The Electoral System, Important in 1787 and Still Essential

Part I – The Electoral System provided for in the United States Constitution

In 1787, when US Constitution was written there were just 13 states. State’s Rights versus a Strong Central Government was one of the major issues that had to be accounted for in all the deliberations related to balance of power between those competing concepts. In the formation of our government, states with smaller populations did not want to be “run over” or inordinately controlled by states with larger populations. Conversely, states with large populations representing greater numbers of people considered that they should have more say on governance and in the election process. From the standpoint of legislation (passing laws, authorizing spending, etc.), the allocation of influence in accordance with larger and smaller populations among the states was solved by the Framers of our Constitution via establishing a bicameral legislature, i.e. two houses comprising the Congress.  The House of Representatives, in which the number of representatives for a state was based on population and the Senate in which each state had an equal number of representatives (2). That arrangement was agreed-upon and has worked out very well. It avoided the potential, at that time, of two or three of the most populous states (with larger number of representatives) getting together and controlling the outcome on an issue for the entire country.

With respect to the election of the President of the United States, the Framers likewise devised a unique way, the Electoral System, to help ensure that the will of the entire country and not just a highly populated state or region would control the outcome of the National Election for the President. The Framers could have used a “One State – One Vote” option or they could have opted for a total popular vote option “One Person-One Vote”. The first option would have respected the distinctiveness and importance of each state but would have not accounted for states with much larger populations.  The second option would have provided the more populous states with the potential to unduly control the outcome of the Presidential election and essentially neglect the input from smaller states.  The Framers solution was a third option, the Electoral System.  Under the Electoral System, States were allotted “electors” to vote for their choice of President in accordance with their population. More populous states were given more electoral votes to cast for President than were the less populated states. Each state received the same number of electors as the number of Congressional Representatives they had. One for each member they had in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Thereby the Framers ensured that the number of votes each State had in the Presidential election was in proportion to the State’s population*.   The use of an Electoral System allows the greater population of the larger states to be fairly and appropriately accounted for in the election.  The “saving grace” for the smaller populous states under the electoral system was that a huge “margin of victory” in the popular vote in a given state or states (specifically the very large populous states), for what ever reason, did not cancel out the vote from smaller populous states and thus dictate the overall outcome.  Here are two examples that show how the Electoral System  fairly accounts  for the larger population states but protects the input from the states with smaller populations through exclusion of the “margin of victory” in the popular vote in a state. 

Example 1 – Looking at the state populations in 1790 and the associated electoral votes assigned and applied in the 1792 election, it can be seen that the population of Massachusetts (1790 census) was 378,000, with 16 electoral votes which was comparable to the total 16 electoral votes from the combined populations of Vermont- 85,000,  New Hampshire -142,000, Delaware 59,000 and Rhode Island 69,000.  If, for example, the popular vote for a particular candidate that year was overwhelming in Massachusetts (say 90% for one Candidate), but was just over 50% in the other 4 states cited for the same candidate. That Candidate would receive 16 electoral votes from Massachusetts and 16 electoral votes from the other 4 states.  No “extra credit” would be given toward the candidate’s overwhelming victory in Massachusetts.                                                            * A minimum of 3 electoral votes was assigned to States with small populations (one Representative plus two Senators).

Example 2 – At present, in the year 2020, California will receive 55 electoral votes while Delaware will receive 3.   In fact because of its large population, California receives as many electoral votes as the combined total of Vermont , Wyoming, West Virginia, Utah, South Dakota, Rhode Island, North Dakota, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Delaware, Alaska and Hawaii combined (as many electoral votes as 15 other states ).  Thus, it can be seen that the Electoral System fairly accounts for the voting power of the greater population of California.

However, as indicated above and described below there was (and is) a subtle but important difference associated with the “the margin” of a popular vote victory in any given state and the provision for proportionally crediting states with larger populations.  The provision, put in place by the Framers of the Constitution, was to use electors in proportion with a state’s population, rather than summing  popular vote totals from each state.  Note that typically (48 out of 50 states**), use a winner take all system to decide how their electors will cast their ballots for President.

