Presidential Polls: Disparity Between National and States Surveys Puts Electoral College in the Spotlight

If you live in Ohio, Virginia, or one of 7 other “swing-states,” you’re probably getting sick of campaign ads right about now. 

It’s widely known that these battleground states tend to unpredictability compared to, say, solidly blue New York or Red Texas. But it’s not just undecided voters that make these states targets for hours of campaign advertising. 

The Electoral College involves these states—and the voters in them—in a numbers game to pick the next president. Maps like this one at The New York Times shows which states are very likely to vote either Republican or Democrat in the upcoming election along with the ones that are still up in the air. This allows candidates to effectively count some votes before they are even cast, and concentrate their campaigning on the undecided.

Electoral votes are assigned to each state based upon as it has senators and representatives. Since representatives are based upon population, the most populous states will have the most electoral votes. Currently, no state has fewer than 3 electoral votes, so even states with a tiny population can still be players in the Presidential Election.

This was the goal when the Electoral College was decided upon during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Other plans floated included the selection of the president by Congress and direct election by the populace. This last idea is gaining traction, and the National Popular Vote movement is a group forwarding the idea of a Constitutional Amendment to institute direct election of the President.

This idea seems reasonable. It epitomizes the one-man/one vote idea crucial to democratic government. The biggest arguments in favor of reforming the Electoral College are the presidents who have been elected without receiving the majority of individual votes. Bush in 2004 is the most recent example. Proponents also argue that candidates can ignore states where they are guaranteed to either triumph or be soundly beaten.

The problem with these arguments is that they are premised on the assumption that any moderating factor to our democracy is detrimental to political freedom. Democracy simply means that the majority of voters get to decide. This is a good principle, but needs a lot of practical safeguards to ensure a functioning electoral process. Those limits included age, competency, and felony restrictions for suffrage. They also include different kinds of officials elected in various ways. Representatives are directly elected. They represent a relatively small constituency and are subject to frequent elections, so a pretty straightforward democratic process can weed out the crazies…usually. Senators used to be elected by the state legislatures, until the 17th Amendment switched that to direct vote.

The Electoral College means that the people elect the president through the states. This seems crazy to some, because why should the states get in the way of what the people want? Rather than viewing the states as a restrictive middleman between individuals and the federal government, they are meant to be an extra layer of protection for the people from the demands of any majority. Though the 50 states are widely different from each other, they each contain diverse populations. With a direct election, presidential candidates would be able to target specific factions: religious groups, ethnic populations, business interests, agricultural workers, and so on. They would be able to build a majority by only targeting these small groups. This would remove one of the protections against forming a permanent oppressive majority.

“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

James Madison wrote that in Federalist 51, the famous explanation of how our carefully devised republican system is designed to balance the self-interest of people against each other in order to guard everyone. The complex balancing act between the state and federal levels pit politicians with differing goals and constituencies against each other in order to prevent a massive majority from forming. A constitutional amendment installing direct election of the president would undermine one of the “auxiliary precautions” set in place, and leave us with only the goodwill of citizens and politicians in general to depend upon.