After the 2016 presidential election, Democrats rightly raised questions about the Electoral College, a anachronistic remnant of the compromises made to unite the northern and southern states following the American Revolution.
After all, Republican candidates had been awarded the White House following two of the last five presidential elections despite the fact that a majority of Americans had voted for the Democratic candidates. To understand the problem, it’s helpful to look at what led to the creation of the Electoral College during the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
Among the thorniest issues faced by the Founders were determining how to democratically elect our government and how to prevent “tyranny by the majority.” (Remember: the whole idea of democracy was new back then.) The Founders eventually settled on a structure based on the Iroquois Nation – a bicameral Congress with the House of Representatives based on the population of each state and a Senate comprised of two members per state.
It was an idea that has served us well for most of our nation’s history. However, things have dramatically changed since 1787.
When the Constitution was drafted, the most populous state had 10 times as many people as the least populous state. But the most populous state (California) now has more than 68 times more people than the least populous state (Wyoming). As a result, California has 19.77 million people per senator while Wyoming has only 289,657 people per senator. That means a person living in Wyoming has more than 68 times the representation in the Senate as a person living in California! The difference is nearly as pronounced for Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. This should also explain why some people want to divide California into 3 states.
The inequity also extends to the Electoral College.
The Electoral College was created because the Founders were somewhat wary of the democratic process. They didn’t fully trust the citizens’ ability to make decisions as important as choosing the officers of our government. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton described the Electoral College this way: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated tasks.”
The founders assumed the electors would be chosen district by district. But only California, Maine and Nebraska use this “congressional district method. Most use a “winner-takes-all” approach. That clearly ignores votes of the minority.
And the way the number of electors are decided makes matters worse.
The number of electors is based on each state’s combined total of senators and representatives. As a result, there are a total of 538 electors, corresponding to the 435 representatives and 100 senators, plus 3 electors for the District of Columbia. Therein lies the problem.
Since the red states – particularly Wyoming, Montana, Alaska and the Dakotas – are over-represented in Congress, a vote in Wyoming – with 3 electoral votes and a population of less than 580,000 – has 3.7 times the influence of a vote in California – a state with 55 electoral votes and a population of 39.54 million. That’s why the maps you see after presidential elections are so deceptive. Most of the map is red. But that only represents the geography controlled by each party. A map or chart showing votes based on population would be mostly blue.
Combine these issues with Gerrymandering – creating legislative and congressional districts to marginalize the impact of opposing voters – and you have an electoral system that is very much rigged for the benefit of the GOP.
That is why, despite Democrats having numerical advantages in 2016, Republicans now control the White House, the Senate, the House and a majority of statehouses.