Commentary

How the Electoral College Works — And Why It Works Well

By Ronald D. Rotunda
November 13, 2000
The Framers of our Constitution invented a system that would establish a democracy while protecting minority rights. They created the Electoral College to protect the residents of the smaller states, and they rejected government by simple majority because plebiscites historically have been the tool of dictatorships, not democracy.

To win the presidency, the candidate must receive a majority of the electoral votes. To determine how many electoral votes a state has, just take the number of each state’s U.S. Representatives and add two (which represents the number of Senators for each state). Even the residents of the smallest states (or the District of Columbia) have a minimum of three electoral votes.

The Electoral College, in practice, gives a little more electoral power to racial minorities, such as blacks and Hispanics, and thus is important in helping to achieve racial justice. Because these minorities tend to live in the large cities of the bigger states, their votes are important in tilting all the electoral votes of their state, thus encouraging candidates of both parties to appeal for their votes.

Some of Vice President Gore’s supporters claim he won a majority of the votes and that should make him president. Actually, he has won 49 percent of the votes cast, which is greater than the 43 percent President Clinton won in 1992, but may be less than Gov. Bush’s total once all absentee votes have been counted. Of course, if the total vote is what matters, we would have to recount the entire nation, not just Florida. The Electoral College system saves us from that. If there are allegations of fraud, the investigation is limited to states where the electoral votes matter and the race is close.

A purely popular vote would encourage some states (particularly one-party states) to change their voting requirements to increase that state’s influence nationwide. For example, a state could drop the voting age to 17 or 16, because more people voting would allow that state affect the national vote, not just the electoral vote. Indeed, if a simple majority governed, both the candidates and the voters would have acted differently. Gov. Bush would have spent more time in Texas, racking up huge majorities, because an extra vote in Texas would counterbalance a Gore vote in California.

Some pundits are now calling on Bush electors to “vote their conscience,” which translates to, “violate your pledge.” If an elector wants to vote that way, then he or she should run that way: “Elect me and I promise to vote for someone whom I will pick later.” However, every elector in this race has made one simple promise to the voters: “Elect me and I’ll vote for Bush, Gore, Nader, etc.” Electors should keep their promise. If they do not, Congress should refuse to accept the vote of the faithless elector and count that vote as it has been pledged, because faithless electors have deceived and disenfranchised those who voted for them.

The Electoral College system prevents candidates with only regional appeal from winning. Statistically, having to prevail in a number of sub-elections produces a better result for the country. For the same reason we count the number of games won in the World Series (rather than the total number of runs, which would be heavily influenced by one anomalous game). If team A wins the first game 11 runs to zero, and team B wins the next four games one run to zero, we all know that team B has won the World Series. After all, if Bush won 100 percent of the popular vote in his home state of Texas, thereby prevailing in the nationwide popular vote, those extra votes would not show he had more support nationwide, only that he is a candidate popular in one very populous state.

All eyes are on Florida. Whatever will happen in that state, one thing is plain: no judge can order a new election. Our Constitution, which is unclear in many matters, is clear about that. Congress determines the time for choosing the presidential electors, and that time is uniform throughout the United States. A new election, for either all or part of Florida, would not be the same time as the rest of us voted, Nov. 7.

Ronald D. Rotunda is a visiting senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute