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George Edwards: Five myths about the Electoral College

  • Washington Post
  • Published Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, at 5:04 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, at 5:04 p.m.

Could Mitt Romney win the popular vote Tuesday while President Obama captures a majority of the 538 electoral votes and a return trip to the White House? Recent polling results have raised just that possibility, reminding Americans once again that they cast ballots, but they don’t elect presidents directly. That job falls to the Electoral College, a system that requires candidates to win states, not just votes. Let’s take a look at the main justifications for maintaining the Electoral College and see how they stand up to scrutiny.

•  Myth No. 1: The framers created the Electoral College to protect small states.

The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had a variety of reasons for settling on the Electoral College format, but protecting smaller states was not among them. Some delegates feared direct democracy, but that was only one factor in the debate.

Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that had slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states. A direct election for president did not sit well with most delegates from the slave states, which had large populations but far fewer eligible voters. They gravitated toward the Electoral College as a compromise because it was based on population. The convention had agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating each state’s allotment of seats in Congress. For Virginia, which had the largest population among the original 13 states, that meant more clout in choosing the president.

The Electoral College distorts the political process by providing a huge incentive to visit competitive states, especially large ones with hefty numbers of electoral votes. That’s why Obama and Romney have spent so much time this year in states like Ohio and Florida. In the 2008 general election, Obama and John McCain personally campaigned in only five of the 29 smallest states.

The framers protected the interests of smaller states by creating the Senate, which gives each state two votes regardless of population. There is no need for additional protection. Do we really want a presidency responsive to parochial interests in a system already prone to gridlock? The framers didn’t.

•  Myth No. 2: The Electoral College ensures that the winner has broad support.

Supporters argue that the Electoral College format prevents candidates from targeting specific groups and regions, instead forcing them to seek votes across the country. But that’s not the way it has worked out in recent presidential contests. Generally, Republicans have tried to stitch together an Electoral College majority from the South, Southwest and Rocky Mountain states, while Democrats have relied on the large states on both coasts and the Midwest, leaving certain swing states (hello, Florida!) as perennial battlegrounds.

Any system of electing the president requires some version of broad support, but the Electoral College does little to promote that goal. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won in the Electoral College. His victory came largely from his support among white men. He did not win majorities among women, blacks, Latinos, urbanites, the young, the old or those with less-than-average income. In short, Bush claimed the White House with the backing of one dominant group, not with broad support.

•  Myth No. 3: The Electoral College preserves stability in our political system by discouraging third parties.

The Electoral College offers no guarantee of such “stability” – in fact, history suggests otherwise. The Republican Party was born as a third (or even fourth) party, and it quickly established itself as a major force in the 1856 and 1860 elections. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third-party nominee, and though he didn’t win, he easily bested his former party’s candidate, the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft.

The Electoral College system gives a third-party candidate more opportunities to create mischief than a direct election does. Think about what could happen in a neck-and-neck contest: If a third-party nominee won enough states to prevent either major-party candidate from winning the 270 electoral votes needed for a majority, the House of Representatives would decide the outcome. Each state delegation would have one vote; Vermont and Wyoming would count the same as Texas and New York. That’s hardly a recipe for stability.

In addition, under the Electoral College, a third party can tip the balance in a closely contested state. In 2000, Ralph Nader siphoned votes away from Gore in Florida. Had Nader not run, Gore could have won the election.

Direct elections, especially those without a runoff, prevent such problems. Coming in third or fourth would gain a party no leverage in the selection of the president.

•  Myth No. 4: In direct elections, candidates would campaign only in large cities.

Under any system, candidates try to spend their time in places where they can reach the most voters. But in a direct election, with every vote counting equally, candidates would have an incentive to appeal to voters everywhere, not just those in swing states. Because the price of advertising is mainly a function of market size, it does not cost more to reach 10,000 voters in Wyoming than it does to reach 10,000 voters in New York or Los Angeles.

It’s the Electoral College that shortchanges voters. Because it makes no sense for candidates to spend time or money in states they either cannot win or are certain to win, thriving cities such as Atlanta, San Francisco and El Paso get no love from White House hopefuls.

Making every vote count in every state would have other benefits. It would stimulate party-building efforts and increase turnout. People are more likely to cast a ballot if they think their vote matters.

•  Myth No. 5: Electors must vote for the candidate who wins their state.

In theory, this is true. In practice, however, electors may vote for whomever they please, and on rare occasions, they do. In a tight election, such behavior might deny either candidate a majority of the electoral vote and throw the election into the House of Representatives.

For generations, pollsters have found that a clear majority of Americans support direct election of the president. The longer we cling to the Electoral College, the longer we’ll have presidential campaigns that leave large numbers of voters feeling left out, along with a system that distorts the public’s preferences.

George C. Edwards III is the Winant professor of American government at Oxford University in Britain and the university distinguished professor of political science at Texas A&M University.

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