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Unfairness of the Electoral College System Revealed

Column by Tony Le


Not until the last presidential election did I fully understand the electoral college system, and not until this year did I almost understand the primary system. (I'm still trying to figure out what the difference is between a primary and a caucus, and how the Republican party allots its delegates.) I finally know why: I tried to learn the election process under the pretense that it makes sense -- which of course it doesn't.

Part of the trouble with the election process is that the primary system inherently favors states whose primaries are held at the "right time" (i.e., states with early primaries or Super Tuesday states), and in a race where timing means almost everything, (Bush would've been unbeatable had the election been held last year) this can have a tremendous impact on voter opinion. Campaigns are often assessed in terms of candidates' "momentum," which suggests that primaries in later-voting states can be influenced by primaries in states which vote earlier. Especially this election year, where the candidates' regional backgrounds have become something of an issue, how and when a candidate's particular "region" votes can surge one candidate ahead while leaving another far behind. Bill Clinton, for example, catapulted far ahead of Paul Tsongas after Super Tuesday, a day when most of the primaries were held in Clinton's strong Southern states. Had New England, a strong Tsongas area, held its own Super Tuesday, the election might be closer than it is today.

But the most glaring problems with our election system surface on and after Election Day in November, when millions of eligible voters cast their ballots. Little do they know that their votes will ultimately influence the election's results more or less depending on where they live.

The electoral college has 538 members, one for each member of Congress and three for Washington, D.C., which is not represented in Congress. To win the presidency, a candidate must win 270 electoral votes, a simple majority. The effect of each statewide election is to select which party is allowed to send its electors to the prestigious electoral voting place (wherever that may be) -- electors who, if they are smart and do not want to lose the "prestige" of being puppet electors, will vote for their party's candidate. In other words, we do not vote for the president; we vote for the electors who will vote for the president. This made a lot of sense when the Constitution was written, but makes little or no sense today.

One problem with this system is that traditionally a candidate receives all of a state's electoral votes if he or she wins that state. This means that if 5,000,000 Californians vote for Candidate A and 4,999,999 Californians vote for Candidate B, Candidate A would receive all of California's 54 electoral votes, and Candidate B would receive none! This means that the apathy of two California voters can decide a close race.

Another glaring problem with this process is the way in which people living in small states are inherently favored. Each state has the same number of electoral votes as it does members of Congress. Since congressional apportionment in the Senate favors the small states, the electoral college favors the small states. To see how large an impact this has, consider this: California, with 29,760,021 residents, has 54 electoral votes, or about 551,000 people per elector. Wyoming, with 453,588 people, has three electoral votes, or about 152,000 people per elector. This means that a Wyoming resident has 3.6 times the voting power of a Californian. Sixty-five Wyomings could fit in California, meaning that a California scaled in such a way would contribute 195 votes to the electoral college! (Of course, few Californians are willing to move to Wyoming just to have 260 percent more voting power once every four years.)

Another kink in the election process occurs when no candidate wins 270 electoral votes. The Constitution provides that the House of Representatives elects the president in such a case. Supposedly, since the House's membership reflects the country's population, this election would be relatively fair. However, this process provides that each state receives only one vote! Continuing the example from before, this would ultimately mean that a vote for a congressman in Wyoming would have 65 times as much weight on the presidential election as a similar vote in California.

There are ways to fix these problems, the obvious one being to have a direct national vote. However, there are several reasons why this will not happen soon:

* Apathy. It doesn't really matter to a lot of people. "It hasn't failed us yet, so it won't."

* Campaign procedure. Today, if a candidate is losing overwhelmingly in one state, he or she can ignore that state as lost, since in all probability no reasonable amount of campaigning in that state will mean anything. A direct national vote would mean that each candidate would have to campaign in every state to obtain as many votes as he or she could, something that would greatly increase the cost of campaigning.

* Power of the small states. To change the electoral college system would require changing the Constitution, a process which requires either congressional votes, state-by-state conventions, or a combination of both. In either case, the small states are overrepresented, and it is unlikely that the small states will give up their favorable representation in the electoral college.

To say that our presidential election system is faulty is an understatement. To allow this system to fill our country's most important political office is dangerous, not to mention foolish.