When the Founding Fathers created our electoral system, they might have been surprised to discover, more than two centuries later, that these two things could be true at the same time: One, that the country had embraced mass democracy, including giving the franchise to men and women of all races, incomes and classes; and two, that despite doing that, the country was still using the Electoral College system that they had implemented at the dawn of the country — a system that was not designed with the intention of promoting mass democracy.
Grafting the idea of mass democracy onto institutions that may not have been originally designed to support them is not limited to the Electoral College. The way we nominate presidential candidates through conventions is also a somewhat clunky system for this modern age.
Up until the 1970s, voters did not have all that much direct say in the selection of delegates to national conventions, even though primaries emerged early in the 20th century. But even though voters now greatly control who the delegates to the convention are, and, thus, the nominees as well, the conventions live on anyway — an antiquated institution that, nonetheless, may eventually revert to its traditional role of selecting the nominees if the voters fail to produce a clear verdict. That’s just like how the House gets to pick the president if general election voters fail to give any candidate a majority of the electoral votes, which hasn’t happened since 1824.
The flaws of the Electoral College are clear to anyone who lived through the 2000 election, where the national popular vote winner didn’t actually win the election. But there are other problems, ones that are less obvious.
For one, the Electoral College overrepresents the small states. Each state (and the District of Columbia) are guaranteed at least three electoral votes, even if their population doesn’t merit it. That’s because the electoral votes represent a state’s members of the House and Senate. So even the smallest state, with just a single House member, gets three votes because that state also has two senators. That’s why we have 538 electoral votes — those votes represent 435 House members, plus 100 senators, plus three extra votes for Washington, D.C., which gets a vote for president but not voting members of Congress. This equals 538 total.
But beyond that, the Electoral College, in modern times, also enforces on the country the choices of just a relatively small amount of voters. That’s because, for all practical purposes, most of the states are so uncompetitive politically that only a handful of states really decide who the president is.
As I explore in my new book, “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President,” a truly nationalized election strategy used to be reasonable in presidential elections. In 1960, Richard Nixon fulfilled a promise to campaign in every state (his opponent, John F. Kennedy, campaigned in almost all of them), and while Nixon’s strategy might have helped cost him the election by putting him in sparsely populated Alaska on the eve of Election Day, it wasn’t necessarily crazy: 20 of the 50 states were decided by five points or less in that very close election. That was also true in 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford.
Nowadays, the map is more fixed: Just four of the 50 states were decided by five points or less in 2012 (Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia), and 40 of the 50 states have voted the same way in the last four presidential elections. Generally speaking, candidates and campaigns focus almost all of their time, money and staffing on just a handful of states. (Donald Trump has raised eyebrows by holding campaign events in some reliably Democratic states like Connecticut, Maine and Washington, although most observers regard those visits as a curious and likely mistaken strategic decision by an unconventional campaign.)
Unlike some of the other complaints about the Electoral College, like the possibility of a national vote loser capturing its majority or its overrepresentation of small states, its empowerment of a small group of states that vote close to the national average may only be temporary, although it appears the country’s states are moving further apart politically. But for now, one can add the “tyranny of the swing states” to the list of reasonable concerns Americans can have about the way we pick presidents.
• Kyle Kondik is managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter on U.S. elections produced by the University of Virginia Center for Politics. He is also the author of “The Bellwether: Why Ohio Picks the President” (2016, Ohio University Press).