In Defense of the Electoral College

Over the past few weeks, I have had the enjoyable opportunity to lecture on the subject of the US Electoral College to a variety of different audiences in Poland and Italy. My lectures almost inevitably include some snarky side-comments about how incredible it is that the US continues to use this extremely convoluted system of electing its president—that does not guarantee that all votes count the same—while in the rest of the world almost every country using a presidential systems of government seem to have been able to figure out how to just let their citizens vote directly for their president. For the most part, my audiences are always very sympathetic to my jokes in this regard, especially after I explain in detail how the electoral college actually works. Now I have argued over the years with friends and colleagues like Andy Rudalevige as to whether the cost of not using an “all votes are equal” rule is worth enduring to preserve some of the historic reasons why the Electoral College was implemented, but I was pleasantly surprised when one of the students in the audience at a recent talk I gave in Siena raised a new argument in defense of the electoral college that I had never heard before. I asked him to write it up as a guest post for The Monkey Cage, which I now present below. The student is Josh McCrain, a graduate student in political science at the University of North Carolina, Chappel Hill, and what follows is his argument.  The piece is particularly germane now, due to the fact that there is a non-trivial chance that we could witness in 2012 a repeat of a particularly vexing feature of the 2000 US presidential election, namely the election of president by the Electoral Collage who did not received a plurality of the popular vote.


With just under two weeks until Election Day, it is looking more and more possible that, for the fifth time in American history, the winner of the popular vote will lose in the Electoral College.  The Real Clear Politics average of national polling has Mitt Romney leading by 0.9 points over President Obama.  However, Obama easily passes 270 electoral votes if he wins all of the states in which polls have him currently ahead, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model predicts he has a 73.1% chance of breaking the 270 barrier.  As in 2000, it is also likely that critics of the Electoral College will renew their calls for reform through the election of the president by national popular vote – and they may not be wrong.

On the vanguard of the call to reform is the non-profit National Popular Vote Inc . Their aim is to circumvent the constitutional challenges related to abolishing the Electoral College and create an interstate compact whereby all states within the compact agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.  Once enough states adopt legislation so that the total number of electoral votes they represent reaches 270, the legislation will come into effect.  So far nine states  representing 132 electoral votes have passed such legislation.

Critics of the Electoral College often point out that candidates only have to campaign in swing states and can ignore ‘solid’ states – and empirical research seems to supports this.  In 2004, only 11 states merited more than ten campaign stops by either candidate, while 12 had less than five stops (Goux and Hopkins 2008).  This criticism ignores that, from year to year, swing states can vary widely.  In 2004, Bush won North Carolina by over 12 points, and McCain lost it to Obama in 2008.  Obama won Indiana in 2008, and it seems very likely he’ll lose it by a substantial margin this election.  Demographics, regional issues, the economy, and many other factors determine whether a state is a swing state, and this is often not directly correlated with the number of electoral votes it possesses.  Further, fighting for electoral votes forces candidates to campaign in states they would very likely ignore otherwise (Bill Clinton in West Virginia in 1996, for example).  The Electoral College then does produce a truly national campaign, but the nature of that campaign changes every cycle.

What would a United States presidential election look like without the Electoral College?  A useful case for examination is the first round of French presidential elections.  In 2012, four candidates received over 10% of the vote – including extreme right wing Marie Le Pen of National Front – with current president François Hollande receiving only 28% of the vote.  In France a second round, where the top two finishing candidates compete against each other, ensures that one wins with a majority.  Research also suggests that voters are more likely to pick a candidate in the first round they would not vote for in the second, but it is not implausible to think of a similar, if slightly less fragmented, result in the United States – except in the US there would not be a second round.  One can envision the Tea Party fielding a candidate that polls very well in the South, while Romney could remain a moderate of the center-right wing of the party, leading to the fragmentation of the Republican Party.  None of this is particularly hard to imagine:  in 1992 Ross Perot received 19% of the national vote and won no electoral votes.

Should the Electoral College be reexamined?  Probably – but it is worth pointing out during that discussion the positives and negatives of the current system.  In 2008, Barack Obama won 52.9% of the popular vote – a slight majority – but he won 67.8% of the electoral votes (365 to 173).  The Electoral College reduces the perception of small victories and bolsters presidential legitimacy.  A two round election, such as in France, might be the best solution [JT: But this is not what the National Popular Vote initiative will produce, and thus would most likely require a constitutional amendment].  But Americans are used to clear winners and losers, and this is something that the Electoral College typically produces.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.