In what way does this improve the representation of smaller states beyond what would be provided by a direct vote?


Historically, the Electoral system had an advantage in that Electors are people, each with a sense of agency and discretion. Though they are and were usually appointed with a presumptive vote in mind, they were true representatives in that they would make a multi-week journey to Washington (quite an imposition in the eighteenth century!) and see something of the candidates for themselves prior to finalizing their ballot. They were also capable of reacting to whichever unforeseen circumstances transpired in the meantime. For example, if one of the candidates were to be found dead prior to the Electors' assembly, then those Electors who had been chosen to cast a vote for the deceased candidate would be more able to discern the second-best choice than a big sack of votes. In this way, they could cast an undelayed ballot that was still more-or-less in keeping with their constituents' ultimate wishes.

It bears mentioning that a gentleman by the name of James Wilson actually did propose presidential election by direct vote during the Constitutional Convention. It was thrown out in committee by vote of 10-1. The thing to note, here, is that this opposition was even more overwhelming than it was for other methods that would have been proportional to population (such as the original "Virginia Plan"); This revels some of the concern that the framers had about how difficult it would for the entire public to keep themselves informed about issues of national importance. Representation was favored over referendums because it permitted for the common interests to be stewarded by political professionals.

In what way does this improve the representation of smaller states beyond what would be provided by a direct vote?

Electors are apportioned to the states by number equal to the sum of their number of Congressmen and Senators. Two senators are given to each state regardless of their population, so, though small states have fewer Electors than large states, the guaranteed two-vote kicker nudges the numbers a little bit towards their over-representation.

For example, let's say you had a hypothetical Commonwealth of Bigstate and he island of Littlestate, with populations of 100,000 and 25,000, respectively. Since Bigstate has four times the population of Littlestate, they get 4 members in the Hours of Representatives where Littlestate only gets 1. Both of them, however, get 2 Senators.

This means that Bigstate gets Six electoral votes, and Littlestate gets Four. This, in turn, means that Littlestate has 66% of the Electoral power that Bigstate has, even though they only have 25% of the population. A clear concession in their favor.

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    Did the Electoral College members actually travel to Washington? They are required to actually meet to cast votes in their own states. I can certainly picture them meeting up locally to meet with or discuss the candidates, but I'm not so sure about them travelling that far. – Bobson Dec 31 '20 at 18:04
  • @Bobson according to Wikipedia they meet in their respective state capitals, not Washington. – Jontia Jan 3 at 18:08

The biggest advantage of the Electoral College system was that it allowed different states to have different requirements for voting. In practice, this allowed the following changes to happen gradually:

  • Reduction (and later elimination) of property-ownership requirements for voting.
  • Elimination of religious and/or racial requirements for voting.
  • Allowing women to vote.
  • Implementation of "registered voter" systems.
  • Reduction of voting age.
  • Implementation of mail-in voting.
  • Are any of these advantages still present? – Philipp Dec 8 '15 at 18:54
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    @Philipp -- The "registered voter" systems are still being improved; the voting age could theoretically be reduced further; "mail-in voting" is still only partly implemented. Theoretically, "electronic voting" could be implemented gradually. Various states have various policies on whether convicted criminals are allowed to vote. – Jasper Dec 8 '15 at 19:33
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    @Phillip Some states have recently been making efforts to improve voting by requiring identification when a person votes to prevent voter fraud. – Readin Apr 8 '16 at 4:22
  • What are the advantages of gradually introducing these reforms? Delaying suffrage in various parts of the same country does not seem very advantageous to the citizens living there. – Jontia Jan 1 at 8:03
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    @Jontia -- Gradual introduction starts sooner than non-gradual introduction. This is because if a consensus to make a change does occur, it occurs somewhere first, rather than everywhere all-at-once. – Jasper Jan 1 at 21:16

Given the tags you've used, I assume a premise of your question is that these United States are a democracy. A direct vote would be very effective at demonstrating the will of the populace, providing rule by the decision of the majority.

