The Electoral College: How to Defend?

Someone on my Facebook page (which I hope you will ‘like’) asked about defending the electoral college: should he make the argument that electors will have more sober and impartial judgment than the fickle masses, etc.?

I wouldn’t. Given that the electors are nearly always party machine people, almost none of them will be independent minded, so the arguments the Framers of the Constitution may have made for this institution no longer apply.

I think the most logical way to defend it is unfortunately unlikely to resonate with the kind of people who oppose it, since those people know little and care less about federalism. But I would say this: the Constitution consistently refers to the United States in the plural, and the key thing that’s supposed to distinguish the U.S. from other countries — remember that idea we keep hearing that the U.S. is supposed to be unique? — is that it is fundamentally a collection of societies. The evidence for this claim is pretty overwhelming, as I show in chapter 4 of Nullification. (Click here for a few of the relevant points.)

Now hold that thought for a second, and consider this. During the World Series, we don’t add up the total number of runs scored by each team over the course of the series, and then decide who won on that basis. We count up how many games each team won.

Game 1: Red Sox 10, Mets 0
Game 2: Red Sox 15, Mets 1
Game 3: Red Sox 5, Mets 2
Game 4: Red Sox 1, Mets 2
Game 5: Red Sox 0, Mets 1
Game 6: Red Sox 2, Mets 3
Game 7: Red Sox 3, Mets 4

In this imaginary series the Red Sox scored 36 runs while the Mets scored only 13, yet everyone would acknowledge that the Mets won the series. Not a single sports fan would be running around demanding that we count the total number of runs instead, or insisting that the way we determine the World Series winner is sinister.

But I think this is the correct analogy with the electoral college. How many games — e.g., how many political societies, albeit weighted to some degree by population — did you win?

Also, the electoral college puts an upper bound on how much support you can earn from any one state. Even if your whole campaign is geared toward taxing the rest of the country and handing the money to California, you still can’t get more than 55 electoral votes from that state. So to some extent, the electoral college forces the candidate to run a national race more than would be necessary otherwise.

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  • RTB

    Nice explanation.

    Have you publicly written anywhere about your thoughts on voter qualifications?

    It seems that political dynamics would be radically different if you had to meet certain contributory requirements before voting.

    How is it right that a person not contributing should be able to vote on the person who will spend the confiscated funds?

    My understand is the founding fathers instituted minimum voting rights to avoid this scenario.

  • Anonymous

    I like that analogy. I’m going to have to steal it next time I play devil’s advocate.

  • James Thompson

    The founders never made any allowance for a popular vote for President. The Presidency was deemed to be too far removed from the people. A conclave of delegates from the States were to elect the President with *no* popular input. States have now allowed a popular vote to determine their electoral votes, in contrast with the original idea, and that is what makes it look so odd. You can have one or the other but not both.

  • Tom E. Snyder

    If people thought the recount in Florida in 2000 was bad, electing the president by popular vote would be horrific. There would be 100s if not 1000s of recounts all over the country. It probably wouldn’t be settled by inauguration day.

    I have a proposed modification to the “electoral college” (not mentioned by that name in the Constitution) since the original plan is no longer followed. The number of electors from a state equals the sum of the US Representatives and the 2 US Senators. Instead of the statewide winner getting all the electoral votes the statewide winner would get two–for the Senators. Then the winner in each Congressional district would get one electoral vote. That would add more suspense and diversity to the election. And the networks could not declare at 7:01 PM CT that Romney has won all the electoral votes in Texas. He might win most of them but a fair number would go to Obama. This would be repeated nationwide. It would also make it harder for pundits to declare the election over before it starts. And might result in campaign stops in more states instead of just a few toss-up states.

    On second thought…

  • guest


    This article explains how that democracy (as opposed to the republican form of government), in the form of the 17th Amendent, screwed up the intended checks posed by the existence of multiple factions (so as to purposely make it difficult for a single faction to gain a majority influence unless they could convince others of the legitimacy of their views):

    Repeal the Seventeenth Amendment

    And here’s a quote from Federalist Paper 10 which alludes to why federalism is preferable to democracy:

    “The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.”

  • Frank M

    Although I like the idea of the Mets winning the World Series, there really was a World Series in which the losing team clobbered the winner in composite runs, and by an even bigger margin than in the imaginary example above.

