Exclusively Online | Spring 2020 Issue

The Electoral College and Democracy

Online Table Talk: Martin Gilens on the Electoral College

By Richard E. Meyer

MARTIN GILENS WANTS TO neuter the electoral college. There is a way to do it.

Now is a good time to talk to Gilens (featured in Blueprint Issue 9) about the electoral college and an increasingly significant popular-vote compact. Five times in the history of our country, the electoral college has awarded the presidency to a candidate who lost the popular vote, most recently Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Gilens, chair of the Department of Public Policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public affairs, considers that anti-democratic.

A native Californian, he grew up in Sherman Oaks, earned his Ph.D. in sociology at UC Berkeley, taught at Yale, then UCLA, then Princeton for 15 years. He returned to UCLA in 2018 to join the Luskin School, where he also is a professor of public policy, political science and social welfare. An outspoken champion of democracy, Gilens does not look fondly on anything that constrains it – including the electoral college, which stands between the American people and choosing their president directly. It is not hard to imagine that the electoral college might overturn the people’s choice again this year.

It is too late to prevent that possibility. But in an online interview, Gilens and Blueprint senior editor Rick Meyer discussed how the electoral college could be sidelined in the future.


Blueprint: Why did the Founding Fathers create the electoral college?

Martin Gilens: At its founding, two primary motivations for the electoral college were:

First, to give greater influence in choosing the president to slave states without actually allowing slaves to vote.

The infamous three-fifths compromise enshrined in the Constitution counted every enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person in determining each state’s number of members in the House of Representatives. Since each state’s electors equaled its total members of the House and Senate, the electoral college gave states with slaves (even at a two-fifths undercount) additional House members, more electors and greater influence over the selection of the president.


BP: That helps explain why  white Virginians who held slaves won the presidency for 32 of the first 36 years after the Constitution was ratified, and how slavery got locked into place until the Civil War.

MG: The second motivation to create the electoral college was to insulate the choice of the president from ordinary voters.

The framers didn’t want to let Congress choose the president, because it would undermine the separation of powers that was central to their new system of government.  But they didn’t think individual voters had the knowledge to choose among presidential candidates. So they left it to the states to select “electors,” who would then choose the president in the electoral college.


BP: The Electoral College has been called “an odd political contraption” and “hopelessly arcane.” Why do we still have it?

MG: Despite its clearly anti-democratic nature (in giving some voters greater influence than others), three reasons the electoral college has persisted are:

  1. Despite the abolition of slavery, the disenfranchisement of African Americans led Southern states to oppose the elimination of the electoral college. The reason is that with the electoral college, influence over the selection of the president is related to the size of a state’s population (as reflected that state’s number of members in Congress), and not the number of people in that state who vote for president. Southern states with large numbers of disenfranchised Blacks would see their influence in selecting the president reduced if we switched to a system of a national popular vote.
  2. Doing away with the electoral college in favor of the national popular vote would reduce the influence of states with smaller populations. Eliminating the electoral college would require a constitutional amendment, and amending the Constitution requires the agreement of three-quarters of the states. A number of the states that would be disadvantaged by eliminating the electoral college would need to support its elimination for the constitutional amendment to be adopted.
  3. There is almost always one political party that would gain and one that would lose in switching from the electoral college to a national popular vote. The party that stood to lose could generally be expected to oppose such a reform.

For an excellent recent analysis of the history and persistence of the electoral college, see Alexander Keyssar’s recent book Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?


BP: If a constitutional amendment is unlikely, then how can we ever get rid of the electoral college?

MG: It could be effectively eliminated by agreement among a minority of the states. The “National Popular Vote Interstate Compact” is an agreement among states to award all of their electors to whichever candidate wins the most votes nationwide. If states that collectively control a majority of the electors in the electoral college were to agree to this (and carry through), the president would, in practice, be selected by a majority vote of the nation as a whole.

Currently, the 11 most populous states control 270 electoral votes, enough to decide who becomes the next president. If those 11 states (or any set of states controlling 270 or more electoral votes) agreed to award all their electors to the nationwide winner, we would, for all practical purposes, have replaced the electoral college with a national popular vote for president.


         Editor’s note: As of this March, 14 states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, according to the website Ballotpedia.org. They represent 187 electoral votes. Colorado, with nine votes, will decide during the November election whether to join. If it does, this would bring the number of states in the compact to 15. These states would hold 196 of the 270 electoral votes necessary for the compact to take effect and to elect a president.




Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer is the senior editor of Blueprint. He has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times.

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