Conversely, it must be stated that these United States are not a democracy. Rather, it is a Constitutional Representative Republic, with a leading concept that the inalienable rights of the populace, with specific interest for the disfavored minority, are better protected against the unlawful whims of the majority. With this in mind, the electoral college provides a protective measure for the representation provided to the less populated states against the encroaching whims of the larger states.

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    @endolith Provide citation. – Drunk Cynic Nov 14 '16 at 1:03
  • my comment is a citation – endolith Nov 14 '16 at 1:19
  • No reference as to why an opinion held by a national majority is more of a “whim” than an opinion held byte majority in several smaller states. – Guran Jan 2 at 10:50
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    I don’t understand why people constantly feel inclined to construe democracies and republics as somehow mutually exclusive. A good half of Europe is composed of republics which are democracies (most of the other half are monarchies which are democracies). The USA are also both a republic (no hereditary monarch as head of state) and a democracy (political power comes from the people). – Jan Jan 4 at 8:09

Let's keep in mind that (from the Founding Fathers' perspective) the United States was intended to be a union of states, where each state carried the intention of preserving the liberty of its citizens through democratic means. In that sense the original vision of the Founders was closer to the modern EU, with a more military than economic focus. Each state was conceived to be largely sovereign, with the federal system meant primarily to present a unified front to foreign governments, and to mediate domestic issues that might cause tensions between the states. from that perspective, there is no real distinction between 'small' states and 'large' states: each state has an equal right to determine the best way to preserve its citizens' rights.

The Founders established the presidency because they believed that both US citizens and foreign nations needed a 'monarch substitute' — someone who would be seen as 'in charge', to satisfy citizens who were habituated to monarchical regimes — but they worried that the path from a 'monarch substitute' to 'actual monarch' was too short and too easy. They wanted to make sure the states themselves had final control over the election of the president, to keep some charismatic figure from whipping the populace into a frenzy and getting himself elected supreme ruler. The electoral college was the compromise. It gave both the populace and the states a voice in the selection of those who would ultimately select the president — a typical representative structure — but left the final decision to those electoral representatives.

The system could have been designed better, and it has deteriorated over time as parties, states, and political actors have tried to exert influence over the selection and behavior of electors. And the political context has changed: the federal government discovered that keeping peace between the states was a far more difficult task than fending off foreign nations, because different states had vastly different understandings of what the phrase 'preserving the liberty of citizens' entailed. The main sticking point was slavery, obviously, but that and other issue (like immigration, suffrage, etc) generated violent disagreement between the states over which people were entitled to what rights, where. Over time the entire system has shifted from a union of sovereign states to a sovereign union of subordinate states as the federal government has increasingly stepped in to protect citizens from the deprivations of their own states, and the electoral college has lost significance and relevance in step with those changes.

I'd have structured the Electoral College differently, and with some changes the concept could be made functional in the modern era. For instance, if we made the Electoral College a permanent body — not an ad hoc quadrennial meeting — and made the electors deeply accountable to their constituencies, we could turn it into a proper representative body and give it certain censorial powers over the president. The Electoral College would be (e.g.) the perfect body to debate and execute 25th amendment powers, or to control lame-duck presidents intent on abusing the powers of office in their last days; a check and balance vested in the citizenry on the otherwise excessive power of the Executive branch.


The only real advantage (if you see it like that) is that it allows the states to keep control of the Presidential electoral process. If the President were elected by popular vote then it would be easy to argue that fairness would indicate that the rules for each state must be the same, so that a vote in one state is exactly equal to a vote in another. This would probably result in the Presidential election being conducted by the Federal government (currently there are no Federal elections).

This would be extra expense. A whole Federal electoral office would have to be set up, and the election could not be conducted using the same process and ballot that the Senate and Congressional elections and the myriad others that happen on the same day.

States might also see this as an erosion of their powers.

Political advantage of keeping the electoral college are that a) anyone who suggests changing it is laying themselves open to attack as someone who "wants to change our great American way of life" b) it would require a constitutional change, which opens up a can of worm around other constitutional changes and c) in today's partisan world any constitutional change proposed by one party would be automatically opposed by the other one, whatever its contents, and thus not be passed.

  • I'm not sure these downsides are certain. Standardisation is usually considered a good thing, overall it makes this cheaper and ensures things work the same as you move around. Cash my need to flow from states to a shared election commission, but overall costs could be lower and it could come with standardisation of down ballot race presentation too. – Jontia Dec 31 '20 at 7:53
  • Not everybody is going to think all the disadvantages of such a change are disadvantages. I'm just listing things some people might consider disadvantages. – DJClayworth Dec 31 '20 at 17:15

Imagine a close election in the absence of the electoral college. Illinois goes overwhelmingly D. Texas overwhelmingly goes R. The initial totals show R wins by a slim margin.

Suddenly more votes show u in Illinois that put D over the top. A few days later, a more votes show up from the remote regions of Texas that put R over the top. The next day someone finds several bags of votes in Chicago that someone neglected to count putting D over the top.

In other word, it benefits the smaller states by taking the politics out of vote counting in larger states.

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    Could you name any first world country without an electoral college which ever experienced that kind of manipulation attempts in the past decade? The only one I could think of were frequent recounts lead to an unclear election result was the presidential election of 2000 in... well... the United States. – Philipp Dec 8 '15 at 18:57
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    Well, thanks to the electoral college, at least that recount was limited to Florida. Imagine something like that nationwide. – D M May 2 '17 at 16:02
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    But nationwide, in 2000, there was NO DOUBT that Gore won. It was only irregularities in Florida, where Bush brother was a governor, like "butterfly ballot" and "Thanksgiving stuffing" which put Bush over the top by few hundred votes. – Peter M. - stands for Monica Dec 30 '20 at 16:15
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    You seem to be assuming that in the absence of an electoral college the election would be decided by who carried the majority of states i.e. one vote per state. I don't think anybody thinks that. Everybody assumes it would be by popular vote. There has never been an election where the popular vote is close enough that this would be a problem. – DJClayworth Dec 30 '20 at 22:17
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    What are you trying to say? "Votes show up"? Since it's only the numbers at the end of the count that matter and all votes must be cast before the counting begins, then who gets "put over the top" during the count doesn't matter except for making the race more exciting in the media. The end result is the same no matter when during the count the votes "show up". Or am I missing something? – colmde Dec 31 '20 at 1:15

The electoral college doesn't increase the representation of the smaller states since the allocation of electoral votes for each state is supposed to be based on population: there are some issues where the number of electoral votes and the state's population just don't match up i.e. the state ends up getting less electoral votes than it should have based on its growing population. There are also states that are not small who have a small amount of representatives in the House which is pretty unfair. The number of representatives in the house needs a massive update to correspond to the growing population.

The only reason this hasn't been updated is because of Southerners control over our election system whom have shut down efforts for a universal popular vote to them the electoral college works in their favor: it was useful during slavery where the more slaves you had the more representation your state received, but these slaves were restricted from voting; instead southern whites voted for them. Back then, this system created by the founders who were exhausted and just wanted this to be done gave Southerners more control of our government.

When it comes to this system, smaller states are ignored by candidates who only look forward to spending more money on key battleground or swing states which get a lot more funding, attention, and special benefits than states who don't meet this criteria.

If you mean popular vote by "direct vote", then yes a direct vote would increase representation in terms of everyone as a whole not just states squabbling: This would also demolish having to do recounts. The advantage of an electoral college is just a partisan illusion: it doesn't benefit either party just look at the instances of where a popular vote loser has won an election the past few years--they have been either on the left or right. It's also not very democratic to have an elector represent your vote when an unfaithful elector can legally change their vote for everyone.

You can find everything I've mentioned in detail in this book, Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College by Jesse Wegman.

  • Can you provide more specific citations for your claims than the entirety of a book? – Andrew Grimm Jan 2 at 1:20
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    The allocation of the Electoral College is not meant to be based on population. It is based on the number of congressional representatives. The number of representatives in the House are obviously intended to be based on population, so you’re correct there. But the number of Senators is based on state, independent of population. As such, the Electors assigned based on Senate seats does skew the Electoral College toward smaller states—though that bias obviously isn’t nearly as pronounced as the Senate itself. – Jeremy Caney Jan 2 at 19:23

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