Yet still more on the failure of the Electoral College


We’ve been discussing the recent presidential election, and the fact that the candidate who received the most votes lost. See Still more on the failure of the Electoral College, and More on the failure of the Electoral College, and The Electoral College Works Just Fine as Designed. Indeed, “Still more” drew an informed comment from one of our readers.

In this post, I’m going to remark on our recent e-mails on the subject, on the comment, and report the most recent popular vote results. Many pundits and chin-strokers have been offering Hillary Clinton and the Democrats advice along the lines of “If you’d been listening to voters, you wouldn’t have lost.” I think that the popular vote results show that these analyses are incorrect.

From your most recent e-mail to me, which begins with a line from a blog post of mine:

>This is what the Electoral College, and the Republican Party has brought to us.


Can’t know that the Electoral College is the main cause. Direct voting would have spurred very different campaigning. Because nearly all polls showed a comfortable electoral Clinton win for so long, even days before the vote, many people did not bother to vote in “safe states”, or they voted for third party candidates – I know people myself who did these things. But the popular vote kept getting closer and closer near the end. Even a direct vote might have seen a Clinton loss. I remember thinking that the media was trying to whip up fear and higher ratings by talking only about the polls that showed a very close popular vote, sometimes with Trump ahead. But it did turn out to be very close.

I now agree completely with you, though, that the Electoral College might have worked well in 1786 – when most eligible voters knew their state’s electors personally or through a short chain of acquaintance – but it no longer makes sense. You or I have no idea who our state’s electors are. Nearly all are probably minor functionaries. I think instant-runoff electronic voting (a derivative of Condorcet) would do well; see


I agree with you that if the president were decided by a nationwide vote, then things would have been different. But I don’t see that we can’t make reasonable guesses. We aren’t entirely at sea in the matter. As for people not voting in safe states, it is precisely in those states, such as California and New York, that millions of Clinton vote were made ineffective by the winner-take-all-by-states Electoral College system. The votes of a hundred thousand voters in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan counted for more than millions of votes in California and New York. You are correct that in states where the outcome was strongly in favor of one or the other of the major party candidates, a voter dissatisfied with both could vote for a third-party candidate or not vote at all without concern of throwing the election in his or her state to the worst of the two. Some people did this while voting for “the best of two evils” in close states.

As you say, the Electoral College might have worked well in 1789, which the College elected George Washington unanimously with 69 votes. In those days each elector had two votes, cast for different candidates. It will amuse you to read the various oddities in that election at the link. John Adams, who received 34 of the second votes for President became the Vice President. The second Presidential election of 1793 also worked fine, again with Washington winning unanimous election and Adams, in second, becoming Vice President.

I suppose we’d say that the College worked fine in those two elections as Washington was the choice of all constituencies, the people, the state governments, the ruling class, and its social “best.” The College managed to settle on him.

The Electoral College ran into trouble in the next election, of 1796. John Adams won the Presidency as the candidate of the Federalist Party, and Thomas Jefferson, won the Vice Presidency, as the candidate for the Democratic-Republican Party. That is, the President and the Vice President were from different and strongly opposed parties. If Adams had died in office, the Presidency would have switched parties! The Founders had not foreseen the early appearance of political parties. Indeed, they feared the powerful forces of faction, as they would have called it.

The Electoral College crashed and burned in the election of 1800. The outcome of this election was that Vice President Jefferson ousted President Adams. Every Elector representing the Democratic-Republican Party voted for Jefferson and for Aaron Burr. Both received more votes than Adams. The tie vote threw the election to the House of Representatives, the outgoing one (that we would call the lame ducks). The Democratic-Republicans had planned for one of their electors to not vote for Burr, so their preferred candidates would take office as president and vice president, but someone goofed. As you know, once the election is in the House, each state gets one vote. There was a nasty lengthy fight before Jefferson emerged victorious.

This was the point of Professor Brad DeLong’s post. In addition to the failure of the Electoral College in 1800, he noted several more. In his view, a 10% failure rate is too high. The failures, such as they were, were different, and led to ferocious and divisive political strife.

You might enjoy reading about the election of 1876 in which Democrat Samuel Tilden outpolled Republican Rutherford Hayes. You may have forgotten learning President Tilden from your school days because there were shenanigans involving disputed state victories including, we are not surprised, Florida. In that state, the struggle for Electors led to violence and murder. The upshot was that the Democrats accepted Hayes as the next President and the Republicans agreed to end the military occupation of the southern states. Put another way, political maneuvers in the proverbial smoke filled rooms decided the election.

I’d say that the issue is this: In all elections in the United States the office goes to the candidate with the most votes, except for the most important office. As our political culture has evolved over more than two centuries, we place more confidence in voters than did the Founders. But as that same culture tried to deal with the problems of the Electoral College, it did so piece meal, leaving us with a Rube Goldberg device that we hope will lead to the realization of the popular will. No one today would propose such as system.

I agree with you that modern political scientists have found amusing flaws and oddities in our voting system, aside from the Electoral College. Condorcet voting, and instant run offs, and so on might well be improvements to our elections. We are unlikely, however, to be able to agree to just switch to a majority rule, popular vote. Thus continued Electoral College disasters are certain.

Here’s a BBC report of the latest popular vote count: Hillary Clinton has more than 2 million more votes than Donald Trump. As they point out, the Electoral College favors a candidate who wins by a little in many states over a candidate who wins by landslides in a few. But why should that be a principle designed into our choice of president?

I’ll leave my next two topics, listed at the top, for another post.


1 Comment

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One response to “Yet still more on the failure of the Electoral College

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

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