    In 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the NY Yankees in the World Series 4 games to 3, but the Yanks outscored them 55 to 27 over the 7 games. Here’s how it went:

    Game 1 Pirates 6 Yanks 4
    Game 2 Yanks 16 Pirates 3
    Game 3 Yanks 10 Pirates 0
    Game 4 Pirates 3 Yanks 2
    Game 5 Pirates 5 Yanks 2
    Game 6 Yanks 12 Pirates 0
    Game 7 Pirates 10 Yanks 9

  • Tom Woods

    Wow, thanks!

  • Lois

    What are your thoughts on an elector who would vote for a different candidate than the candidate who won the popular vote in their state? I have heard them called unfaithful electors. Since no candidate wins 100% of the popular vote in a state, I don’t understand why it would be wrong for an elector to vote his/her conscience.

  • Andrew Eckel

    I came up with that same idea after the Florida recount in 2000.

  • Derick Dickens

    On my blog I will address this issue later this week. Bottom line, we are a nation of states and the power belongs to the states. That is why we are called the United States. If we eliminated the electoral college, the campaigns would go to the population centers for votes, not places like Wisconsin. The appeal would be for population centers and cease to become state focused.

  • David J. Poetter

    This is exactly the same thing I think should be done with the Electoral College. It’s what Maine and Nebraska do, so it’s not like this idea just comes out of nowhere.

  • Chuck Suter

    Let’s go Bucks!!!!!

  • Chuck Suter

    I agree and it’s the same way I defend it… but the Mets? Come on Tom. :)

  • Kenneth

    I wonder how many baseball fans will pay far more attention to the run count now that you’ve pointed this out….

  • William Thomas Ridenour

    I understand a few states apportion their elector’s votes according to the % won by each candidate and do not do “winner take all.”
    So, apparently each state decides on this matter–there is not a single way the constitution dictates it must be done.
    Therefore, here’s my question: what would be the problem if apportionment became the standard practice?
    I assume it would be possible. The ultimate question is what would be the consequences, especially in regard to our already badly battered federalism?

  • Jake Thomas

    Tom, I’ve thought about that solution a whole lot actually. Nebraska and Maine already do it this way. In 2008 Nebraska, (which only has 4 electoral votes) 3 of which went to Mccain and 1 to President Obama. This sounds great and fair right? Sadly this would lead to MORE gerrymandering (I’m sure you know what this is, if not google it) Certain Congressional district are drawn specifically to benefit one party or another. Here in Texas CD33 is strictly a Democrat district vs CD12 a very Republican District. So guess who will win those district in the Presidential election.

    I love this idea. But, we have to get rid of those drawing the district lines to suit a particular party.

  • JoeMamma82

    “Also, the electoral college puts an upper bound on how much support you
    can earn from any one state. Even if your whole campaign is geared
    toward taxing the rest of the country and handing the money to
    California, you still can’t get more than 55 electoral votes from that
    state. So to some extent, the electoral college forces the candidate to
    run a national race more than would be necessary otherwise.”

    So is he saying California has 51% or more of our nations population?

    Also what do you think determines how many electoral votes each state gets OTHER THAN just population? This guy is out of his gourd.

  • Mike Trapp

    Good stuff Tom. Great analogy. I also refer people to this book which I find a good read:

  • Aneirin

    It seems that the Electoral College prevents a lot of “public choice” issues from cropping up, because candidates could try to gain heavy regional support by offering subsidies which the rest of the country would not tend to care about as much (or even understand at all, considering how many people think trade protectionism and agricultural subsidies benefit them). Having smaller populations of voters decide the election is generally preferable to large-scale democracy. (Of course, I prefer polycentric law anyway, but given what we’ve got…)

  • Brains Please

    I don’t think you understand the point. You shouldn’t throw insults when you misunderstand the article.

  • Alexander Flyax

    I think it makes more sense that each state has the same number of representatives. As long as we are treating the states as equal partners, each pitching in in electing the president.

    Otherwise, it’s a weird combo of two systems (national and federal). But, nothing new there…

  • Robert W. T. Short Sr.

    in soccer they do count the number of goals. which expains why soccer sucks.

  • Frankie Tierney

    An even better idea (other than a stateless society where people don’t vote in the first place for the candidates to use force on others), consider

    his other videos layout the problems with first past the post voting (the system we currently have). Got me thinking at least perhaps some of the people reading this blog may like it or tweak it as well.