So, to illustrate how the “margin of popular vote victory” in a state is kept from unduly controlling the overall election” in the electoral system consider the following example.  Assume (relatively reasonably based on the 2010 census) that the population of California and the population of the sum of the 15 States cited above both equal 40 million and that everyone in all of the 16 states vote, for either Candidate A, a conservative from Texas, or Candidate B, a liberal (favorite son) from California.  Now let’s assume that Candidate A wins the popular vote in each of the 15 states cited above, fairly decisively, by an average margin of 55% to 45%, thus receiving 22,000,000 votes while Candidate B receives 18,000,000 votes.  However, in California Candidate B wins overwhelmingly taking 75% of the popular vote, 30,000,000 votes to 10,000,000 votes.  Under the Constitutions’s Electoral System Candidate B wins California, and gets 55 electoral votes and Candidate A wins 15 states and also gets 55 electoral votes.

However, under a popular vote system, there would be 48,000,000 votes for Candidate B and 32,000,000 votes for Candidate A.  The preference of the 15 states for Candidate A would have been completely overwhelmed by the much larger popular vote winning differential in California of 20,000,000 for Candidate B vs the total winning differential of 4,000,000 for Candidate A in the other  15 states. The net outcome toward the Presidential Election of these 16  states (without the electoral system) would be a popular vote lead of 16,000,000 votes for Candidate B – easily nullifying the democratically chosen preference of 15 States for Candidate A.   This is what the electoral system was established to avoid – potential dominance from the popular “margin of victory” in very high population states!

Clearly such a situation as the Presidential Candidate being from a very large population state, such as used in the example could swell the margin of victory in an individual state. That well could have been one of the factors that the Framers considered.  For example the population of Virginia in 1790 was nearly ten times that of Delaware and the margin of popular vote victory of a “favorite son” in Virginia could well have overwhelmed the popular votes cast in Delaware (and several other smaller population states).

The above example is not far fetched.  In our current political and demographic  landscape , without the electoral system the majority choice of 15 states could have (and would have in recent elections) been overwhelmed by the vote differential of the population in a single state based on that populations characteristics, vagaries and preferences.  The Framers likely recognized the significant disparities that could occur between the states, the potential for large variations in the popular vote differentials and the potential for large swings in the population.  For example, between the 1790 census and the 1860 census the population of New York state increased 10-fold up to 4,000,000 while Delaware’s population only increased from 69,000 to 100,000.  The Framers wanted each States choice (democratically chosen in that state) to be given its due.

The Electoral System in our Constitution accommodates the importance and individuality of the Separate States while equitably providing for the larger states to have their just share of votes for the President in accordance with their population. The Electoral Process prevented the differential in popular vote in a given state from dismissing the preferences of other states and having undue influence on the outcome of the Presidential election. The Framers instituted the Electoral System for a good reason.   The one person-one vote principal is often the right approach but in order to value each states autonomy and in order to give each state a viable say in the Presidential Election the Electoral System was needed.  The electoral system for our country, made up of individual states, was insightful, fair, brilliant and necessary.  Fortuitously the electoral system is still functioning remarkably well given the radical  change in the country’s demography  from rural to urban.                                                                                                  ** Maine and Nebraska allow for splitting their electoral votes if congressional districts are won by different candidates.

Part II – The Electoral System and the Mega City/County Effect

The inclusion of the electoral system in our constitution was fortuitous, as we will see, because now and for the foreseeable future, the electoral system is absolutely essential in maintaining a semblance of balance between the voters representing the width and breadth of the country versus mega city voters.  Without the electoral system, the popular vote dominance in major metropolitan cities and counties would control Presidential Elections henceforth.

Without a complete understanding of the underlying functioning and intent of the electoral system, people tend to consider that the electoral system is taking away their vote, especially if they voted differently than the majority of the people in their State. They hearken back to the one person – one vote dictum, without recognition that their one vote, was indeed already appropriately cast for the candidate of their choice in the “democratic” election in their State. In any event there is a natural, underlying sentiment for a National Popular vote that is easily tapped into.  However,  beyond that inherent sentiment, there is now realization by the leadership of the political parties of how important and what a critical role the Electoral System now plays in the Presidential elections.  This realization is what is driving the recent calls by Democratic Presidential candidates for the electoral system to be abolished and by the Republicans to maintain it. Further this realization has  prompted legislative actions by States currently under Democrat control to pass laws hitching their State electors to the national popular vote in the future regardless of the outcome of the vote in their State.   Clearly the political winds and demographic changes have revealed the trend that shows that the Democrat party would now profoundly benefit, for the foreseeable future, in the removal of the electoral system and the adoption of a national popular vote. The evidence for this assertion is illustrated subsequently.

