Love it or hate it, the Electoral College is an integral part of our perennial system of “peaceful revolution,” the presidential election. Set by the U.S. Constitution in 1787, it is found in Article II Section 1, and calls for a number of non-elected persons equal to the sum of each state’s Senators and Representatives to meet in December after each general election in order to elect the President and Vice President of the United States. And while the term “Electoral College” does not appear in the Constitution, it has been common parlance since at least 1845 when it first appeared in federal legislation.
Lest one doubt the complexity (and perhaps perplexity) of the concept, suffice it to say that precisely three other nations have adopted an Electoral College system of electing the head of their government following the American approach: India, Suriname, and Vanuatu. And in all three circumstances, the elected officials serve in this role, thus removing one level of arcana. While James Wilson of Pennsylvania was able to articulate at the original Constitutional Convention the basis of this decision to use non-elected persons in the U.S. (“if duly elected representatives of the states select the president, that person might feel beholden to the representatives who elected him thereafter”), the added mystery of the electors involved, and their provenance and fidelity, has simply added another potential level of corruption.
For those who favor the Electoral system (the argument most commonly heard is that it allows for relevance by the smaller states) a cursory evaluation of the current distribution of electors immediately reveals a problem: the system is skewed heavily in favor of the smaller states due to a clear maldistribution of representatives (also skewed heavily in favor of the smaller states). Let’s look at that issue. Since 1929 (!), the number of U.S. Representatives has been fixed by law at 435. This requires a re-distribution of representatives following every census, to be applied to every Congressional election beginning two years after each census. Problem? Based on projected census (from 2019 estimates) each congressional district should be close to 750,000 persons (not “voters”!). But the Constitution also requires that every state receive at least one representative, so this further skews the distribution since at least two states, and perhaps three (Alaska will be close!) would otherwise not receive a representative at all. If we reverse the math to allow for the state with the smallest population to determine the requisite number for each congressional district (the famous “Wyoming rule” –guess why), then each district should have about 600,000 residents. But then the total number of representatives is inadequate to this calculation: we would need to add 87 representatives to the House. And what’s more, this would produce an increase in the House representation of California to 65 or 66, of Texas to 48, and of Florida to 36. Wyoming and Alaska might never host a presidential candidate visit again.
So even the most strident defender of the Electoral College is forced to acknowledge a reality: each vote cast in Wyoming for President/Vice President is equal to four votes cast in California. And this is equally a problem. Whence does that profound inequity arise? Don’t overlook the simple fact that Wyoming’s presidential electoral vote is further supplemented by two senators. Armed thus with three electoral votes, this state’s influence expands dramatically in relationship to its population. And this of course remains true for the smaller states under the Electoral College system. It is inherent in this approach to electing the President.
Where does that leave us? The “fairest” way to elect the President would of course remain an unencumbered popular vote, where each vote would mean exactly the same as all the others. For those who cling to an approach with an inherent potential for corruption based on unequal value for each vote, and a benefit for disenfranchisement of voters, you can name your poison. Do we increase the number of representatives by following the “Wyoming rule?” We certainly can afford, as a nation, to do this, and if we do this, it is at least 70 years overdue. We can continue our present approach while making a fairer distribution of representatives across the board on the heels of the 2020 census, but this would reduce the impact of the smaller states by depriving them of electoral votes. Or we can simply accept the current corruption in our system and hold to the current Electoral College, a system so arcane and so prone to injustice as to render it immoral in the current global political climate.