The Electoral College works fine as designed


I disagree with this Brad DeLong blog post from two days after the 2016 election:

Electoral College Fail Number Six…

As of now, an estimated 2.2 million vote edge for Hillary Clinton…

And that’s without adding in the effects of 2nd Jim Crow voter suppression…

… The big stories of last Tuesday are two:

Big Story: Hillary Rodham Clinton won the vote–more Americans chose her for their leader than chose Donald Trump.

Big Story: The electoral college failed to do its proper democratic job for the sixth time in 58 elections–and a 10.6% failure rate is much too high.

Anybody who does not focus on those two big stories is not being your friend. … go to this post

I don’t agree that the electoral college has failed, ever.

The Constitution was framed at a time when not every person could vote who can today. Our country is NOT a pure democracy and never has been, by design. (And those who argued that the recent primaries were rigged and undemocratic suffer from a similar misunderstanding, that parties are purely democratic or are supposed to be.) The popular portion of the presidential vote is already captured in the number of electors per state: 2 (as with senators), plus some additional number in proportion to the population (as with representatives, and at least 1). If the states all unconditionally committed electors in proportion to popular votes received – i.e. not winner take all, but rather take according to fraction of popular vote – then we’d be closer than today to pure democracy but still not there.

This brief discussion on seems to me to be quite good.

Plus Mr. DeLong’s information is incorrect: contrary to his assertion, the popular vote DID align with the electoral vote in 1800.




You are correct that states limited the franchise more in the early years of our nation than they do today.

Women couldn’t vote, and neither could black people. Many white men couldn’t vote because states imposed property requirements.

You are not correct that state voting populations are properly represented in the states’ electoral college votes. Voters in small states, such as Wyoming have disproportionate power because not only does every state get two college votes because of their Senators, but every state gets a Representative no matter how small their population. In California, each elector represents 730,000 residents. In Wyoming, each elector represents 195,000. Each voter in Wyoming wields three times the influence of each voter in California.

In all other elections in the United States, for Senators, for Congressmen, for Governors, for state legislators, for mayors, and the school board, the candidate who wins the most votes wins the election.

Not for the most important election, however.

Why not?

This informative and informed essay at Vox says that the Founders put the Electoral College in place to protect slavery in the South. This reporter is correct that defending Southern slavery was a major factor.

The Founders modeled the Constitution’s government after the Roman Republic. That complex government had several representative bodies that represented different groups. The Senate contained and represented the nobility and the oligarchs. There was a legislative body that represented the Equites, a military group. There was one for the plebes too.

The Founders created the House of Representatives to represent the people. As you say, the franchise was more limited than today. Each slave counted as 3/5th of a person as far as figuring out representation. State legislators chose their states’ Senators.

The Founders, educated men of their day, were students of ancient and modern thought about government. From the ancient Greeks, and from the turbulent British experience of the 17th century (regicide, civil war, dictatorship, religious bloodshed, and so on) they feared popular democracy and the threat of demagogues. They also feared unchecked executive power, as with absolute monarchy. They sought to form a government of society’s best men: responsible men of means and education. That is, themselves. They expected the people to choose leaders from among their betters. These were the ideas that they had in mind when they proposed that voters would select electors who would then meet to select the Chief Executive.

The purpose of the Electoral College was to isolate the choice of President from the people to prevent a populist demagogue from seizing power. The Founders believed that the people in a democracy were vulnerable to this. They had read their Thucydides, and knew how Alcibiades had wielded calamitous influence in Athens after Pericles, a great statesman, died.

The Electoral College in this election has failed utterly to realize the Founders’ goal. A populist demagogue has won the presidency even though he lost the popular vote.



Consider the Electoral College (EC) as equivalent to the Senate plus the House with an occasional special vote to change who runs the Executive. The Fathers might have had Congress pick the President, given that the formulas for apportionment are the same as for the EC. Instead, they gave the populace the ability, once every four years, to bypass entrenched senators and representatives and elect a new president “from scratch” while applying the same rules about enfranchisement and proportionality.

The Fathers did their best to deny demagogues. This year, had Stein (and/or Johnson?) not run, Clinton probably would have won with a majority of the popular vote. The Fathers could not possibly imagine the case of 3 or 4 or more candidates traversing the continent daily and communicating to everyone 24 hours a day via numerous electronic channels. I could see the repair to our problems as Condorcet-like voting until a candidate reaches a majority of the popular votes cast. Difficult to design, implement and test! Especially with respect to hacking. Maybe instead use signed mail-in with signatures already on file at voting centers.

Trump did not win a majority of the popular vote. He certainly behaved as a demagogue during the campaign. Right now – prior to the EC vote on December 19 – he’s being conciliatory and modest by and large. I think it’s a very bad sign that he says he’ll not accept the president’s salary. In effect he’s saying, I’m doing this work as a personal favor to the country, not as an employee and agent of the people, and therefore I reserve the right to go in whatever direction I deem the best. Very demagogic, very troubling.

BTW, I’m in favor of hard-and-fast voter ID. But only if the government (meaning all of us) ensures that every person qualified to vote gets an ID in time to vote, period (with due regard for boundary conditions like, became a citizen just the day before the election started). Any precinct or whatever subset that failed in this regard might not have its votes counted, or something like that. Another approach to defuse the ID problem might be to photo everyone who votes in person. But voting in person almost certainly should become a thing of the past.



As for your remark in the first paragraph that the Founders gave the people a chance to bypass the “entrenched Senators and Representatives and elect a new President” that wasn’t what the Founders did or intended. For one thing, there was no such thing as an “entrenched Senator or Representative” at that time. Congress and the entire American political system did not exist. No one thought there was a problem.

The Founders, moneyed, educated men considered themselves the rightful leaders of government and society. They put in place a system that, they imagined, would lead the people to chose from among these rightful leaders an Electoral College who would chose the chief executive from among these rightful leaders. I don’t mean that they’d chose someone from the Electoral College, but that the Electoral College would chose some one from the patrician class, who would properly keep the interests of that class in mind. They had no doubt that what was good for their class was good for the nation. It’s one reason why the Founders designed the Constitution to protect slavery.

I’ve been too dispirited to look at the poll analysts post-election thoughts. But I don’t Hillary Clinton’s problem was the minor party candidates. Rather it was, in my opinion, last minutes small shifts in voter opinion in the swing states that had always been close. As you know, when all the votes are counted she will have received a couple million more votes than Trump did.

I have some strong opinions about the new voter ID laws, and I’m going to shift that discussion to a new post.


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One response to “The Electoral College works fine as designed

  1. Pingback: Yet still more on the failure of the Electoral College | two heads are better

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