It’s simple really. The delegates at that famous Constitutional Convention in 1787, didn’t want ignorant, illiterate, alcohol infused frontiersmen to be able to vote for the president. They were really worried about too much democracy. They wanted state legislatures to be able to appoint electors who would do the choosing. Citizens would not vote for the president at all. Now, two hundred and thirty two years later, when many believe that citizen majorities should always decide, those electors, built into our Constitution, can stand in the way.

The Constitution is really hard to change. Despite what some liberal Democrats are saying, electors are certainly going to be part of the process for the foreseeable future. As of now, in almost all states, political parties will choose a number of electors equal to each state’s number of Representatives and Senators. After the regular presidential election, the candidate with the majority of votes in each state will get all that state’s electors. The person who comes in second will get none. The candidate who gets the most electors will win!!

The electoral system does have some real effects: It concentrates the campaigns! Once most voters in a state come to identify with one party, candidates will stop campaigning there. If a majority in Mississippi is going to vote Republican, then Republican candidates won’t campaign there because they are going to get all those electors anyway. The Democrats could spend time and money in those hot dusty little towns but they know they will end up with no electors because they can’t get half.

Candidates have to concentrate on the swing states that can go either way because in those states they have a chance to win and they don’t dare come in second, and get no electors. If you live in Pennsylvania or Ohio you will see candidates in your state all the time. If you live in Massachusetts (almost totally Democratic) or Idaho (almost totally Republican) you probably won’t see any candidates in person. Going to just the popular vote would not really help. Without the electoral system the campaigns would have to concentrate in high population areas everywhere. Huge swaths of the country would never see candidates.

The electoral system works to the benefit of candidates who are neither too conservative nor too liberal. Generally, in this country, rural areas tend to be politically conservative (traditional values are valued) and urban areas more liberal (they have a greater mixture of ethnic groups). Low population states without big cities tend to be conservative (except for a small number on the East Coast like Delaware and Rhode Island). So, swing states are the ones with a real mixture of urban and rural populations. They can go either way.

That means that real conservatives (say Barry Goldwater in 1964) tend to lose in the swing states. Goldwater just could not carry urban areas. He didn’t even try. Candidates identified as liberal lose in swing states too (think George McGovern in 1972). Both parties and candidates know that, so if candidates are extreme either way they tend to be eliminated because of the electoral system.

If we somehow dropped the electoral system and just went with the popular vote, a candidate could go around the country and only campaign in conservative areas in every state and those votes would count. The same would be true of liberal candidates, who could campaign in urban areas across the country and simply ignore rural areas and small towns. The effect would be to make the gulf between the parties even greater than it is.

The electoral system does what those long ago delegates wanted it to do; it makes the states more important. And, it makes the people in those states feel more important. Without it every voter would know that they are only one in about one hundred and thirty million voters! If an election is really one sided (say Reagan’s victory in 1984), then no small state matters that much. But, in close elections the electoral system makes even small states really matter (a few small western states could decide an election). It forces candidates to campaign in places they could otherwise ignore. Without the electoral system, candidates would ignore small population states and concentrate on big urban areas. With the electoral system in place, if an election is close, no state can be ignored as Hillary Clinton learned, to her dismay, in 2016.

The electoral system does make it possible to both lose the popular vote and win with the electoral count as Donald Trump did in 2016. We have had an unusual string of close elections which have made that possible. Still, the electoral system does have some really positive effects that would be lost if we moved to just the popular vote. The Founders created the electoral system so that ordinary people would not vote for the nation’s leader at all. We have made real progress in the last two hundred and thirty two years. Today reform requires reconfiguring that electoral system in a way that allows all citizens to feel that they have an effective vote.

H.J. Rishel