One Person – One Vote – Why there are exceptions to this “rule”

Despite our inherent tendency to endorse the fairness  in the “one person-one vote” standard, there are extenuating circumstances and/or particular situations where an alternative to that customary approach is necessary to achieve an equitable, and just representation. This was, and is the case for the disparate, independent and vastly different areal populations of these Untied States in voting for the Chief Executive. It is also the case for all legislative action in each state and for the country as a whole.  The United States is a Republic, which  means that The United States operates in terms of a representative form of government.   Likewise, States, Counties and Cities elect representatives to make the decisions on all manner of issues.  A popular vote is not used to decide on each decision and each law. Only occasionally is there a referendum where an issue is put to a direct popular vote.   The Framers recognized that an exception to the one person -one vote was necessary to achieve and equitable means of selection of the President of our country in order to recognize the differences and the autonomy of each of the participating States in the voting and prevent inadvertent control or nomination of the election process.

Here is a simple example to illustrate where an adjustment of the one person-one vote dictum makes sense:    Consider a community comprised of 50 homes and associated households.  These 50 households, through taxes on their property and through home owner association fees fund the community’s amenities.  Now suppose that the 50 households are quite diverse in their family situations, as follows:  There are 10 retired couples with homes, 5 homes owned by widows, 20 households with young children (5 of which are single parent) , 10 with an average of 2 adult children (over 18) still living with them and 5 homes occupied with multi-generational families with 6 adults in the home (parents, grandparents and 2 older siblings – 6 in all). In all, in this community scenario there are 130 persons, over 18,  who would be eligible to vote under the one person-one vote rule. However, under a one vote per household rule (typical for community settings) there would be 50 votes. To elucidate the potential voting disparity a bit further, lets imagine a proposal was made to close the community pool in order to reduce homeowner fees (the pool was part of the originally advertised amenities for the homes). The pool is looked on favorably by the young families, and also by the retired couples and the widows, (not only for their use but also it results in an increase in visits from their grandchildren).  The multi-generational families and the families with adult children at home basically do not use the pool and are in favor of closing it.  So, the popular vote under “one person-one vote” would come out, 60 for and 70 against keeping the pool operational.  However, under one vote per household the result would be 35 for and 15 against. Certainly, the one vote per household is the fairest option in this scenario.  Although, this example is not an exact comparison of the Electoral System vs the National Popular vote, the inclusion of the factors related to influence of population and diversity of circumstances help provide an understanding of why there was the need for the Electoral System in the United States Presidential Elections.

Another example of the non-use of the one person-one vote, ironically, is that used in the both the Republican and Democrat Party Primaries to select the Presidential Candidate.  The Democrat Party, for example, uses a type of electoral system (delegate selection) in their primaries. Within each state, just as in the national elections, each person gets to vote for a specific candidate.  The total number of delegates (electors) a state receives are apportioned to each state in accordance with the total population of the State just as does the U.S. Constitutional Electoral System. The sum of the popular vote received by each candidate in the primaries is not tracked on the basis of the popular vote in each state directly.  The ultimate process is further adjusted (away from a direct popular vote)  via a redistribution (addition) of delegates to primary candidates who achieve more than 15% of the popular vote to account for the votes cast for candidates that did not reach 15% of the total popular vote (essentially disregarding those “popular” votes).  Finally, the Democrat Party’s primary process goes one step further in superseding a direct popular vote by invoking “super delegates” with extra voting power.

The current importance and role of the electoral system is illustrated not only by the fact that it has come into play in 2 of the last 5 Presidential elections but also in the much greater differentials in electoral votes to popular vote margin in the 2016 election than in any of the other 4 instances in the countries history when the electoral vote result and the popular vote result were different. This reflects the increase in the country’s major population centers along with the increased domination of the political persuasion of the electorate in those major metropolitan areas.

