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The United States Presidential Election Process: Undemocratic


In 2000, Al Gore received 50,999,897 votes to George W. Bush's 50,456,002. Of Course Kennedy and Bush won in the electoral college but consider this, ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The United States Presidential Election Process: Undemocratic

The United StatesPresidential Election Process
  • The Bill of Rights Institute
  • Chicago, IL
  • October 2, 2008
  • Artemus Ward
  • Department of Political Science
  • Northern Illinois University
  • http//

  • The Electoral College system had led to
    presidents who do not win the popular vote.
  • The state-by-state electoral process that America
    uses to select its president has led to a
    situation where only about a dozen states are
  • Voter turnout is irrelevant, except in the small
    number of states that matter.
  • Issues and resources are skewed to battleground
  • The process for resolving an election where no
    candidate reaches a majority of electoral votes
    is even more undemocratic than the electoral

The Peoples Choice
  • Is the President of the United States the
    peoples choice?
  • In 1960, Richard Nixon received 34,108,147 votes
    to John F. Kennedys 34,049,976.
  • In 2000, Al Gore received 50,999,897 votes to
    George W. Bushs 50,456,002.
  • Of Course Kennedy and Bush won in the electoral
    college but consider this, Nixons votes
    constituted only 49.3 of the total votes cast
    and Gores only 48.3.
  • Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with 43.4 of
    the popular vote.
  • Bill Clinton won in 1992 with only 43 of the
    total votes.
  • Woodrow Wilson won in 1912 with 41.9.
  • Abraham Lincoln won in 1860 with 39.8 of the
    popular votethe all-time winner in the least
    popular successful candidates sweepstakes.

The Electoral College
  • Presidential candidates and their campaign
    managers are not trying to win the popular vote.
    Instead, they attempt to put together a coalition
    of states that will provide a majority of the
    electoral votes.
  • With 538 votes possible, it takes 270 to win.
  • Main (4) and Nebraska (5) award their votes based
    on winning congressional districts and two for
    winning the statewide vote.
  • 48 states and DC (3) have a winner-take-all
    system whichever candidate gets the most votes
    in the state gets all of its electoral votes.
  • This system creates the phenomenon of
    battleground states, which are those viewed as
    close to evenly split between the two parties,
    i.e. each party has a chance to win that state.
  • Other predictable statesan increasing majority
    of them, roughly 2/3are simply written off
    because their preferences are utterly
  • In terms of candidate visits and campaign
    resourcesparticularly advertisingthe vast
    majority of the population is ignored. For
    example, in the 2004 presidential campaign 99 of
    all advertising expenditures occurred in only 17
    states with Florida and Ohio accounting for half.
    Add only three moreIowa, Pennsylvania, and
    Wisconsinand total rises to nearly ¾ of all
    advertising expenditures.

2008 electoral votes with predictable Republican
red states, Democratic blue states, and grey
battleground states. For an interactive map
Implications of a State-by-State Campaign
  • A truly national election would increase turnout
    inasmuch as there would be more incentive for
    everyone to vote, in both (and other) parties.
    And, with increased turnout, we might get
    different winners than those that now win
  • Campaign issues would change. Because of the
    misfortune that most of Americas largest cities
    are in non-battleground states, almost no
    presidential candidate in years has made a truly
    serious speech about the plight of these cities.
    Democrats can take the states containing New
    York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los
    Angeles for granted, while Republicans in turn
    have almost no incentive to devote themselves to
    consideration of their plight. So issues such as
    prescription drugs for the elderly, support for
    Israel, and opposition to Cuba are magnified due
    to a preoccupation with the battleground state of
  • Low-population states are advantaged while
    high-population states are disadvantaged. Why?
    Because each state gets two electoral votes
    regardless of population. Wyoming, with only 0.2
    of the national population, has three times that
    weight in the Electoral College. California, on
    the other hand, with 12.2 of the national
    population, controls only 10.2 of the Electoral
    College votes. Consider the 2000 election. Al
    Gore won New Mexico (and 5 electoral votes) while
    losing Wyoming, Alaska, and North Dakota (nine
    electoral votes). Yet New Mexico has a larger
    population than those three states combined!

First Past the Post
  • Not only does the Electoral College system
    produce winners who fail to gain a majority of
    the popular vote, it also produces winners who
    do not even gain a majority of state popular
  • The so-called first past the post system means
    that a candidate only receive more votes than any
    other candidate to be awarded all the electoral
    votes in that state.
  • Therefore, in a three-way race, a candidate with
    33.4 of the statewide vote could gain all the
    electoral votes even though her competitors each
    won 33.3 of the vote. In an evenly divided
    four-way race, one would only need about 25.3 of
    the popular vote, and so on
  • Many countries have solved this dilemma by going
    to a runoff system that would assure that the
    winner indeed had received demonstrable majority

Who Are the Electors?
  • Though there may be party and state rules that
    bind electors to cast their ballots for the
    candidate with the most votes in that state, the
    Constitution appears to provide no bar to
    electors who wish to vote their conscience,
    rather than the party line.
  • Indeed, a number of recent electors have case
    their votes for candidates other than the one
    they were pledged to support.
  • For example, in 1976 one of the Washington state
    Republican electors pledged to Gerald Ford
    actually cast his vote for Ronald Reagan. Had
    only 5,559 voters in Ohio and 3,687 voters in
    Hawaii voted for Ford instead of Carter, with the
    one electoral vote switch from Ford to Reagan,
    For would have finished with 269 electoral votes
    to Carters 268 and Reagans 1. The House would
    have decided the election.
  • In 1988, one of the electors pledged to Democrat
    Michael Dukakis cast his vote for Dukakis
    running mate Lloyd Bentsen.