  • Tom Woods

    You read that passage and took it to mean I thought California had 51+% of the country’s population? Wow.


    The comments that recommend proportional allotment of a State’s electoral vote are off-base (no pun intended). That
    would only further diminishe the role of the States as sovereign entities providing a check on the federal gov’t. The trend of majorities voting for candidates who claim more and more powers for the federal gov’t can be traced to 1913 and the 17th Amendment.

  • Daniel Bledsoe

    There’s a great essay in ‘Reassessing the Presidency’ that explains how the process degraded over time, chapter 5

  • Bob Cole

    so in games 2 and 3 1960 , perhaps the pirates were down early and basically conceded the game, saving their best picthers for later in the series. the run count is beside the point. I love the analogy. so many people want to change things that do not need changing.

  • Jack Johnson

    The problem with that approach is that politicians would be gerrymandering the presidential election just like they currently do with Representatives to Congress.

  • Terry

    I believe his point, which also struck me as I was reading, is that CA could not elect the president alone *without* the electoral college, either, unless it had >50% of the nation’s population. To make your example really work, consider using a minority of states having together a majority of the nation’s population.

  • Joe Helms

    You are assuming 100% of the population actually votes.

    With a low voter turnout, “buying” votes in a dense population center that would jack voter turnouts way up could seriously distort things.

    No, CA probably couldn’t win by itself even under these conditions – but it was just an example.

  • Tom Woods

    Sorry; I assumed the principle I was driving at was obvious. California obviously doesn’t have 156 million people.

  • Luke Weinhagen

    As long a a federal government is collecting taxes directly from each person, each person should be voting for who is administering those funds. If we are ever fortunate enough to return to union of individual states, with a small federal government facilitating the interaction between those states, then I would agree that the states as bodies should be casting electoral votes. You tax me directly, I see value in a direct vote in who determines how those taxes are used.

    We should not be doing much of what we are at the federal level, but as long as we are:
    We should be voting on the president.
    We should also be voting on the cabinet members.
    We should also be voting on the heads of every federal department.

    The baseball analogy is excellent My guess is if everyone in the country was forced to buy a ticket to every game all season long you would see a very big push for “who ever gets the most runs wins” or to put it another way “who will give us the most, wins”.

    So yes, lose the 17th; but the 16th has to go with it.

  • Bob Rivers

    Exactly. This is the problem with a direct democracy. Not just your example, but the idiots who don’t understand the basic premise of what Tom was saying are out there voting and being swayed by the same advertising methods that convince someone to choose a carbonated beverage and snack cake.

    While the Electoral College is far from perfect, it certainly cannot be replaced with a popular vote. I’m glad Tom touched on this. While the intention may have been to select those that select a president for you, it’s current purpose of being a barrier to contain fraud and/or demagoguery should not be overlooked.

    The concept of party-line delegates wasn’t quite clear to the framers anyway. Consider the original method where each delegate votes for two and the highest vote getter becomes President and the runner-up Vice-President. if they could have predicted the election of 1800, I’m sure Alexander Hamilton would have spoken up to avoid the fallout from that fiasco.

  • Ralph Howarth

    Also, my thoughts on the Electoral College issue can be found here:

    Up front; however, it is incorrect to believe that federal elections were always be popular vote of any sort. States were given latitude by the federal Constitution to elect delegates of any federal office by way of conventions, state legislative votes, town halls, secret ballot, or any other method of a state’s imagination including popular votes so long as the state was consitent with how it elected its own internal state legislative representatives of the “most numberous body”. If a National Popular Vote compact is made by states; then what about the consitutional power of states to choose to NOT elect their federal servants by a popular vote? Any state could choose tomorrow to do away with popular vote elections and be legal in doing so under the federal constitution while the constitution specifies that any contract among states be approved of by Congress. Has Congress approved NPV? There is too much legal trouble for NPV. Secondly, in addition, the original federal constitution had the “chief magistrate” elected by the Senate as the US President continues to be the “president” of the US Senate by his agent in the Vice President, who then has the power to cast a tie breaker vote when needed.

