Our latest episode with Hannah and Nick of the Civics 101 podcast was as enlightening as it was fun to make. We talked about a range of subjects important to democracy, and at one point we were discussing the Electoral College. Hannah made two very interesting points: 1) the Electoral College is a holdover from slavery and 2) it favors only one-third of the American electorate.

Listen to our interview with them here!

How does the Electoral College Actually Work?

We talk about it in the episode which you can listen to above, but we thought it might be interesting (and helpful) to give a quick overview of exactly what the EC is, and how we got it in the first place. You can also check out Civics 101’s awesome episode on the EC here!

The EC is made up of 538 electors, who come from each of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia. According to law, each state is awarded one elector per US Representative, and one elector per US Senator. And, thanks to the 23rd Amendment, DC gets 3 EC votes, even though they aren’t represented in the House or Senate.

Whichever presidential candidate wins a state receives the full amount of that state’s Electoral College votes, in a system called “Winner Take All.” The exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which require their Electoral College representatives to vote for whichever candidate won the county they represent. The two EC delegates awarded for Senate seats go to the winner of the state overall.

The first presidential candidate to win 270 Electoral College votes is named the next President of the United States. It is for this reason our electoral system is called “Indirect Popular Voting.”

Why do we do it this way?

The US Constitution was drafted in 1787, when America was a completely different country. For starters, there were only 13 states, but more importantly, slavery was still in full effect. This meant that 40% of the population of the Southern States was enslaved. The majority of America’s eligible voters resided in the ‘free states’ of the North (although the North still totally had slaves). Many landowning Southerners looked at the possibility of direct popular voting and realized that no matter what they did, the North would always have more voters (if not more people) and would thus monopolize American political debate.

One person who was especially worried about this was white, slave-owning Virginian James Madison, AKA ‘The Father of the Constitution’. During the drafting of the Constitution, he famously argued that slaves must be counted because:

The right of suffrage was much more diffusive in the Northern than the Southern States; and the latter could have no influence in the election on the score of Negroes.”

He then went on to propose what would become the Electoral College. Seriously, same speech.

Madison and his slave-owning friends had their way, which led to the infamous ‘three-fifths compromise,’ whereby each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for census purposes. The Electoral College was born. The 12th Amendment changed it to allow for separate election of President and Vice President, but the underlying idea remained the same.

Unsurprisingly, the Southern slant of the Electoral College became immediately clear. After ratification, the first President of the US was a white, slave-owning Virginian. So was the third one. And the fourth one. And the fifth one. For 32 of the first 36 years of the Presidency, the president was a white slave-holder from Virginia.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Who does it help today?

The Electoral College is a legislative holdover from a time long-passed, and it’s one of the most controversial parts of our government. The National Archives reports that there have been more than 700 attempts to overturn or abolish the Electoral College since its inception. The problem is, it’s in the Constitution, so it’ll take another amendment to get it removed—and not everyone thinks it’s such a bad thing.

Supporters say it benefits small states, and keeps them relevant in national elections. This is both true and untrue. Yes, it gives states with smaller populations a better voter-to-electoral-college-vote ratio, but since they’re small states to begin with they’re only going to have three-to-five EC votes anyway. In 2016, the nine smallest states got exactly zero visits in the general election, according to The Week, and six ‘battleground states’ (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, and Michigan) got two thirds of all visits.

Additionally, a recent University of Texas study found that if the general election is within 1 point, there is a 45% chance the winner of the popular vote will lose the Electoral College—and it’s heavily in favor of Republicans. That’s because Democrats do well in large, urban states, whereas Republicans clean up with less populous, rural states. To back this up, look no further than 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by more than 500,000 and 2016, which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than 3 million.

It’s complicated, archaic, and sometimes results in the loser of the popular vote winning the White House—but it’s our system and it’s going to take some serious doing to get rid of it. For more from someone who’d like nothing more than to see it gone, check out our interview with Indivisible co-director Ezra Levin.

Also: check us out on YouTube!

Works Cited

  • “12th Amendment.” The Constitution of the United States, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxii.
  • “23rd Amendment.” The Constitution of the United States, Legal Information Institute, www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/amendmentxxiii.
  • Amar, Akhil Reed. “Election 2016: The Real Reason the Electoral College Exists.” Time, Time, 26 Nov. 2018, time.com/4558510/electoral-college-history-slavery/.
  • Bemis, Samuel Flagg. “James Monroe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/James-Monroe.
  • Brant, Irving. “James Madison.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/James-Madison.
  • Contributors, HowStuffWorks.com. “Why Does the U.S. Have an Electoral College?” HowStuffWorks, HowStuffWorks, 20 Sept. 2000, people.howstuffworks.com/question472.htm.
  • Cooper, Ryan. “The Electoral College Doesn’t Benefit Small States. What It Does Is Even Dumber.” The Week, The Week, 10 May 2019, theweek.com/articles/840362/electoral-college-doesnt-benefit-small-states-what-does-even-dumber.
  • “Electoral College – Constitution: Laws.com.” Constitution, constitution.laws.com/electoral-college.
  • Ellis, Joseph J. “Thomas Jefferson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Jefferson.
  • Elving, Ron. “How Does The Electoral College Work, And Is It Fair?” NPR, NPR, 6 Nov. 2016, www.npr.org/2016/11/06/500660424/how-the-electoral-college-works-and-why-you-don-t-want-to-think-about-it.
  • FairVote.org. “How the Electoral College Became Winner-Take-All.” FairVote, 21 Aug. 2012, www.fairvote.org/how-the-electoral-college-became-winner-take-all.
  • Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: from the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-First Century. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.
  • “Frequently Asked Questions.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/faq.html#changes.
  • Geruso, Michael, and Dean Spears. “Inversions in US Presidential Elections: 1836-2016.” The University of Texas Electoral College Study, The University of Texas, 2019, utecs.org/.
  • Graff, Henry, and Allan Nevins. “George Washington.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Oct. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/George-Washington.
  • Harris, Julie. “Why Maine Splits Its Electoral Votes.” Bangor Daily News, Bangor Daily News, 8 Nov. 2010, bangordailynews.com/2008/10/26/politics/why-maine-splits-its-electoral-votes/.
  • Kirk, Chris. “Which States Have the Most Powerful Votes?” Slate Magazine, 2 Nov. 2012, www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/map_of_the_week/2012/11/presidential_election_a_map_showing_the_vote_power_of_all_50_states.html.
  • “Madison Debates July 19.” Avalon Project , Yale Law School, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/debates_719.asp.
  • Nalewicki, Jennifer. “The Electoral College Has Been Divisive Since Day One.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 7 Dec. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/electoral-college-has-been-divisive-day-one-180961171/.
  • “Three Fifths Compromise – Constitution: Laws.com.” Constitution, constitution.laws.com/three-fifths-compromise.
  • “What Is the Electoral College?” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/about.html.

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