three voters, your vote would carry immense power. An election would turn on your ballot 50 percent of the time. For a simple example, let's assume that only two candidates are running, A versus B, and each vote is like a random coin toss, with a 50 percent chance of going either way. In your nation of three, there's a 50 percent chance that the other two voters will split, one for A and the other for B, and thus a 50 percent chance that your single vote will determine the election. There's also, of course, a 25 percent chance both will vote for A and a 25 percent chance both will vote for B, making your vote unimportant. But that potential tie-splitting power puts all voters in a powerful position; candidates will give each of you a lot of respect.

Since your state's electoral votes are based on its popular vote, your vote is definitely more powerful than if only the national popular vote were counted.
As a nation gets larger, each citizen's voting power shrinks. When Natapoff computes voting power--the probability that one vote will turn the election--he is really computing the probability that the rest of the nation will deadlock. If you are part of a five-voter nation, the other four voters would have to split--two for A and two for B--for your vote to turn the election. The probability of that happening is 3 in 8, or 37.5 percent. (The other possibilities are three votes for A and one for B, a 25 percent probability; three for B and one for A, also 25 percent; four for A, 6.25 percent; and four for B, 6.25 percent.) As the nation's size goes up, individual voting power continues to drop, roughly as the square root of size. Among 135 citizens, for instance, there are so many ways the others can divide and make your vote meaningless--say, 66 for A and 68 for B--that the probability of deadlock drops to 6.9 percent. In the 1960 presidential race, one of the closest ever, more than 68 million voters went to the polls. A deadlock would have been 34,167,371 votes for Kennedy and the same for Nixon (also-rans not included). Instead, Kennedy squeaked past Nixon 34,227,096 to 34,107,646. You might as well try to balance a pencil on its point as try to swing a modern U.S. election with one vote. In a typical large election, individuals or small groups of voters have little chance of being critical to a raw-vote victory, and they therefore have little bargaining power with a prospective president.

So, is the Electoral College perfect? Certainly not. I agree with Natapoff that we no longer need human bodies to actually cast electoral ballots. This part is indeed archaic; the votes should be automatic. Making the electoral votes automatic would eliminate the fear that an elector will vote against his state's popular vote.

Also, to further the power of each individual vote, as described by the mathematics above, all states should abandon the winner-takes-all system and operate like Nebraska and Maine do: that each electoral ballot is cast by the popular vote in each district, and the two remaining cast to reflect the state's overall popular vote. (See Making sense of Electoral College). And, perhaps even more importantly, this small change would allow third party candidates to be heard and represented, thus forcing the Democrats and Republicans to pay attention to the platforms of, say, the Libertarian Party or the Reform Party.

Completely abolishing the Electoral College is not a good idea, but there are certainly a few small changes that would alleviate much of the potential problems we voters face today.

See also: