As Election Day gets closer and closer, we’re starting to see more and more references to “polling numbers”. “This candidate has a six point lead, up from four a week ago.” “A new poll narrows the gap between the candidates.” Things like that. But these polls and their numbers are grossly misleading. In addition to the inherent biases in the polls, they all overlook one simple but important thing.
We do not choose our president by direct popular vote.
We never have.
There’s this thing called the Electoral College. When you vote, you are actually choosing a set of electors who have sworn to vote for the candidate you have chosen. Not that big a deal, except there’s a distinct imbalance in the Electoral College. Smaller states have a disproportionate amount of electors, and therefore slightly more influence than they should based solely on population.
How that came about is a matter of history, and reveals something about the true nature of the United States.
What often gets overlooked is that the United States did not start out as one united nation; it was actually a group of thirteen individual small nations that banded together for mutual protection. The entire Constitutional Convention of 1787 was intended to create a “Version 2.0” of the agreement covering how the nations would work towards their mutual benefit. Much of that historical artifact is still in place. Individual states have great autonomy over their own internal matters, and as territories were added to the collective nation, land was added not in one undifferentiated mass, but as individual “sub-nations” with the same status and privileges as the original thirteen.
The Electoral College reflects that. When the Convention got to the part about choosing a president, a lot of factors came into play. Each state wanted to maintain its own authority and influence, and the smaller states were afraid that a direct popular vote would lessen theirs. The entire country was small and very spread out, making anything resembling a national campaign impractical if not outright impossible. A direct popular vote would result in massive sectionalism, with each region voting for its own “favorite son” and no candidate getting an overall, nationwide majority.
Other plans were floated, like having Congress select the president or let the state legislatures decide. All had their own problems. The College was thus created as a compromise solution. Every state would get a number of “electors” equal to the number of Congressional representatives from that state, plus two (representing that state’s senators). Since the number of representatives is based on the state’s population, it’s very close to a direct popular vote. The addition of the senators just skews things a little towards the smaller, less populous states.
The method has been criticized over the years, usually with good reason. But the complaints almost always seem to come from those whose favorite candidate would have done much better or even won the election if it were a direct popular vote. But there are also equally valid reasons for keeping the College, one of which is that it still reflects the fact that the United States is actually a federated republic (the national government delegates certain powers and authority to the individual states, and we elect representatives to govern and act on our behalf) and not a direct democracy, and the smaller states still don’t want to lose any influence.
It would take a Constitutional amendment to change things, and there are enough states that benefit from the current system to make that a non-starter.
This hasn’t stopped people from suggesting alternate methods.
I’ll look at two of the most promising next time.