Below is my column today in USA Today. We are now just a month away from the presidential election and our continued inexplicable use of the Electoral College. I have previously discussed steps that we can take to reform our political system. However, the starting point should be the elimination of the electoral college and the requirement that our presidents be elected by a direct and majority vote. As with other leading countries, we should allow for a runoff to guarantee that every president enters office with the support of over half of the voters.

Vladimir Putin had one in Russia. This week, Hugo Chavez had one in Venezuela. Last spring, Nicholas Sarkozy lost one in France.

In each case, the outcome was decided by the majority of voters in their country. Such direct democracy is a foreign concept in the USA, where we require neither direct voting nor a majority to lead our nation. The reason is an arcane institution: the Electoral College.

In the U.S., presidents are not elected by the people but by 538 “electors” who award blocks of votes on a state-by-state basis. The result is that presidents can be — and have been — elected with fewer votes than their opponents. Indeed, various presidents have taken office with less than 50% of the vote. The question is whether a president should be elected by a majority of voters of at least one free country before he can call himself the leader of the free world.

The Electoral College is a relic of a time when the Framers believed that average people could not be trusted with selecting a president, at least not entirely. This was consistent with a general view of the dangers of direct voting systems. Until 1913, U.S. senators were elected not by their constituents but by the state legislators. When we finally got rid of that provision with the 17th Amendment, we failed to change its sister provision in Article II on the indirect election of presidents.

Slavery’s legacy

Notably, while James Madison agreed that direct election of the president would be superior, there was one primary obstacle to pursuing this option in the Constitutional Convention: slavery. Madison noted that the North-South divide presented an obstacle of a “serious nature” to direct democracy. He concluded that the use of electors that gave each state a set number of votes “seemed on the whole to be liable to fewest objections.” Now slavery is gone, yet the Electoral College remains.

We have retained this dysfunctional institution even after the calamity of the 2000 election, in which a few “hanging chads” in Florida determined the outcome. Not only did the college effectively negate half of the votes in Florida by giving all the electoral votes to George W. Bush, but it also delivered the entire election to him despite his loss in the national popular vote. Direct elections lessen such controversies by counting the votes of all Americans equally and directly. Though such vote counting controversies could continue, the size of the nation usually guarantees that the popular vote is rarely in doubt. Even in that “close” election, Bush trailed by more than a half million votes.

Ignoring voters

The greatest irony of the Electoral College is that it does precisely the opposite of what the Framers intended: Rather than encouraging presidential candidates to take small states seriously, it results in turning most states into near total irrelevancies. With our two-party monopoly on power in the United States, candidates spend little time, if any, in states that are clearly going to go for the other party — or even for their own party. Thus, there is little reason for President Obama to go to Utah or for Mitt Romney to go to Vermont. The result is that elections are dominated by swing states while campaigns become dominated by the issues affecting those states.

Thus, while the majority of Americans support tougher immigration laws, both candidates this year are struggling to adopt new policies to capture swing states with large Latino populations. Whatever the merits of the immigration debate, the campaign looks as if it is for the United State of Florida as opposed to the country as a whole. The irony is palpable given the original desire of Madison to use the college to avoid the “mischiefs of faction.” He did not want presidents to be effectively captured by factional or insular interests. However, that is precisely what has occurred: The interests of the majority of country are subservient to the insular interests of key voting blocks in swing states.

The reason that the Electoral College is still with us is that it is a critical protection for the two-party monopoly on power in the USA. The Democrats and Republicans effectively keep presidential candidates of the opposing party out of their states — deterring the expenditure of time and money in organizing these states. Opposing candidates and parties face even greater obstacles because most voters view the result as irrelevant to the outcome of elections.

Undemocratic relic

Ultimately, the Electoral College should be rescinded as a fundamentally undemocratic institution. John Quincy Adams was elected by just 32% of the popular vote. He is among the 15 presidents who have taken office with less than 50% of the vote:

James Polk
Zachary Taylor
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Grover Cleveland (twice)
Benjamin Harrison
Woodrow Wilson (twice)
Harry Truman
John Kennedy
Richard Nixon
Bill Clinton (twice)
George W. Bush.
Some presidents like Bush were elected not only by less than a majority but also with fewer votes than his opponent. For the many Americans who are unhappy with this political system and want change, a key and obtainable reform is a constitutional amendment requiring the direct and majority election of presidents in either a general or, if necessary, a runoff election. A president represents all Americans, and he or she should be elected by the vote of citizens as Americans, as a whole.

It is time for the United States to embrace true democracy. It is time to kill the Electoral College.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.


  1. The Founding Fathers left the choice of method of awarding electoral votes exclusively to the states in section 1 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution– “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors . . .” The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized the authority of the state legislatures over the manner of awarding their electoral votes as “plenary” and “exclusive.”