    Thirdly, Gerrymandering is a problem that would be exemplified by states moving away from winner-takes-all elections; but the benefit of that scenario is that Gerrymandeing becomes a more exemplified problem. Ths may ascend to the calling out a greater outrage that something be done about it such that federal measures are made such as a legitamate constiutional amendment stating that congressional districts must be drawn of contiguous blocks as possible and no longer represent the snaking sprawl of senseless borders. And as evil as Gerrymandering can be; it would be further offset by the goods that district voting would bring such as changing the theatre of “swing states” to that of “swing districts”, which can more readily ascend into a “swing district” rather than an entire state in any given election. Another good would be that of cross-hatch voting blocks of districts that can span state borders. Such can help diffuse regionalism by drawing attention away from high population epicenters. Further, having stronger voice on a district level can enhance state power in the federal system rather than erode it. Why? Because the present state of affairs is that states are bribed and cajoled by federal money into the internal affairs of a state. Having stronger districts may then serve to diffuse that aggegated federal power that intermeddles within states down to district levels. Why? Because the typical federal business of ear marking federal funds into a district would ever so more cry afoul of special and particular interest instead of money being spent on the federal level for what is supposed to be for the general welfare of the whole country and not the paritular welfare of a small area.

    Last, the complaint that “my vote does not count” in my state to give creedence to a national popular vote only would have the effect of exacerabating the problem. Such an affair can then actually discourage voting because the votes of a minority ceases to matter. Then the internal state problem of “my vote does not count” in those winner-takes-all states then abounds to “my vote does not count” on a national scale in what becomes the grandest winner-takes-all majority vote. If votes were district level, then the “my vote does not count” factor goes down because a delegate may be sent on your behalf where otherwise would not. Now you could then complain, “my delegate does not count” but the environment would encourage more voter discernment and scrutiny if if is not so easily snowed by the theatre of a national popular vote. At least then you have some voice. Ultimately, such a scenario may serve to help break the dichotomous, two-party system and help break the spirit of party that was never intended of the federal constituion, and so make the Electoral College more effective because the Electoral College has pretty much degenerated into a rank-and-file string of party line electors instead of statesmen electors. How about that? Could it be possible to elect delegates by name instead of presidential candidates by name?

  • Anonymous

    Now that you mention it, why don’t we count up the number of runs? I’m outraged, and I herewith announce the formation of the National Runner’s Rights Party. Our battle is steeply up hill, but the stakes have never been higher. With your help, we can correct this terrible injustice. Click here to support the cause. All major credit cards accepted.

  • Anonymous

    During the hanging chads debacle in 2000, but I proposed a solution that never gained much traction, but I still think it merits consideration. In a close race, where less than a percent separates the two leading candidates say, the candidate with fewer votes wins.

    Here’s the reasoning. The “will of the majority” in this scenario is practically meaningless, but we want to encourage an honest vote tally. if fewer votes wins a close election, talliers don’t know whether to stuff ballot boxes with their candidate’s votes or for the other candidate.

  • rebecca

    This was a great way to explain this process to a class of third graders.

  • Tom Woods

    Great to hear!

  • Kenneth

    The most recent example of this was in 2003, Florida Marlins vs NY Yankees. Marlins won the series 4 – 2, but the Yanks scored more runs, but only just: 21 runs for the Yankees, 17 for the Marlins.

  • Brad

    The baseball comparison to me doesn’t work. If we want to use the baseball analogy, then we need to have 7 national elections and the winner would be the one who wins 4 of 7. Having said that, we all know we would vote the same way on each election, so to make the outcome different maybe we would randomly pick who can vote and who can’t?

  • Kharles

    I live in colorado where the libertarian party started and last election for governor created its own party to elect tancredo, as a result of our state not blindly voting we are a swing state, the electoral college rewards the states that don’t consist of zombie voters who vote party over principle

  • LeRoy Whitman

    Superb analysis. Long life to you, Dr. Woods.

  • Terry

    I got what you meant perfectly. I just realized what JoeMamma was probably talking about and thought I’d help make his objection more comprehensible. My alternative example was meant not so much as a criticism as to help communicate the thinking.

  • Terry

    What Tom was saying was not lost on me or, I suspect, JoeMamma–the guy just felt like being critical for whatever reason. Impulsive insults aren’t a good habit.

  • Terry

    Actually, it merely assumes that the voter participation rate doesn’t vary between CA and the other states in aggregate.