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Fallacy of the Electoral College

Updated on November 13, 2016
The Electoral College is part of the US Constitution.
The Electoral College is part of the US Constitution. | Source

The buzz these days is about electoral voting vs. the popular vote. We're all hearing about the Electoral College. What is this Electoral College? How did it come into being? And what are the duties of the electorate?

Each state has a set number of electoral votes based on how many representatives and senators it sends to Congress. This is mostly geared around the state's population, which is why California has 55 electoral votes to North Dakota's three. These electors comprise the Electoral College.

Here's the great fallacy concerning the Electoral College: The electorates must vote the way the state population voted. That is untrue. In many cases, the electors can vote any way they choose. Even if they are bound to vote one way, they may vote how they choose and simply pay a fine for being a "faithless elector."

The significance of the Electoral College in 2016 is that one candidate, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote, while the other candidate, Donald Trump won majority votes in key states. Because he won those states, even by a narrow margin, he's supposed to get all the electoral votes from that state.

Yet, just looking at the numbers, Clinton won the election. The electors actually have it in their power to ratify the will of the people, despite the current construct of the Electoral College.

The Founding Fathers devised the Electoral College as a circuit breaker, not as the main method for election.
The Founding Fathers devised the Electoral College as a circuit breaker, not as the main method for election. | Source

Origin of the Electoral College

It all started when everything else in our country started -- the 18th century after we won our independence from Great Britain.

The Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, and one of the major issues the Founding Fathers discussed was how to elect a president. Here are some of the methods they considered:

  • Selection by state legislatures
  • Selection by Congress
  • Selection by state governors
  • Selection by specially chosen members of Congress
  • Selection by popular vote

This important matter was referred to a Committee of Eleven on Postponed Matters. David Brearley chaired the committe, which included James Madison. It was these Eleven who devised the Electoral College.

Minor changes were made to the original proposal of the Electoral College before it was included in the Constitution of the United States. The method for allotting electors is two senatorial electors in each state plus one each for members in the House of Representatives. The latter is based on population.

The 2016 allocation of electoral votes.
The 2016 allocation of electoral votes. | Source

Purpose of the Electoral College

I remember being in elementary school and hearing my social studies teacher tell us about the Electoral College. It was one of those aha moments -- up until then, I'd thought people voted, and the candidate with the most votes won. Democracy.

When I heard that an entity called the Electoral College decided the vote, I thought that was horribly unfair. Why couldn't they just tally the votes and give victory to the winner?

My teacher answered with what's still considered general wisdom:

"The system is supposed to ensure that small states' interests are not drowned out by those of larger states."

That's actually a direct quote from, but it's the essence of what my teacher said.

Remember, state electoral votes are partially based on population. So, more populous states have more electoral votes -- the same way they'd have more direct votes.

In truth, as Huffington Post points out, the Electoral College is meant to be a circuit breaker. The Founding Fathers were worried that a charismatic tyrant could bedazzle the people, and they'd vote for him despite their best interests.

In Federalist No. 10, one of a series of essays written to promote the new US Constitution, James Madison argued the following for representative democracy:

"As each representative [elector] will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters. . . ."

Madison essentially argued that an informed party of representatives -- electors -- would be better able to look past the charisma of a potential tyrant and vote in the best interests of the nation.

In Federalist No, 68, another of the essays, Alexander Hamilton concurred:

"...the immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern their choice."

As the Huffington Post puts it, the Electoral College is essentially a measure of second-guessing the popular vote -- not of circumventing it altogether.

So, why do we even have this perception that it's the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that determines the next President of the United States?

The 2016 national ballot. Elector candidates do not appear under their respective candidates.
The 2016 national ballot. Elector candidates do not appear under their respective candidates. | Source

Procedure for the Electoral College

I don't know about you, but I've always pictured the Electoral College as some shady, slightly Masonic entity. In fact, it turns out we vote on our electors. I even participated in nominating the electors.

In campaign years, electors are nominated by their political parties or other party grouping. Colorado, my home state, elects it presidential nominees via caucus, and I attended mine this year. I watched a couple of the electors for my state (Colorado has nine) nominated.

