The Electoral College is widely regarded as an anachronism, a nondemocratic method of selecting a president that ought to be superseded by declaring the candidate who receives the most popular votes the winner. The advocates of this position are correct in arguing that the Electoral College method is not democratic in a modern sense.
And it is the electors who elect the president, not the people. When you vote for a presidential candidate, you’re actually voting for a slate of electors.
But each party selects a slate of electors trusted to vote for the party’s nominee (and that trust is rarely betrayed).
There are five reasons to retain the Electoral College despite its lack of democratic pedigree; all are practical reasons, not liberal or conservative positions.
1. Certainty of outcome
A dispute about the outcome of an Electoral College vote is possible — it happened in 2000 — but it’s less likely than a dispute on the popular vote. The reason is that the winning candidate’s share of the Electoral College invariably exceeds that person’s share of the popular vote. On Nov. 6 President Barack Obama received 61.7 percent of the electoral vote compared to only 51.3 percent of the popular votes cast for him and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
2. Everyone’s president
The Electoral College requires a presidential candidate to have transregional appeal. No region (South, Northeast, etc.) has enough electoral votes to elect a president. So a solid regional favorite, such as Romney was in the South, has no incentive to campaign heavily in those states, for he gains no electoral votes by increasing his plurality in states that he knows he will win.
3. Swing states
The winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes induces the candidates — as we saw in last week’s election — to focus their campaign efforts on the toss-up states; that follows directly from their lack of inducement to campaign in states they are sure to win. Voters in toss-up states are more likely to pay close attention to the campaign — to really listen to the competing candidates — knowing that their ballots are going to decide the election.
4. Big states
The Electoral College restores some of the weight in the political balance that large states (by population) lose by virtue of the mal-apportionment of the Senate decreed in the Constitution. This may seem paradoxical, given that electoral votes are weighted in favor of less populous states. Wyoming, the least populous state, contains only about one-sixth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, but its three electors (of whom two are awarded only because Wyoming has two senators like every other state) give it slightly more than one-half of 1 percent of total electoral votes.
5. Avoid run-off elections
The Electoral College avoids the problem of elections in which no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast. For example, Nixon in 1968 and Clinton in 1992 both had only a 43 percent plurality of the popular votes, while winning a majority in the Electoral College (301 and 370 electoral votes, respectively). There is pressure for run-off elections when no candidate wins a majority of the votes cast; that pressure, which would greatly complicate the presidential election process, is reduced by the Electoral College, which invariably produces a clear winner.
But of course no voter’s vote swings a national election, and in spite of that, about one-half the eligible American population did vote in last week’s election. Voters in presidential elections are people who want to express a political preference rather than people who think that a single vote may decide an election. Even in one-sided states, plenty of voters back the candidate who is sure not to carry the state. So I doubt that the Electoral College has much of a turn-off effect. And if it does, that is outweighed by the reasons for retaining this seemingly archaic institution.
Richard Posner is a judge on the, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.