Resolving Deadlocks in the House One State-One
  • If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes, the
    House will decided among the top three candidates
    with each state casting a single vote.
  • How should state delegations decide to cast their
    single vote?
  • What if, in a very close state, representatives
    from districts that voted for X even though the
    state at large voted for Y decided to honor the
    preferences of their constituentswho, after all,
    will be casting judgment on them in the next
    electioninstead of remaining loyal to their
    political party?
  • The opportunities for mischief are great. One can
    easily imagine the kinds of promises that would
    be made to potential switchers, given the stakes
    of the decision.
  • Consider the election of 1824. John Quincy Adams,
    who had received both fewer popular votes and
    fewer electoral votes than did his principle
    adversary, Andrew Jackson, nonetheless prevailed.
    The reason is that Henry Clay, who had come in
    fourth and therefore was not among the top three
    candidates who were available to the House for
    consideration, threw his support to Adams and, as
    a consequence, became secretary of state.

Photograph of John Quincy Adams. 1848.
Why No Change?
  • National public opinion has long supported the
    abolition of the entire Electoral College, yet
    nothing changes.
  • Why? Two reasons 1) The zeal of small states to
    protect their power within the system and 2)
    opposition from minorities who believe their
    power will be diluted.
  • In 1969, the House voted 338-70 for a
    constitutional amendment establishing national
    direct election by popular vote.
  • But in the Senate, southern and small state
    conservatives aligned to filibuster the proposal
    because they believed that reform would destroy
    the special influence the electoral college gives
    their constituencies.
  • Ten years later, the Senate fell fifteen votes
    short of the necessary 2/3 when Democrats from
    New York, New Jersey, and Maryland led the
    opposition after black and Jewish organizations
    claimed that their supposed pivotal power in big
    swing states would be threatened.
  • Even if congress were to pass such an amendment,
    consider the difficulty of obtaining ratification
    by ¾ of the states. It only takes 13 states to
    keep an amendment from being enacted. There are
    14 states that reap dramatic benefit from the
    senatorial bonus Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii,
    Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New
    Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota,
    Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming. And this
    list does not include the additional 14 states
    whose percentage of the electoral vote is higher
    than their percentage of the national population.
    What incentive do these states have to ratify a
    constitutional amendment?
  • Perhaps the biggest lesson from Bush v. Gore
    (2000) is that the current presidential election
    system will almost certainly remain in tact. The
    American peoples apathy toward and acceptance of
    that result demonstrates how difficult it would
    be to obtain a public groundswell for change.

The Impermeable Article V?
  • The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses
    shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments
    to this Constitution, or, on the Application of
    the Legislatures of two thirds of the several
    States, shall call a Convention for proposing
    Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid
    to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this
    Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures
    of three fourths of the several States, or by
    Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one
    or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed
    by the Congress although no State, without
    its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal
    Suffrage in the Senate.

Alternatives to a Constitutional Amendment
  • Article II, section 1 empowers each state to
    appoint its presidential electors in such
    Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.
    Article I, section 10 authorizes Congress to
    consent to any agreement or compact by one
    state with another.
  • Large states could compact with one another to
    appoint electors who will be directed to cast
    their votes for the person who wins the greatest
    number of votes in the overall national election.
    The compact would not come into effect until
    enough states (which could be as few as the 11
    largest states) to constitute a majority of the
    electoral votes had agreed to the compact. Upon
    Congress agreeing to the compact, the United
    States would in effect move to a popularly
    elected presidency.
  • Congress could call for a new constitutional
    convention after 2/3 of the states petition
    Congress for such a move. The conventions new
    constitution would only take effect if ratified
    in a national referendum.
  • In the end, it is the American people that will
    determine whether such proposals are possible.
    The advent of new technologies, particularly the
    internet, have made it possible for relatively
    easy collective action. As a result, electronic
    petitions and websites have been launched to
    change the presidential election process. Will
    these work?

Further Reading
  • http//
  • Edwards, George. 2005. Why the Electoral College
    is Bad for America. New Haven, CT Yale
    University Press.
  • Eskridge, William N., Jr. and Sanford Levinson.
    1998. Constitutional Stupidities, Constitutional
    Tragedies. New York, NY New York University
  • Levinson, Sanford. 2006. Our Undemocratic
    Constitution Where the Constitution Goes Wrong
    (and How We The People Can Correct It). New York,
    NY Oxford University Press.
  • Levinson, Sanford, ed. 1995. Responding to
    Imperfection The Theory and Practice of
    Constitutional Amendment. Princeton, NJ
    Princeton University Press.