The framers of the U.S. Constitution were visionaries who created a legal foundation for a new form of government. Incredibly, the document they created has stood the test of time exceedingly well for more than two centuries. However, many Americans now seem to feel either that the Electoral College was a mistake or that it has outlived its usefulness. A Gallup poll conducted after the 2000 presidential election finds about three in five Americans, 61 percent, in favor of abolishing the Electoral College and replacing it with a direct popular vote.
Unfortunately, abandoning the Electoral College will be nearly impossible.
What’s wrong with the Electoral College? It allots each state a number of electors equal to the number of its representatives plus senators, creating a bias in favor of small states. Although this bias is well-known, the extent of bias introduced by this system is probably not widely appreciated. For example, each of Wyoming’s three electors represents some 119,000 members of the voting-age population. By contrast, Florida’s 25 electors each represent a voting-age population of some 471,000 people. Thus, the Electoral College gives each voter in Wyoming about four times as much weight as a voter in Florida.
The problem is broader than the extreme cases of Wyoming and Florida: In seven small states and in the District of Columbia, each elector represents fewer than 200,000 potential voters, while in 12 large states each elector represents more than 400,000. This disparity, according to Lawrence Longley, co-author of The Electoral College Primer 2000, departs from the one person, one vote rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s. The rulings mandated that each congressional district represent essentially the same number of citizens.
What system should replace the Electoral College? Seven Gallup surveys dating back to 1966 show that most Americans believe the president should be elected by popular vote. France and Mexico and many other Western countries rely on popular elections.
Then why will it be nearly impossible to get rid of the Electoral College? Because doing so would require amending the Constitution. Traditionally, amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress plus ratification by three-quarters of the states. Obtaining approval of three-quarters of the states would be the harder of the two, because small states are clearly advantaged by the current system. Hence, it is in their long-term interest to keep it. And there are enough small states to insist on retaining the status quo.
Thirteen small states had either three or four electoral votes in 2000. These states have only 5 percent of the national voting-age population, yet they could block any change in the Electoral College.
With most potential amendments — for example, a flag burning amendment or a balanced budget amendment — there is no clear reason for small states to have a different interest than large states. But in the case of the Electoral College, the small states have a clear interest in protecting their advantage in electing the president, as well as the ability to do so.
Theodore D. Fuller is director of graduate studies in sociology at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg