November 14, 2000

How to Re-accredit the Electoral College
James Alan Fox

As efforts continue to "get out" the real Florida vote, opposition to the 200-year-old Electoral College system grows strong and vocal. The potentially split decision between the popular vote and the Electoral College tally in the still undecided presidential contest has given new hope to abolitionists.

Already a number of senators and congressmen-including Senator-Elect Hillary Rodham Clinton-have questioned the modern-day viability of this "anachronistic" method of choosing a president. The public seems to agree. A post-election day CNN/Time poll indicates that 63% of those surveyed wanted the Electoral College to lose its constitutional accreditation.

Despite the political and public outcry, the Electoral College continues to have an important benefit by preventing distortion in popular voting. In a country so regionally divided on a number of vital issues-from abortion to gun control-it is only fair that the presidential election properly reflect the balance of states according to their population shares.

The problem with the Electoral College format is not in its winner-take-all approach, but in the manner by which the electoral votes themselves are allotted-that is, based on the number of Congressional seats, House and Senate combined, for each state (and the minimum of 3 for the District of Columbia). House seats are calibrated proportional to states populations, for example, 50 for California but only 1 for Delaware. Senate seats, however, are a constant two-per-state, California and Delaware alike.

This allocation may work for establishing two contrasting legislative bodies-one which represents the people and one which technically does not-but it is illogical for selecting a president. Specifically, including the two votes corresponding to Senate seats destroys the proportionality between state population and electoral votes. As a consequence, smaller states are awarded disproportionately more electoral votes than their populations would indicate. Thus, a candidate can piece together a group of sparsely populated states to form an Electoral College majority, just as George W. Bush managed to do, even if it represents less than half the nation's population.

To demystify and clarify what may seem like just another case of "fuzzy math," Massachusetts has roughly ten times the population of Alaska, and accordingly a 10-to-1 advantage in House seats. But in terms of Electoral College delegations, Massachusetts's block of 12 votes is merely four times Alaska's 3 votes.

If electoral votes were based only on House seats, the results would be rather different, and truly representative of the population. In fact, the recent election illustrates the strength of this adjustment. Conceding Florida to Bush and keeping Oregon and New Mexico on Gore's side, the Vice President would claim 225 modified electoral votes and the Texas governor would garner 211. This outcome would give the Vice President a narrow Electoral College victory, corresponding to the "razor thin" margin in the popular vote.

The slim victory in this modified Electoral College would parallel the population. The 21 states carried by Gore comprise 50.3% of the U.S. population (including those who are too young to vote, too sick to vote, still undecided, otherwise disenfranchised, or just politically apathetic).

The popular vote, although easy to comprehend, can be distorted by varying rates of voter registration and turnout. A snow storm on election day, like the one that closed roads and cut off electricity at polling places in parts of New Mexico, should not disadvantage a state in its influence on the final tally. Conversely, a heavy voter turnout prompted by a hotly contested gubernatorial race or a controversial state ballot question should not result in that state having a disproportionate weight over the outcome of the national race.

At some point in the future, election voting may be streamlined by use of the Internet, avoiding the rampant confusion that now exists concerning the correct intent of thousands of Florida voters. Even then, the population-not the popular vote-should rule. Rather than close the Electoral College down, I say we just change its "curriculum."

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.