Different states have different procedures. For example, rather than during a caucus, some state parties vote in their elector via a party committee. Each state's legislature provides rules for nominating electors.

Fun fact: You're voting for electoral candidates, not presidential candidates, when you cast your ballot.

Here's how it works. Colorado has nine electoral votes. That means both the Democratic and the Republican candidate had nine electors. 1,212,209 people voted for the Democratic candidate to 1,137,455 for the Republican. Therefore, all nine of the Democratic electors get to cast their votes, while none of the Republicans get to do so.

That's why the perception is that the Electoral College determines who the next US President is. Electors are generally expected to vote for their party candidate.

There is a certain shadiness involved in the process in that, according to Constitution Center, the list of electors doesn't actually appear on the ballot. So, you don't actually know for whom you're voting.

In fact, the parameters for who can be an elector are very broad. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution outline who cannot be an elector:

" Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector."

That's it.

The Electoral College vote takes place on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December -- this year it's December 19. The electors are expected to assemble within their respective states, usually at the State Capitol.

The vote of the Electoral College does not have to go for Donald Trump.
The vote of the Electoral College does not have to go for Donald Trump. | Source

The Vote of the Electoral College

So, as it stands right now, the electorate will meet on December 19, 2016. It's expected that all electors will cast their votes for their party's candidate. That means Donald Trump will become President of the United States despite having lost the popular vote by over half a million.

The number is actually 630,877 -- that many more people voted for Hillary Clinton.

As Fair Vote points out, there is no federal law requiring electors to vote for their pledged candidate. Additionally, almost half of the states -- 21 specifically -- do not have laws that compel the electors to vote along party lines. The following states do have legal control over their electors:

Alabama (Code of Ala. §17-19-2)
Alaska (Alaska Stat. §15.30.090)
California (Election Code §6906)
Colorado (CRS §1-4-304)
Connecticut (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-176)
Delaware (15 Del C §4303)
District of Columbia (§1-1312(g))
Florida (Fla. Stat. §103.021(1))
Hawaii (HRS §14-28)
Maine (21-A MRS §805)
Maryland (Md Ann Code art 33, §8-505)
Massachusetts (MGL, ch. 53, §8)
Michigan (MCL §168.47)
Mississippi (Miss Code Ann §23-15-785)
Montana (MCA §13-25-104)
Nebraska (§32-714)
Nevada (NRS §298.050)
New Mexico (NM Stat Ann §1-15-9)
North Carolina (NC Gen Stat §163-212)
Ohio (ORC Ann §3505.40)
Oklahoma (26 Okl St §10-102)
Oregon (ORS §248.355)
South Carolina (SC Code Ann §7-19-80)
Tennessee (Tenn Code Ann §2-15-104(c))
Utah (Utah Code Ann §20A-13-304)
Vermont (17 VSA §2732)
Virginia (§24.2-203)
Washington (RCW §29.71.020)
Wisconsin (Wis Stat §7.75)
Wyoming (Wyo Stat §22-19-108)

The laws vary. However, those states require the electors to vote the way of the party or face a small fine, typically $1,000. These are the "faithless electors." Additionally, Minnesota and Michigan have the power to discount electorate votes that go against the pledge.

Now, no Electoral College as ever overturned the electoral vote. Conversely, three times the Electoral College has overturned the popular vote:

  • 1876: Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote by more than 250,000 ballots to Samuel J. Tilden, but won the election by a margin of one electoral vote.
  • 1888: Benjamin Harrison lost the popular vote by more than 90,000 votes to Grover Cleveland, but received 233 electoral votes to win the presidency.
  • 2000: George W. Bush lost the popular vote by 540,000 to Al Gore, but he won the electoral vote, 271 to 266.

Additionally, in 1824, John Quincey Adams lost out to Andrew Jackson in both the popular vote and the electoral vote. Jackson failed to win a majority electoral votes, so the decision went to Congress -- who named Adams President.

Historically, electors have voted against how they've pledged. However, they've never influenced a result.

It all boils down to this: The electors can vote any way they see fit, even if pledged to a specific vote. They have the historical right to do so, and mostly have the legal right as well.