    If the whole-number proportional approach had been in use throughout the country in the nation’s closest recent presidential election (2000), it would not have awarded the most electoral votes to the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationwide. Instead, the result would have been a tie of 269–269 in the electoral vote, even though Al Gore led by 537,179 popular votes across the nation. The presidential election would have been thrown into Congress to decide and resulted in the election of the second-place candidate in terms of the national popular vote.

    A system in which electoral votes are divided proportionally by state would not accurately reflect the nationwide popular vote and would not make every vote equal.

    It would penalize states, such as Montana, that have only one U.S. Representative even though it has almost three times more population than other small states with one congressman. It would penalize fast-growing states that do not receive any increase in their number of electoral votes until after the next federal census. It would penalize states with high voter turnout (e.g., Utah, Oregon).

    Moreover, the fractional proportional allocation approach does not assure election of the winner of the nationwide popular vote. In 2000, for example, it would have resulted in the election of the second-place candidate.

    A national popular vote is the way to make every person’s vote equal and matter to their candidate because it guarantees that the candidate who gets the most votes in all 50 states and DC becomes President.

    Support for a national popular vote is strong among Republicans, Democrats, and Independent voters, as well as every demographic group in virtually every state surveyed in recent polls in closely divided Battleground states: CO – 68%, FL – 78%, IA 75%, MI – 73%, MO – 70%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM– 76%, NC – 74%, OH – 70%, PA – 78%, VA – 74%, and WI – 71%; in Small states (3 to 5 electoral votes): AK – 70%, DC – 76%, DE – 75%, ID – 77%, ME – 77%, MT – 72%, NE 74%, NH – 69%, NV – 72%, NM – 76%, OK – 81%, RI – 74%, SD – 71%, UT – 70%, VT – 75%, WV – 81%, and WY – 69%; in Southern and Border states: AR – 80%, KY- 80%, MS – 77%, MO – 70%, NC – 74%, OK – 81%, SC – 71%, TN – 83%, VA – 74%, and WV – 81%; and in other states polled: AZ – 67%, CA – 70%, CT – 74%, MA – 73%, MN – 75%, NY – 79%, OR – 76%, and WA – 77%. Americans believe that the candidate who receives the most votes should win.

    The National Popular Vote bill has passed 31 state legislative chambers in 21 states. The bill has been enacted by 9 jurisdictions possessing 132 electoral votes – 49% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

  2. Commenting on a comment within a comment.
    Why are pitchers generally poor hitters? One answer given years ago it number of times at bat are fewer.
    Are there other causes? Must they rest between mound tours or could that time include batting practice? Or are they a resource that an aggressive approach at bat would risk their being able to contiunue as a pitcher?

  3. nick spinelli 1, October 10, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    MikeS, I’ll see your Newk and raise you a Spahnie. Newk hit for a better avg. but Spahn had more power.

    Two books you would enjoy. The bio of Gil Hodges by Clavin and Pearry. I’m half way through it. What a good man. And, Loserville Wins, which gives a perspective of the Braves v NY[Dodgers, Giants, and Yanks] rivalry from “Looserville” which is what New Yawkers called Milwaukee. Even though the Dodger fans hated the Braves they liked Spahn.

    It’s a game.

  4. let me see who do I trust as an American to rely on when it comes to the Constituion – the founding fathers OR the people we currently have in office or for that matter a journalist boy that is a tought choice ..let’s deal with the issues this country faces now as they just happen to be a bit more pressing

  5. I agree in principle that the Electoral College should be abolished an replaced by direct popular election. Why should the fact that I live in the country’s most populous state (California) mean that my state gets 55 electors, whereas, oh, say, Utah gets 5 electors. I am a lawyer and very familiar with voting rights laws and constitutional provisions, but can find no reason except those peculiar historical ones to violate one person- one vote. Certainly racist and historical arguments can be made, by no logical ones, particularly when states are by and large the place that restrict civil rights and liberties. Why should Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and many other places be given disproportionate power?

    Jim Kellogg

  6. More than 60 years ago in my senior Civics class I was in a debate with regards to this archaic political abomination. I took the con side and offered a well structured argument in opposition to its existence, and its irrelevancy in the 20th century. The intended purpose of the electoral college served the purpose of its intent the United States was fledgling country, and the population was predominately agricultural, (rural) and not urbanized. There had to be a system to accommodate elections. But, that was then and this is now. How much does our vote really count, when there is no obligation upon the Electoral to actually adhere to the will of the people. I believe that our political system has been compromised to an irreparable degree by the existence of this body. We are a free society, and as such the will of the people must be the alpha and the omega when it comes to electing a President. Of course I can understand why the popular vote would be unpopular among politicians. By the way I was seventeen years old when I made this argument. Then as now I did my homework with regard to U. S. politics. In conclusion all I can say is that the nation into which I was born no longer exists, and unless we make a rapid u-turn, it will soon be extinct.

