The Hidden Side Effects of the Electoral College

We rarely think about it, but the effects of the Electoral College are everywhere


At first glance...

it appears as though the Electoral College is working as designed. The popular story is that the College was designed to protect small states, but the actual story is very different. The general view is that even though the system is complicated, it plays an important role in preventing some states from dominating the Presidential election system. Here’s what isn't as well-known: 150 years after the Constitutional Convention, Congress passed a measure that fundamentally changed the Electoral College and created the opposite problem. Even if the Electoral College was designed perfectly by the Framers, later modifications by Congress have so mutilated the system that we have exactly the problem the Framers were trying to prevent: a handful of states dictate the President, while all others watch the election transpire. However, it isn't large states that are in the powerful position: the Electoral College has created the tyranny of the swing state, and the impacts of that system reach far and wide. 

In 1929, Congress passed the Reapportionment Act, which capped the size of the House of Representatives at 435. Congress decided to have a constant number of total Representatives rather than even representation, so they passed the Act allowing Congressional districts to have different populations. Because Congressional districts determine Electoral votes, it skewed the Electoral College as well. Today, voters in Wyoming have more than three times the representation in Presidential elections than voters in North Carolina, Texas or California. As populous states continue to grow, the problem will only get worse. We’ve taken a well-intentioned concept from the Constitution and gone way overboard with it. The situation we have now has many side effects, of which few of us grasp in their entirety, but taken as a whole threaten our democracy:

  • The Electoral College has created a tyranny of the swing state. It was fairly obvious that Presidential candidates spent most of their campaign time in battleground states. What wasn’t apparent is how that allowed a few small demographics to dominate the national conversation. Remember all the talk of coal miners in the 2016 election? There were over 4,000 articles published during the election that referenced them. It turns out that the coal mining industry is tiny: there are only about 75,000 workers in the US. There are two million people in the trucking industry. Why didn’t they play as large of a role? There are 5 million retail workers in the country, where are they? It’s simply that coal miners were a strategic demographic in a key swing state, so candidates bent over backwards to pander to them. While that’s great for coal miners, it’s fundamentally unfair to everyone else.
  • As we dug deeper, we discovered that pandering to swing states is not just campaign rhetoric, it becomes actual policy. Swing states get more Federal grants than other states. Industries in swing states enjoy better trade protections than jobs elsewhere. While politicians will rarely admit that policy is designed to cater to states needed to win the White House, some examples are blatantly obvious. Bush’s steel tariffs in 2002 were counter to his policy agenda but catered to midwest votes. The timing of Obama’s DREAM Act suggests it was at least partially campaign-motivated. Clinton even hurriedly amended NAFTA in 1996 when he realized the tomato industry in Florida might turn on him. There’s nothing wrong with policy designed to influence votes, but shouldn’t that policy cater to more than a few swing states? Research suggests that politicians value the support of voters in non-swing states at about 70% of voters in swing states.
  • Those that reside outside of swing states know that their votes matter less, and are therefore less likely to show up at the polls. In 2016, if every state had the voter turnout of the 10 most competitive states, an additional 14 million votes would have been cast. Of course, that’s partially because of all the get-out-the-vote activity in swing states. But shouldn’t that be happening everywhere?
  • A more subtle but incredibly important impact of the Electoral College is on campaign finance. Put simply, the Electoral College allows candidates to buy elections. Over $2.4 billion was spent on Presidential elections in 2016. If most elections come down to six states, it’s possible to flood those states in advertising and significantly change the views of the people in those states. That can't be done with 300 million people — if we elected the President by popular vote, candidates would be better off focusing on their platforms and making sure they actually appeal to lots of people rather than just bombarding swing states with ads.
  • Our Presidential primary system is a consequence of the Electoral College, is an anomaly among developed nations, and has large policy implications. Not only does it make our candidates start campaigning years ahead of time, it’s the reason behind ridiculous national policies. Taxpayers have paid corn growers nearly $100 billion in the last 20 years to grow a crop we have far too much of, a policy that will remain until Iowa ceases to hold the first caucus. If we didn’t have the Electoral College, our system of primaries would make no sense. We’d have to select candidates that have broad national appeal and have a shot at winning the majority of the country’s votes. Not only would we eliminate ridiculous policies whose sole purpose is to cater to early primary voters, but our elections would be shorter, smoother and less expensive.

We could go on, talking about how the Electoral College disadvantages minorities or that we’ll likely see more cases where a candidate wins the Presidency while losing the popular vote. The likelihood of the Electoral College clashing with the popular vote is only going up, creating an enormously undemocratic dynamic.

The Electoral College not only determines who becomes President, it fundamentally changes the way our country runs. While it was designed with all the best intentions, it now creates more problems than it solves. The country has changed, and we need to ensure all voters are represented fairly. We believe the President of the United States should be the person who receives the most votes. Do you disagree?