US electoral college: An anomalous gift from the founding fathers

‘Winner-take-all’ system means elections can be decided by voters in handful of swing states

Quaint and eccentric it may be, but the US electoral college is in truth a stain on America’s democratic credentials. And, wthout it, we would all be winding down stress levels, to enjoy the early days of a Biden presidency.

On the margins of the presidential election voters in referendums dispensed at state level with a number of noxious symbolic relics of slavery. In Utah and Nebraska they did away with constitutional provisions allowing slavery as a punishment for crime; in Mississippi, removed the confederate battle cross from the flag; and in Rhode Island, cut the words "and Providence Plantation" from its official title.

Yet they left intact – voters were not offered the opportunity to do otherwise – the single most glaring anti-democratic, slavery-inspired blemish in the federal constitution, the "electoral college". Its members, who have just been elected by ordinary voters, will duly elect Joe Biden on December 14th just as they elected Donald Trump in 2016 and George Bush in 2000, both the latter without a majority of the popular vote. Five times in history, presidential candidates have won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college.

Undemocratic racial inequity is preserved in a different form in the gross overrepresentation of small and rural states, the heartland of Trumpism

This almost unique mechanism for electing presidents – from the Middle Ages until 1792, leaders of the Holy Roman Empire were also elected by a college of prince-electors from German states – was forced through as a "compromise" by James Madison and slave-owning Southern state leaders in the constitutional convention in 1787 as a means or guaranteeing their continuing rule.


It was justified, irony of ironies, as an anti-populist mechanism to screen the presidential election from the vagaries of Northern-backed direct election by the ignorant masses. Crucially, in the early years representation in the college, whose numbers were determined by reference to the size of state delegations in the House of Representatives, was calculated on the basis that a slave was only three-fifths of a free man.

The "compromise" ensured that Southern states, their white "majorities" copperfastened, would ratify the constitution, and gave Virginia, home to more than 200,000 slaves, a quarter of the total electoral votes required to win the presidency.

Yet, although no longer the case, such undemocratic racial inequity is preserved in a different form in the gross overrepresentation of small and rural states, the heartland of Trumpism. California hosts about 68 times more people than Wyoming, yet has the same two votes in the Senate. Trump and the Republicans have held the latter whose composition is based on the equality of states not voters, an enduring legacy of those same federalist, states-rights arguments and compromises in the constitutional convention.

Back in the 1960s serious attempts to abolish the electoral college were made following landmark supreme court rulings on racial discrimination. Chief justice Earl Warren wrote that despite America's demographic shift from rural to urban, "the basic principle of representative government remains, and must remain, unchanged – the weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives."

Biden appears certain to win the popular vote by at least three percentage points and take the college

The court was not in a position, however, to change the constitution – it effectively told Congress that if it wanted to align the electoral college with "one person, one vote", it had to be done by means of constitutional amendmant. A two-thirds vote of Congress is required, ratified by three-quarters of the states.

Over the years there have been more than 700 unsuccessful proposals introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the college. Most famously, in 1969 an amendmant passed overwhelmingly by the House and backed by President Nixon, was defeated by a handful of Southern politicians led by Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who filibustered the Bill

The unfairness of representation is compounded by the “winner-take-all” system in which the large majority of states award all of their electors to the candidate who wins the statewide popular vote. In practice this means, as we have seen, that elections can be decided by voters in a handful of swing states.

Nebraska and Utah alone distribute their electors in the college vote in proportion to the votes cast in the state. But others – 15 states and Washington DC, representing 196 electoral college votes – have rightly acknowledged the unfairness of winner-take-all and the difficulty of changing the system through constitutional amendment by signing up to a compact agreeing to allocate their votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact will come into force when the group represents 270 votes.

On the eve of the 2012 presidential election, Donald Trump – not then in the race – tweeted that the electoral college is "a disaster for a democracy". Consistency not being a hallmark of the man, he boasted without embarrassment in 2016 of his defeat in the college of Hillary Clinton despite her three million margin in the popular vote. This time the vagaries of the college will not save him. Biden appears certain to win the popular vote by at least three percentage points and take the college.