  7. I could not disagree with you more. Heard you on CSPAN this morning and found most of you arguments to be either misrepresentations or half truths. Then again you are a lawyer and most lawyers and politicians don’t bother with the facts if they get in the way of their argument.

    First the electoral college. The founders did it for the same reason they created the house and the senate. They wanted to temper the majority from shoving everything down a minorities throat. In this case opinions and not races of people. Matter of fact if they didn’t do it, it is quite possible many states, specifically the smaller states would not have joined the union. Think Rhode Island. They were a thorn in everyones side back then. This country could have ended up quite differently.

    As for the Adams example, which you brought up on CSAP as well as above. That’s because something like five people ran during that election. None of them had enough electoral college votes. It was the House of Representatives who decided the election and that was only after one of the other candidates, Henry Clay, threw his support to Adams. So in a sense Adams did get a majority thru Clay’s support.

    Another one of you comments had to do with people being disenfranchised with the political system. For most it isn’t with the President, it;’s with the house or Senate but most of them are happy with their congressman or senator, it’s the others they don’t like, which I find really interesting on what that says.

    You also stated a third party can’t get started. Well they probably could if they convinced enough Americans their platform was worth their support. I remember reading something like 80% of the country consider themselves independent, as I do. That’s a heck of a lot of people unhappy with the current political parties that, if a new one came along with the right mix of platforms it could easily survive and thrive. We could go back to an Adams scenario where nobody gets a majority and the House would once again elect the President.

    Lastly, I agree with Senator Simpson who called into the show to disagree with you. I agree that the founders had the a vision to make sure the minority opinion was counted. Equating the 17th amendment to the selection of the president is a misrepresentation. What was happening was governors and state representatives were selling the vote or worse. It was a corrupt process. The presidential election isn’t corrupt and has worked quite well in my opinion.

    But the real issue is that regardless what President is elected he still has to deal with the house and senate. I remember the Health Care Act and the fact that many congressman and Senators had to be bribed, er I mean given incentives, including many Democrats, to vote for the thing. While I agree something had to be done the manner in which this was carried out, and many of our representatives were not given the chance to read the document, did not server the American system well. When I heard the speaker of the house utter words to the effect that you don’t need to read it, just vote to pass it, I had shivers up my spine.

    In closing I would love the chance to debate you on this. Your premise is flawed, your examples misleading and and you end up misrepresenting the issues. I would prefer us not to have a UK system where the majority get to do what they want to do because they are in power. I would much rather the representatives have to negotiate and / or compromise, or bribe as the case may be, in order to get things done. That includes considering all opinions of all Americans, not just the majority who might vote you in.

  8. Marat Bandemer 1, October 18, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    One person, one vote. Two hundred years ago was two hundred years ago.

    When we were a young country and election results were delivered by horseback but today when votes and feedback are instantaneous it is totally unnecessary and, by
    the way, it also is UN-AMERICAN! Here’s why:
    This country was built on the principle that “all men (and women) are created equal” (I.e. “one person one vote”) but that is not the way our Presidential election works – here are the sad, but true, facts:
    When you vote for president your vote is not for the candidate you selected it’s for your state representatives at the electoral college! The number of representatives is based on your states number of reps in congress (since the Senate has 2 reps from every state you have already lost the one man one vote ratio) Worse still, there are no national rules on how the delegates vote – these are determined by each state! Some states are winner (of the state) takes all of the delegates (your vote – if you voted for the candidate with the least votes – doesn’t count at all! Worse, if there is no winner in the first ballot at the EC, then some states ALLOW THEIR CANDIDATES TO VOTE FOR ANY CANDIDATE THEY WANT! This is rule by an elite few definitely not democracy!
    (for more info on the EC go to http://www.archives.gov/federal-pregister/electoral-college/about.html)

    There have been several cases where the Electoral College has put a man in office WHO LOST THE POPULAR VOTE! It can happen this election! Whether you are a republican or Democrat if you believe in democracy you have to know that the Electoral College is not democracy and needs to go! It won’t be easy as it requires a constitutional amendment but please let’s do everything we can – write to everyone you can contact in gov (not just congress) and tell them that the ELECTORAL COLLEGE HAS TO GO!!!!!!

  10. The political reality is that the Electoral College won’t be abolished. Getting three quarters of the states to agree would some of the lower population states would have to vote themselves into irrelevance. And that’s the monopolistic two party system would agree to it in Congress.

    However, the distribution of the Electoral votes for each state is determined by the states, and the biggest flaw of the EC system is the winner take all rules currently in existance in the states. A proportional distribution of EC votes would serve to reflect the actual voting totals, and still maintain relevance of the smaller population states.


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