Electoral College System: Fair or Unfair?

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In 2000, Al Gore earned 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush, yet lost the presidency.

In 2004, Bush won by 3 million, but 60,000 more Ohio votes would've elected John Kerry.

In 2012, a close election could easily result in a winner who receives fewer votes ... again.

The Electoral College system, everybody!

Final Pre-Election Map

America's complex way of choosing a president confuses many voters. It's easy to see why:

Rather than a simple vote tally of the entire U.S.A., every state essentially holds its own election, with its electoral votes awarded on a winner-take-all basis (usually).

Each state starts with three electoral votes, based on federal government representation: One vote for each U.S. Senator and Congressman/woman from that state.

Beyond that, they're allocated by population, with California's 55 leading the way and Texas' 38 in second place. There are 538 in all, with 270 needed to win.

In 48 states and D.C., the statewide popular vote winner receives all the Electoral College votes, no matter how close the race is in that state (see Florida, 2000).

Two states, Maine and Nebraska, determine electoral votes differently; the statewide winner earns two and each congressional district awards one vote.

While Maine is reliably Democratic and Nebraska very Republican, President Barack Obama actually eked out a win in one of the latter's districts in 2008.

So why is the Electoral College system even in place?

Dating back to the ratification of the Constitution, the first purpose was to create a buffer between the population and the selection of a President.

This, it is believed, was to safeguard against election fraud. The second, more significant purpose was to give slightly more power to the smaller states.

For instance, Vermont's population is roughly one-sixth of 1 percent of America's, but with 3 electoral votes out of 538, its political clout increases to over half of 1 percent.

Not a huge difference, but a difference nonetheless. And while there are clear problems and advantages with the Electoral College, changing it is very unlikely.

It would take a constitutional amendment ratified by 3/4 of states to change the system, and it is hard to imagine the smaller U.S. states agreeing to that.

What it boils down to in the end are national elections contested in very few places.

Over the last three elections - Obama's 2008 win and Bush's 2000 and 2004 wins - only 10 states switched sides; only 10-11 are considered competitive in 2012.

The Real Clear Politics map shown above has President Obama leading, to various degrees, in states that would give him 201 electoral votes, based on polling there.

Republican challenger Mitt Romney has leads that would amass 191 electoral votes, with 146 still up for grabs. Nationally, polls show a very, very tight race.

While most of the time, the popular vote winner also takes the Electoral College, in a remarkably close race, there could be divergence. Just ask Al Gore.

Popular vote winners also lost the White House in 1824, 1876, and 1888. Could it happen again this evening? Unlikely ... but far from impossible.

In the most unlikely scenario - a 269-269 tie - you'd assume the popular vote would be the tie-breaker ... but no, a U.S. House vote breaks it. Obviously.

You tell us: Is the Electoral College system fair?

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