What does the United States have in common with Botswana, Micronesia, Nauru, South Africa and Suriname? Not much, unless one considers this surprising fact: these six nations are the only democracies in the world where the votes of citizens do not directly elect the office of president.
America’s indirect approach to electing a president was most recently played out on Nov. 8, 2016 when 1.6 million residents in Connecticut cast ballots in the presidential general election. With 897,000 votes, Hillary Clinton was declared the winner of the statewide popular vote. Five weeks later, however, in the Senate chamber of the state capitol, this happened: the other 745,000 votes - votes tabulated on Nov. 8 for Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein - were rendered inconsequential by seven votes cast by Clinton partisans selected months earlier by the Connecticut Democratic State Central Committee to serve as electors in an arcane institution known as the Electoral College.
Created in 1787 with the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the Electoral College is composed of 538 individuals known as “electors,” a number purposely chosen to represent the 535 seats in Congress, plus three for the District of Columbia. With five congressional districts and two senatorial seats, Connecticut is allotted seven electors.
The Electoral College has no campus, no faculty or no students. What it does have is the exclusive power to directly elect the president of the United States thereby relegating national popular vote totals to warm up act status. The script for the main event is clear: if a candidate garners 270, or more, electoral votes in the Electoral College that individual is elected president.
The Framers of the Constitution made selection to the Electoral College exclusive by design. They ardently believed ordinary citizens were ill-informed on national issues and therefore unqualified to vote for president. Describing the selection process, Alexander Hamilton said electors should be “a small number of persons, selected from the general mass, who will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations.”
Fast forward to 2020. In a society inundated with social media, news organizations and the internet, access to, and discernment of, information no longer are relevant issues gating membership in the Electoral College. Instead, crass political cronyism decides who serves and who does not.
Critics say the Electoral College has not been aligned with voter sentiment for nearly 200 years. As proof, they offer this evidence: since the early 19th century five presidential candidates - Andrew Jackson in 1824, Samuel Tilden in 1876, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 – each won the national popular vote but lost the presidency in the Electoral College.
One group advocating structural change to the Electoral College is the National Popular Vote Compact. Founded in 2006, this nonprofit proposes an interstate pact where states pledge all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, not just the popular vote contest in their state. Some 15 states representing 196 electoral votes have signed on, including Connecticut. The group’s penultimate goal is to convince enough states, representing at least 270 electoral votes to join, thereby assuring the outcome of a general election. Although a poll by CBS News says 54 percent of Americans favor electing a president by popular vote, few believe the National Popular Vote Compact will amass the required 270 electoral votes because smaller states will refuse to join because see it as a threat to their relevancy.
Another approach under consideration retains the structure of the Electoral College but allocates electoral votes proportionally based on the popular vote in each state. If this method were in place in Connecticut in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have been granted 3.8 electoral votes – rather than seven - and Donald Trump would have earned 2.9 votes – rather than zero. Advocates for proportional distribution of electoral votes say it incentivizes presidential candidates to proactively campaign for votes in all 50 states not just “battleground” or “swing” states. Advocates claim proportional distribution of electoral college votes means every popular vote cast counts. If Electoral College votes were distributed proportionally Al Gore would have still lost to George W. Bush in 2000 but Hillary Clinton would have scored a narrow win over Donald Trump in 2016. All other general election outcomes since 1976 would have remained the same.
The Electoral College made news recently. On May 13, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases filed by the states of Colorado and Washington that challenge the Electoral College’s system of processing votes cast by electors already pledged to the candidate who won the popular vote in their state. The state plaintiffs propose “faithless” electors who would be free to vote for any candidate of their choice. A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected in late June. Legal experts believe the court will strike down the petitions of Colorado and Washington leaving the pledge system in place.
New math is needed in the Electoral College, a direct approach that makes every vote from every registered voter count. The solution is simple: allocate Electoral College votes proportionally in direct alignment to the percentages of the popular vote earned by a candidate in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Gary Beach is a Branford resident. His career spans over three decades in the information technology media business. He has held executive posts at McGraw-Hill on Data Communications, the world’s first digital networking magazine, and at International Data Group where he was publisher of Network World (1987), Computerworld (1991) and CIO Magazine (1997). In 1999, he founded CIO India Magazine.