The U. S. Census shows that in 1800, 6% of the population was considered urban and 94% rural. By 1900, 40 % of the population was urban and 60% rural and by 1950 those percentages were reversed.  Fast forward to 1990 and we find that 75% were considered urban and only 25% rural.  In 2010, the census classed 19.3% as rural and 80.7% urban.  While these numbers are very telling in terms of general population shift, the definition of “urban” has changed and what is really important from the standpoint of examining the current value and importance of the electoral system is: (1) The huge populations of major metropolitan areas (cities and counties) and (2) The evolution of the populations of these very large cities and counties toward a much more uniform party preference. Thus, given these two factors, if the electoral system were to be eliminated, it would result, as shown below, in the virtual exclusion of the influence of a major portion of the country in the Presidential elections under the current political framework.

Part III – Major City/County Populations and their Current Dominance in the National Popular Vote

In the 2016 Presidential Election, Donald Trump won the vote in 30 States and garnered 306 electoral votes, Hillary Clinton won 20 States and received 232 electoral votes.  There are, depending on how they are named and counted, 3,142 counties in the United States.  Donald Trump won 2,655 of those counties and Hillary Clinton won 487.  Figure 1 illustrates the  dominance of Trump’s victory in terms of the area of country as a whole.


Figure 1 – 2016 Election – Counties in Red won by Donald Trump – Counties in Blue won by Hillary Clinton

Despite the “country wide” dominance of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes, roughly 66 million to 63 million.  The reason — Hillary Clinton won the 100 most populated counties in the country, (the major metropolitan areas) by 12.6 million votes.

Thus, outside of the major metropolitan areas, Donald Trump won the popular vote by almost 10 million votes.  (source The Atlantic, Nov 16, 2016, How the Election Revealed the Divide Between City and Country, Ronald Brownstein)

The fundamental reason that Hillary Clinton lost the electoral vote but won the popular vote was because, just as illustrated in the examples above, “the Margin of Victory” in the highest populated areas was quite large.  And just as illustrated in the examples, the differential margin of victory that occurred in the major cities, if not for the electoral system would have easily overwhelmed the democratically determined preference of the clear majority of the States in the country.  There are three critical sub-points evident in these results:

  1. Unlike, the diversity in opinion and relatively close percentage margin between Democrat and Republican Presidential Candidates that occurs in general throughout the country, the vote in major city/county areas is predominately for the Democrat Candidate. (e.g. the Democrat vote percentage in 2016 was, 93% in the District of Columbia, approaching 90% in the counties of Bronx, Manhattan, and Prince George (Maryland), 85% in San Francisco, and near or above 80% in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles).  These large margins of victory, combined with the huge populations of these counties, amass (at present and for the foreseeable future) an insurmountable Democrat Party advantage in the national popular vote.  This was evident in the 2012 and 2016 elections and the population and political trends indicate this will be the case for the foreseeable future.
  2. As noted above Hillary Clinton gained a 12.6 million popular vote advantage from the most populous 100 counties. Her ultimate 3 million popular vote advantage, can readily be seen by simple math and examination of the voting results, be accounted for by the margin of victory in only a few of the most populous cities/counties in America. (Los Angeles county alone provided 1.25 million of the 3 million differential). So, without the Electoral System, in spite of the vigorous policy debates among the Candidates that may pervade the entire country, the Presidential Election popular vote would now appear to be controlled/decided by the distinct margin of victory in the very high populous counties and cites.
  3. The population of the 25 most populous cities/counties was 64,500,000 as of 2010 and accounted for 21% of the total US population. When one or more of the major metropolises exist in a state, the likelihood of the State’s electoral vote going to a Democrat vs a Republican is quite high. Thus with few exceptions, the very high population in the major cities typically dictate the electoral votes in the states in which they exist.

Part IV – Past, Present and Future Outlook of the Rural vs City Divide

My observation and interest in this Rural vs City Divide contrast, actually arose as I was observing the results of the Republican Primary voting in Ohio in 2008.  Senator Rick Santorum ran on very conservative social and political values and positions.  His primary opponent in the Ohio Primary was Governor Mitt Romney who, although an avowed Republican, was regarded as somewhat less conservative.


