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The Electoral College:
Abolish It, Reform It, or Leave It Alone?

Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2007 by David E. Ross

With each presidential election, calls to abolish the Electoral College are heard. Usually, this occurs when a serious third candidate threatens to win at least one state and throw a close election into the House of Representatives because neither of the two leading candidates receives a majority of the electoral votes.

With the election of 2000, however, the calls for abolition have become a roar, primarily from Democrats. The Democrat candidate, Al Gore, received the most popular votes but lost in the Electoral College to the Republican candidate, George W. Bush. With the results of the 2000 census now available, the Democratic roar should become even louder. States supporting Gore lost a net of 10 seats in Congress, which would mean a loss of 10 electoral votes if the presidential election in 2004 were to repeat the results of 2000. Such a repeat election would thus favor Bush even more than the latest election.

Many consider the Electoral College an obsolete relic of the early days of our Constitution. Article II, Section 1 describes the Electoral College and how it operates; its operation was only slightly modified by the Twelfth Amendment, which requires the electors to designate which candidate they are voting for President and which for Vice-President. Although I am a Democrat who voted for Al Gore — along with more voters than favored George W. Bush — and although Bush scares me more now than he did before the election, I still consider the Electoral College that gave Bush the Presidency a necessity and oppose its abolition. The Electoral College meets two needs that are still important today.

Equalizing Votes

The President is supposed to lead all the people of the United States, not merely lead the voters nor even just citizens but all the people. Congressional representation and thus electoral votes are apportioned to the states by population, counting all inhabitants not merely citizens, adults, or registered voters. As a result, the Electoral College ensures that even those who do not (or cannot) vote are represented in choosing the President.

In the 2000 election, Washington state had a total of almost 2,408,000 ballots cast for President out of a total population of more than 5,908,000. Wisconsin had a greater total of more than 2,574,000 ballots cast out of a smaller population of less than 5,372,000. Both states had 11 electoral votes, which equalized the their representation in choosing the President and prevented the greater turnout (both proportionally and in absolute numbers) in Wisconsin from discounting the population of Washington. (The fact that both states supported Al Gore does not invalidate this example.)

Former Speaker Tip O'Neill said, "All politics is local." No one should be surprised if, during a presidential election, fiercely contested local and state issues — ballot propositions, election of a governor or senator — in one state could generate a very large voter turn-out while a lack of ballot controversy in another state could inhibit a large turn-out. The Electoral College prevents the local issues in the former state from "hijacking" the presidential election.

Limiting Disputes

The farce in Florida could have become a nation-wide constitutional crisis if the very close popular vote were all that stood between the candidates and the Presidency. The margin of Gore's plurality over Bush was less than 0.33% of the votes cast — less than 338,000 votes. Today (the day after Bush's inauguration), we might still be waiting the results of the election if a nation-wide recount were demanded. Although votes were questioned elsewhere, the Electoral College effectively limited the scope of dispute to a single state. In the presidential election of 1876 — Tilden versus Hayes — a dispute that could have caused a second civil war was limited by the operation of the Electoral College to the states of Florida, Louisiana, Oregon, and South Carolina.


The reform proposed here is intended to be implemented nation-wide. Implementing it in only one or two large states — generally proposed by the minority party in that state — without implementing it in other states would skew the results of a presidential election. For example, this has been proposed by Republicans in California but not in Ohio. That would give a Republican candidate some electoral votes from California (generally voting Democrat) without giving a Democrat any electoral votes from Ohio (generally voting Republican).

Further, the reform is valid only in conjunction with strong anti-gerrymander legislation. Otherwise, a severely gerrymandered state could give the candidate of one party a majority of its electoral votes when a majority of the voters in that state voted for the candidate of the other party. Indeed, anti-gerrymander legislation — requiring Congressional districts to be not only equal in population and contiguous but also compact — should have a higher priority than the reform of the Electoral College.

24 October 2007

My support of the Electoral College does not mean there is no room for improvement. The most important reform that could be made would be to eliminate the "winner take all" result in each state (as has already been done in Nebraska and Maine). In those two states, the state-wide result determines two of the electoral votes (the two attributed to senators); the result in each congressional district determines the remainder of the electoral votes. I first heard of this concept over 40 years ago. Then, it was called the Mundt-Coudert Plan after Senator Karl Mundt (R, South Dakota) and Representative Frederick Coudert (R, New York).

One significant feature of the Mundt-Coudert Plan (secondary to eliminating "winner take all" results) is that it might be implemented without having to amend the Constitution. A very carefully drawn statute — stepping around prior decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court that severely limited the authority of Congress to legislate regarding the Electoral College — could avoid the intentionally exceptional effort needed to amend the Constitution. Further, a reform based on statute would allow adjustments if any adverse consequences are discovered after enactment, something that is almost impossible with amendments to the Constitution.

Since I cannot locate presidential election returns by congressional district, I really do not know how the Mundt-Coudert Plan really would have affected the 2000 election. In the table below, I present two different estimates.

