The undemocratic Electoral College

October 28, 2008

ELIZABETH SCHULTE'S article "The world's greatest democracy?" does a great job of skewering the myth that the U.S. electoral process is anything close to truly fair or democratic, and calling out John McCain's absurd claims about ACORN trying to "fix" the election for Barack Obama.

A closer look at the Electoral College, particularly with regards to the 2000 election, illustrates how it functions to limit democracy.

The Electoral College, which decides who is president of the United States, consists of 538 winnable votes: one for each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, one for each of the 100 senators, as well as three for the District of Columbia.

Except for Nebraska and Maine, each state awards its votes by "winner take all," so that a candidate who wins a state 48 percent to 47 percent, for example, would get all of that state's electoral votes. The 47 percent who voted for the other candidate are effectively disenfranchised, as their votes will not impact the final outcome.

As Schulte points out, the Electoral College ensures that popular votes from smaller (more rural, more white) states are overrepresented, since each state gets at least three electors regardless of population. Even more troubling about the Electoral College system is that relatively arbitrary factors can decisively impact the outcome of a presidential election.

Consider the 2000 election. In their 2003 article, "Outcomes of Presidential Elections and the House Size," Cal State Northridge mathematicians Michael G. Neubauer and Joel Zeitlin show how, in a race that is close in terms of the popular vote, the outcome can depend on the number of seats in the House of Representatives.

Proponents of "lesser-evilism" who would like to lay at the feet of Ralph Nader responsibility for George W. Bush's "win" in 2000 have overlooked the true culprits: the members of Congress who, in 1911, picked 435 for the new number of House seats.

In general, the larger the size of the House of Representatives, the closer the Electoral College outcome gets to an accurate reflection of the popular vote, since additional House seats would be awarded to the states with the greatest ratio of population to number of House seats, which offsets somewhat the advantage that small states get from the awarding of votes based on Senate seats.

In the 2000 presidential election, despite the widespread disenfranchisement of African Americans and various other fraud, Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore. However, because of the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College (and with a little help from both the Supreme Court and Gore's spineless complicity), Bush won a majority in the Electoral College and became president.

Analysis by Neubauer and Zeitlin shows that Bush would have won for any House with 490 seats or less. However, the 491st and 492nd seat would have been apportioned to New York and Pennsylvania, respectively, both of which Gore won, putting Gore in the lead in the EC.

So if the size of the House had been set at 492 instead of 435 in 1911, or if it had been increased to 492 at some point over the last 89 odd years to reflect population gains, Gore would have been president.

Even more absurdly, based on current apportionment methods for House seats, "for House sizes between 492 and 596, the winner goes back and forth many times without much rhyme or reason. For those 105 different House sizes, the election ends in a tie 23 times, Gore wins 29 times, and Bush wins 53 times." Since Gore won the popular vote, for House sizes of 598 and above, Gore wins every time.

All else remaining the same, the outcome of the 2000 election hinged upon an arbitrary decision made in 1911 by people who were all dead at the time of the 2000 election.

It appears that the fabric of even the most formal mechanism of democracy in the United States was shoddy long before ACORN even came into being.
Gary Lapon, Northampton, Mass.

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