Figure 2 – Results by County from the 2012 Republican Primary Election                      Orange (lighter)– Mitt Romney          Green (darker) — Rick Santorum

As the results came in, more quickly from the rural counties, it appeared that Senator Santorum was going to easily win.  However, there are three large metropolitan areas in Ohio: (1) Cleveland – Akron, (2) Columbus and (3) Cincinnati. The Republicans in and around these cities, being more liberal than their rural cousins, all went for Mitt Romney, equaling Santorum’s total. The fact that the “city” influence could so clearly affect the outcome in a Republican primary was astonishing. It was then that I began looking at how increasingly influential highly populous major cities were in state and national elections. The trend is clear, Democrats are winning fewer and fewer rural counties while at the same time more consistently winning the popular vote. In 1992 and 1996 there was nearly an even Democrat/Republican spilt among US counties, but in 2000 Presidential Candidate Al Gore won the popular vote (narrowly) and did that by winning less than 700 of the 3142 counties.  In 2012 President Obama won the 100 largest counties by 12 million votes but lost the remaining 3,042 counties popular vote by nearly 7 million votes. Then in 2016, as reported above, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes by winning only 487 US Counties.

The Democrat Party’s strength is consolidated in an increasingly monolithic electorate in major US population centers.  There are a number of reasons that a greater and greater portion of the electorate in major cities votes for the Democrat Party Candidate for President and other national offices, but suffice to say: that is the case  In is not an expectation that the  Republican Party will make any significant inroads on affecting that trend.  Thus, as major metropolises continue to grow and the electorate divide in those cities continues to expand, the popular vote will almost certainly continue to be won by the Democrats. However, at present, the electoral system, provided for in the US Constitution, is able to preserve our country as the United States of America and prevent it from becoming “The United Cities of America”.

Colorado has joined 11 other states in passing a law in their states that usurps the intent of the US Constitution and the electoral system as previously described.   These States would cast their electoral votes for the Candidate who wins the national popular vote regardless of the preference of the voters in their states.  (The law in Colorado would only go into effect if enough states pass similar laws such that a total of all states with the popular vote law reaches 270 electoral votes, the number necessary to win the presidency.)   This “end around” approach of passing state laws to usurp the intent of the constitution is being employed because  a Constitutional Amendment to change to a presidential election using the Popular Vote would require ratification by 3/4 of the states which is not a realistic possibility as the smaller states would not support it. This is because a National Popular Vote system would in essence eliminate their influence on future elections.     The Colorado legislature and those of the other states  passing this law *** are, (1) In effect, relinquishing the sovereignty of their state henceforth and saying , we do not care what the people in our state want, we will go along with the population as a whole. and saying (2) We do not care that,  in effect we are eliminating the influence smaller, rural states  may have on future National Presidential Elections, and thus defying the intent of the U. S. Constitution.

Why would they do that?  Simple!  Because if enough states sign on to this popular vote dictate, it will ensure a Democrat is in the White House for the foreseeable future, for the reasons documented in the above discussions.  Namely, the “Margin of Victory” in the Democrat strongholds in the major metropolises will overwhelm the popular vote totals in the rest of the country.  To wit, the 12 million plus popular vote advantage reaped in the 100 most populous counties in the United States gave Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 the popular vote win by 3 million and 6 million votes respectively. This occurred despite these two Candidates soundly losing the popular vote in the rest of the United States (the other 3000 counties) by 9 million and 6 million votes respectively. The demography and political leaning of the 100 most populous counties is not likely to change, that’s why the states with Democrat control in their states are pushing for the popular vote and demeaning the Electoral System.  It is no surprise that all the states signed on thus far in favor of a popular vote option voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election.

However, the above rationale is not presented to the populous pushing for a National Popular vote. The concept is promoted under the very appealing “One Person – One Vote” and “Every Vote Should Count” banners. Certainly, these are good concepts, and certainly the Framers were aware of their value.  But the truth is that it is all about gaining political power and undoing what has proven to be an equitable and fair system that was put in place to recognize the individuality and autonomy of the States, large and small.  And now we see that through its inherent intent of recognizing the individuality and independence of each state, the Electoral  System has also provided for protecting the influence of the voters in both city and country. Thank goodness for the wisdom of the Framers and for the Electoral System placed in the U. S. Constitution

*** The bill in Colorado will only take effect if the law is passed by states representing at least 270 electoral college votes, which is the amount needed to win the presidency. With the addition of Colorado, that number now sits at 181. Other jurisdictions that have enacted the legislation include Rhode Island, Vermont, Hawaii, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, California and the District of Columbia. New Mexico.