All Commentary
Thursday, March 1, 2001

Keep the Electoral College

The Framers Created the Electoral College for a Reason


Should the Electoral College be abolished? Last year’s presidential election raised the question once again, but it also answered it with an emphatic NO! The framers of the Constitution knew precisely what they were doing when they established the system for electing presidents, which is more than anyone can say about the people who spent weeks last fall counting those celebrated dimpled and pregnant chads in Florida.

The 2000 election was the 53rd since George Washington was chosen in 1792. Even on the three previous occasions when a split decision between the popular and electoral votes occurred, the Electoral College was the mechanism for a decisive conclusion to an election. If popular votes alone determined the outcome, a dozen presidential elections would have been close enough for the result to be contested without end, or at least without an end that most Americans could see as fair and honest. What dragged out the contest between Bush and Gore were the partisan lawsuits and the tortuous methods employed to recount votes or decipher voter “intent.”

Indeed, the closeness of the 2000 election in so many places—multiple states as well as the nation as a whole—suggests that we should thank our lucky stars the framers gave us the system we have.

It is precisely because of the Electoral College that the recounting of votes focused on one state instead of many. If the popular vote decided the winner, we would still be bogged down in questionable recounts in dozens, if not hundreds, of counties across the country. The potential for mistakes and abuse would have been enormously compounded, and the cloud over the eventual winner would have been all the more dark and ominous.

Some say that it is inherently unfair for a candidate to win in the Electoral College and become president if another candidate actually has more popular votes. It should be noted at the outset that it is extremely unlikely this could ever happen when the popular vote margin is wide. A narrow margin in the popular vote—narrow enough to be wiped out with a few vote-rigging recounts—cries out for a decisive conclusion, and that’s what the Electoral College offers.

But whether the losing candidate’s popular-vote victory is large or small, the fact that a win in the Electoral College is all that finally matters is not unfair. It’s not unfair that little Delaware gets just as many senators as big California. It’s not unfair that 34-year-olds can’t become president or that a simple majority in the Congress is insufficient to approve a treaty, convict an impeached president, or amend the Constitution. Nor is it unfair that the winner of the World Series is the team that wins four games, not necessarily the one that has the most runs. These are the rules of the game, and in the case of the Electoral College, the rules were written for some very good reasons.

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, some delegates wanted the popular vote to elect the president. Others argued that Congress should make the pick. The smaller, less populated states feared, correctly, that under either of those options they would be swallowed up or ignored by the larger, more populous states. The Electoral College represented not only a compromise to accommodate the concerns of the small states, but also a singular act of genius on the part of the framers. They did not reject the notion of a truly “democratic” election; they left the matter to the states. As it turned out, a democratic election determines each state’s vote for president in the Electoral College. The institution serves as a pillar of our federal system of government, wherein the states—which created the central government in the first place—do not dissolve into an amorphous national mass but rather retain a substantial identity and hence a check on unbridled power in Washington.

Moreover, the fact that a candidate must win a majority in the Electoral College means that he cannot focus all his resources on only a few large states. He must fashion a truly national appeal, as opposed to a divisive regional one. That helps assure that the winner will enjoy an added measure of support and legitimacy that derives from a relatively broad base.

Thankfully, the question of abolishing the Electoral College is moot because the hurdles a constitutional amendment has to jump are simply too high. Too many small states would block it, as they have before.

One reform that does make sense is one requiring that electors vote for the candidate who won their respective states. The framers assumed that they would, but left it to the states to settle the details. Twenty-one jurisdictions (including the District of Columbia) have such a requirement, but 30 do not.

Finally, it may be instructive to everyone who followed the recent election controversy to consider a page from presidential history.

The last time a close election produced a split decision in the popular vote and the Electoral College was 1888. Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democratic president, had been through a close one once before. In 1884, he won New York by just 1,200 votes—and with it, the presidency—but a switch of barely 600 votes in that one state alone would have swung the election to Republican James G. Blaine. Four years later, Cleveland bested Benjamin Harrison by about 100,000 votes out of 11 million cast nationwide but he lost in the Electoral College 233-168. Because the contest was tight in a number of states, a slight shift in the popular vote plurality would have easily won it all for the incumbent.

One reason the American people accepted the 1888 outcome was that the federal government was not so much a presence in their lives as today’s government is in ours. Cut Washington down to its proper size, and who wins won’t be of earthshaking consequence.

Cleveland handled his 1888 defeat with dignity—no recounts, no lawsuits, no spin. Alyn Brodsky, in his superb biography, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character, records that when reporters asked to what he ascribed his defeat, Cleveland smiled and said, “It was mainly because the other party had the most votes.” The “votes” to which he referred were the ones that really matter under the Constitution—Electoral College votes.


  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is lawrencewreed.com.