StatePopular Vote Electoral College
GoreBush Nader ActualProportional Representative
GoreBush GoreBushNader GoreBushNader
Alabama696,741943,79918,055 09360270
Alaska64,252136,06822,789 03030030
Arizona635,730715,11241,937 08350170
Arkansas421,136471,80013,344 06240330
California5,721,1954,437,557404,199 5403022234200
Colorado738,718885,14791,504 08350260
Connecticut808,955558,06962,197 80530530
Delaware180,638137,08162,197 30300210
D. C.162,00417,0209,925 20300 300
Florida2,912,2532,912,79097,488 025111408170
Georgia1,110,1331,415,277105 0135803100
Hawai'i239,621155,36125,386 40310400
Idaho138,354336,2995,077 04130040
Illinois2,599,8142,025,764104,111 220139012100
Indiana899,8361,242,372 012480480
Iowa638,355634,22529,352 70430340
Kansas392,867616,82935,709 06240150
Kentucky640,123872,14125,502 08350170
Louisiana792,344927,87120,473 09360270
Maine315,466283,98837,757 40310400
Maryland1,093,344770,91151,078 100730640
Massachusetts1,609,048875,658172,449 1208311200
Michigan2,141,7211,947,10083,838 18010801170
Minnesota1,168,1901,110,290126,586 100640730
Mississippi392,587558,8847,904 07250340
Missouri1,110,8261,189,52138,488 011470470
Montana137,264239,75524,487 03030030
Nebraska215,616408,71922,975 05140050
Nevada279,749301,53915,004 04130130
New Hampshire265,853273,13522,156 04130040
New Jersey1,728,9561,247,51592,452 150960960
New Mexico286,565286,07921,243 50320320
New York3,746,8392,222,283222,155 3302111121120
North Carolina1,241,3071,608,390 014590590
North Dakota95,892175,5589,528 03030120
Ohio2,111,4992,284,205114,078 02191118130
Oklahoma475,596745,017 08260170
Oregon719,142712,54777,196 70430610
Pennsylvania2,465,4122,264,309102,453 2301310012110
Rhode Island252,844132,21224,115 40310400
South Carolina578,143804,82621,008 08350260
South Dakota118,750190,515 03030030
Tennessee980,3531,059,84219,558 011470470
Texas2,428,1873,795,626137,691 0321120117150
Utah201,732512,16136,245 05140140
Vermont148,166119,27319,810 30300201
Virginia1,213,7141,434,75459,053 013580481
Washington1,221,1851,086,58799,915 110740830
West Virginia291,204331,87110,455 05410230
Wisconsin1,242,9871,237,27994,070 110740740
Wyoming60,421147,674 03030030
Totals50,158,09449,820,5182,833,097 2662712552776 2532832

One D. C. elector abstained in protest against the lack of full representation of the District in Congress.

Source of popular and actual electoral votes (other than D. C.): Los Angeles Times, 14 Dec 00, p.A45

Notice that both estimates show electoral votes for Nader. Even more significant is the fact that the estimates result in even a larger electoral vote for Bush than he actually received. Also notice that Nebraska and Maine, which already use the Mundt-Coudert Plan, each still cast all its electoral votes for one candidate (Nebraska's 5 for Bush and Maine's 4 for Gore). While neither the Proportional nor Representative forms of reform would have changed the 2000 Presidential election, I nevertheless support the adoption of one of these because it would eliminate the obvious flaw of the "winner take all" situation that exists now.


If the other states would merely follow the examples of Nebraska and Maine, no reform by Congress would be necessary. But that will not happen.

Instead, Congress will have to enact a law that defines the electors as federal officials before it could enact any law regulating how they are elected. The electors would have to be paid a federal salary, be subject to certain laws regarding holding office, and otherwise be placed on a footing similar to members of Congress, cabinet officers, judges, and the President. All this is needed to overcome some Supreme Court decisions that restrict Congress's authority over the Electoral College. The same law could also specify that electors would be chosen in accord with the Mundt-Coudert Plan.

However, to avoid replacing one evil ("winner take all" elections in each state) with another evil (congressional districts gerrymandered in a way to control the presidential elections), a strict anti-gerrymander law would also be required. Yes, vote splitting can mean that a congressional district elects a Democrat as a Representative but also votes for a Republican for President (as seen in the table above), but that is generally rare. It is more likely that a congressional district drawn like California's 26th District during the 1950s would indeed favor one party both in the House of Representatives and the White House.

I grew up in the 26th District. It snaked its way from downtown Los Angeles westward to the Pacific Ocean. About 5 miles wide and some 20 miles long, a Republican Legislature and a Republican Governor drew the district to encompass as many Democrats as possible. Why would the Republicans create a congressional district that was so safe for Democrats? They wanted to make all the surrounding districts safe for Republicans. By making the 26th District about 70% Democrat, the neighboring districts could then be about 55% Republican. No, these are not the actual ratios; but they reflect the overwhelming Democrat population of the 26th District and the marginally Republican populations of neighboring districts that did indeed exist. These numbers provide a vivid illustration of how gerrymandering works. If the Mundt-Coudert Plan were implemented, gerrymandering must not be allowed to work so well.

A reform based on the Mundt-Coudert Plan would enhance the benefits of the Electoral College:

Further, the necessary tightening of the anti-gerrymander law would also enhance the process of electing Representatives. Let's give Mundt-Coudert a try.

21 January 2001

Of course, Bush received additional help from his Florida campaign manager, who was in charge of counting the ballots in that state, from the U.S. Supreme Court, which was more concerned about injury to Bush than injury to the nation's voters, and from a large serving of hypocrisy. Examples of the latter — committed by Bush himself — include:

Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau was quoted by The New Yorker (8 January 2001) on this:

It's true, the election result is good for me. Bush is this stable hard target. It's as if Quayle had won. Plus you have the wonderful narrative of how he got where he now is. It took his brother, his father, his father's friends, the Florida secretary of state, and the Supreme Court to pull it off. His entire life gives fresh meaning to the phrase "assisted living."

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