Sunday, November 6, 2016


Every four years, we Americans get reminded of what and who we are.

We go back to college. But we never graduate. Forty-eight hours from now we will be watching massive scoreboards on our televisions tracking the status of the Electoral College.

Most Americans can’t tell you what the Electoral College is, how it works, or why we have it.

Very simply, the Electoral College is the way we choose the President of the United States. The big maps on TV are divided between red states and blue states. Where did that come from?

From the very first days of our nation; indeed even before we were a nation; there was and still is a split between the big states and the small states. The difference between big and small states matters because a state is a state, no matter how big or small.

We are also split by geography, topography, weather, wealth and location.

And the states are sovereign entities, not mere departments of a national government. The Founders of our nation created a national legislature which has two Houses: the lower house represents the people, the Senate represents the States. Both have to agree on every law.

That same compromise exists in the Electoral College. Each state has a number of votes equal to its congressional delegation. Add its two Senators to the number of its Congressmen and you get the state’s electoral votes.

So the voting for President is not just a matter of counting the total number of votes for each candidate, nor is it a matter of counting the total number of states won by each candidate.

The TV commentators will talk a lot about ‘swing’ states. That is because the vote in those states is hard to predict. Many states are easy to predict. It is a foregone conclusion that New York and California will vote for the Democratic candidate.

How do we know? Just because they always do. This is a big country. People in different States eat different food, cheer for different teams, speak in different dialects, and vote for different candidates. And this despite the leveling effect of TV, the Internet, and the free movement of our people.

Al Gore won the popular vote, but George Bush won the White House. Two other candidates who got ‘gored’ were Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Grover Cleveland in 1888.

Forty eight of the fifty states, and the District of Columbia, award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Only Maine and Nebraska divide their presidential votes proportionally.

There have been many efforts to change the system. Since the Electoral College is built into our Constitution, it will take a constitutional amendment to change it. Not an easy thing to do.

Some well meaning folks have tried to solve the problem another way. National Popular Vote, Inc. is an organization which has been trying to get states to agree to cast their electoral votes for the candidate who wins the nationwide popular vote. They would not need every state to agree; only states with enough electoral votes to form a majority of the Electoral College; 269 electoral votes.

The web site tells us:
“The National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the Presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the entire U.S. It has been enacted into law in 11 states with 165 electoral votes, and will take effect when enacted by states with 105 more. The bill has passed one chamber in 12 additional states with 96 electoral votes.  Most recently, the bill was passed by a bipartisan 40–16 vote in the Republican-controlled Arizona House, 28–18 in Republican-controlled Oklahoma Senate, 57–4 in Republican-controlled New York Senate, and 37–21 in Democratic-controlled Oregon House.” 

National Popular Vote, Inc. has been around a dozen years. Their progress is slow, but they are persevering. I believe it was New Jersey Chief Justice Arthur Vanderbilt who observed during his state’s historic 1947 convention, “constitutional reform is no sport for the short winded.”

Indeed, it isn’t. But the quadrennial drama of every leap year gives change a little push. Maybe this time the mountain will move a little more.


  1. Unfortunately, large urban populations now control the electoral college vote. Large cities in large states with many electoral college votes make it possible for urban dwellers to outweigh the collective individual votes of millions of suburban and rural voters in smaller states. And, generally speaking, these urban areas almost always vote Democrat. Consider NY, Fla, Ohio, California, Michigan and Illinois. The large urban populations in each of theses states can dominate the vote in those 6 states and deliver more electoral college votes than 20 other states with more rural populations. Of those 6 dominant states, the entire population of the area outside the metropolitan areas may disagree with the urban area consensus but will not have their votes represented. Candidates need only focus on accommodating the needs of the people living in a very few metropolitan areas to get elected.

    1. The above comment was posted by "Unknown" after the previous blog. It belongs here, so I reposted it. in Michigan, the five most populous counties account for less than half of the states' 9.9 million people.

    2. Since I engaged TEBJr on Facebook, I may as well join the discussion here.

      This comment is wrong.

      I don't know who is responsible for it, but it reeks of a misunderstanding of basic math. Even granting him his factual assertions, which you point out are inaccurate, the electoral vote is not skewed in favor of populous metropolitan areas. If anything, it is skewed in favor of sparsely populate rural areas.

      Of course--at risk of obviousness--the votes in New York City, heavily liberal, densely populated and geographically tiny, will dominate the popular vote of the state given that the 8.4 million people who live there represent over 45% of the population of the state. This may upset an idiot looking at an electoral map, but as you and I know, it's a simple matter of the way in which civilization has chosen to organize. While the "entire population outside the city" may disagree with those in the city--the city simply has more people! And a representative democracy should be designed to represent that!

      But that's just the problem: the electoral college does NOT function to represent voters fairly and equally. Take the following example: each electoral vote in Wyoming represents 195,000 people; each electoral vote in New York represents 669,000 people!! Therefore the voters in Wyoming cast votes which are ~3.5x more potent than those votes cast in New York.

      Your commenter contends that the "6 dominant states control the election." The opposite is true. 6 "dominant" states *decide* the election, but the 15 or so sparsely populated rural states control it.

      Given the staunch conservatism of rural voters, Republicans are given an incredible head start by sparsely populated rural states.

      Your boy Trump is right. The election system is rigged; he's just wrong about which way. He (and every Republican since the Civil Rights Act) have been playing with a stacked deck. Although, even he would agree:

  2. Call me a cynic if you wish...but it does seem to me that an "agreement" by states would be just that. What would keep a state(s) from repealing the law and going back to winner take all just prior to the election; political honesty? A Constitutional amendment would, right up until the Supreme Court rewrote the amendment.

    I put this in the same category as paperless voting. It is much simpler to rig the results without a hard copy of the ballot. Some places have voting machines that use
    "Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Systems: DRE systems employ computers that record votes directly into the computers' memory."

    This country is becoming, if it has not already become, like the European Union (or perhaps a banana republic) In this day and age, it is very difficult to have a "union" of such diverse populations.

  3. I think all states should go the way of Maine and Nebraska. The electoral votes should be awarded by who wins each congressional district. And two more senate electoral votes should be awarded by who wins the total state vote. That way the rural communities don't have their electoral votes robbed by the urban settings.

    1. To join the discussion here, I reiterate my comment from facebook:

      This is not an effective compromise, and, in fact, would likely lead to an even more disproportionate electoral vote. State lines are *already* drawn in favor of republicans, albeit incidentally (or perhaps not, if you remember your pre-Civil War history). A vote in Wyoming is something like 8% more powerful than a vote in California--a fact distinctly felt in this election given the 200,000 vote margin Hillary won the popular vote by.

      To change the electoral college to reflect congressional districts the effect becomes magnified because instead of accidentally republican state line drawing, you'd have intentionally gerrymandered republican congressional line drawing.

  4. One final thought: Your plan to substantially increase the number of representatives (or rather, to rebalance the ratio of voters to Representative) and to effectively de-gerrymander the congressional districts would operate to significantly dilute the unfair Republican advantage in the electoral college, which is a significant benefit to the adoption of your plan, in my opinion.

    Combining it with the Maine/Nebraska compromise that TEBjr proposes would all but eliminate the inherent unfairness of the electoral college.