In other words, while there is precedence for voting against the popular vote, there is no reason to do so.

Hillary Clinton received almost 200,000 more votes than Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton received almost 200,000 more votes than Donald Trump. | Source

How the Electoral College Should Vote

Should the Electoral College uphold the popular vote?

See results Petition houses a petition to the Electoral College to overturn how their states voted and instead uphold the popular vote:

Electoral College: Make Hillary Clinton President on December 19

Analyzing How the Electoral College Should Vote

Let's start with a summary of the salient facts:

  • The Electoral College is comprised of party-nominated electors. Voters choose a panel of electors when selecting a presidential candidate.
  • Electors are expected but not required to vote for their party's candidate. Electors have voted outside of their pledges.
  • The historical purpose of the Electoral College, as outlined by its architects, was to ensure voting power for all states and to keep charismatic tyrants from becoming President.

As points out, the Electoral College came about in the 18th century when the country was comprised of just 13 states. This wasn't just a time before technology -- this was a time before the implementation of general education.

This was a time when people in one state might have no way of knowing about a candidate from another state.

This was a time when even paper ballots were cutting edge technology -- the logistics alone of voting were nightmarish.

This was a time right after the Founding Fathers had fought to secure independence from tyranny. The last thing they wanted was for a new tyrant -- the charismatic demagogue -- to become the fledgling country's leader.

This is a new world. The vast majority -- in the neighborhood of 86% -- of Americans can read. Indeed, according to the PBS, 40% of adults have a college degree. Public education is funded, and mandatory to the age of 16.

As far as access to information, I have just one word in answer: Internet. Even without internet access, we have television and newspapers. Anyone can find out about candidates from a different state with ease.

Every electoral year since the founding of the United States, the Electoral College has voted along party lines. It would be unprecedented for the Electoral College to overturn that tradition.

However, this is an unprecedented election year. We saw the first-ever female presidential candidate for a major party. And we saw a candidate with no military or governmental experience win the election -- via electoral voting.

Therefore, it's time for an unprecedented action to turn the apple cart back on its wheels.

I keep returning to what the Founding Fathers wanted above all to avoid -- handing the presidency to a charismatic demagogue. A demagogue is defined as "a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument."

Witness Donald Trump, a candidate whose claim to literal fame is being a reality TV personality. And one who campaigned on a platform of intolerance:

To name a few.

On December 19, 2016, the Electoral College is meeting in all 50 states and in Washington, DC. It's expected that the electors will cast their votes along party lines. In doing so, they will put a literal charismatic demagogue into office.

And they will do so over the will of an educated and informed people because of misuse of the Electoral College.

We have an Electoral College, and it's in the US Constitution, so it's not going anywhere. However, the electors have the power to cast their votes against a candidate deemed unsuitable by the very definition set forth by the Founding Fathers. They have the power to uphold the will of the people, as indicated by the popular vote.

It would be unprecedented. But then, the entire United States of America is based on forging new ways in the world.


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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 6 months ago from USA

      Very well explained. How ironic: "The Founding Fathers were worried that a charismatic tyrant could bedazzle the people, and they'd vote for him despite their best interests." That's what we have, as you point out. I hope we get to work changing this part of our Constitution. It's no longer appropriate in today's world.

    • peoplepower73 profile image

      Mike Russo 6 months ago from Placentia California

      This was an excellent article and the best description of the electoral college that I have read so far. I liked the way you described how the electoral college was necessary in the colonies for two main reasons. It was very difficult and time consuming for people to communicate among the states and they did not want a tyrant to become the president. It all makes sense now, but I believe it is no longer needed.

      The irony is we may have voted for a person who never was in the military and who never held a public office because of the electoral college. I believe Trump's campaign staff exploited the electoral college by concentrating their campaign in the states that had the most electoral college votes.

    • nArchuleta profile image

      Nadia Archuleta 6 months ago from Denver, Colorado

      I agree with both of you that the Electoral College no longer makes sense. However, it's part of our Constitution, so removing it may be impossible. Reform may be more likely.

      I do hope we can start on that with this election. Did you two notice the petition? It's a step in the right direction.

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