Remember what the country looked like in 1787: The important division was between states that relied on slavery and those that didn’t, not between large and small states. A direct election for president did not sit well with most delegates from the slave states, which had large populations but far fewer eligible voters. They gravitated toward the electoral college as a compromise because it was based on population. The convention had agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of calculating each state’s allotment of seats in Congress. For Virginia, which had the largest population among the original 13 states, that meant more clout in choosing the president.
The electoral college distorts the political process by providing a huge incentive to visit competitive states, especially large ones with hefty numbers of electoral votes. That’s why Obama and Romney have spent so much time this year in states like Ohio and Florida. In the 2008 general election, Obama and John McCain personally campaigned in only five of the 29 smallest states.
The framers protected the interests of smaller states by creating the Senate, which gives each state two votes regardless of population. There is no need for additional protection. Do we really want a presidency responsive to parochial interests in a system already prone to gridlock? The framers didn’t.
2. The electoral college ensures that the winner has broad support.
Supporters argue that the electoral college format prevents candidates from targeting specific groups and regions, instead forcing them to seek votes across the country. But that’s not the way it has worked in recent presidential contests. Generally, Republicans have tried to stitch together an electoral college majority from the South, Southwest and Rocky Mountain states, while Democrats have relied on the large states on both coasts and the Midwest, leaving certain swing states (hello, Florida!) as perennial battlegrounds.
Any system of electing the president requires some version of broad support, but the electoral college does little to promote that goal. In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote to Al Gore but won in the electoral college. His victory came largely from his support among white men. He did not win majorities among women, blacks, Latinos, urbanites, the young, the old or those with less-than-average income. In short, Bush claimed the White House with the backing of one dominant group, not with broad support.
3. The electoral college preserves stability in our political system by discouraging third parties.
The electoral college offers no guarantee of such “stability” — in fact, history suggests otherwise. The Republican Party was born as a third (or even fourth) party, and it quickly established itself as a major force in the 1856 and 1860 elections. In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt ran as a third-party nominee, and though he didn’t win, he easily bested his former party’s candidate, the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft.