For a little while, during the semester during and after the 2008 presidential election, I was an adjunct professor of computer science. Yes! I actually taught an introductory college computer science class in addition to my regular duties at the library (and, in my spare time, feverishly writing and maintaining a fast-moving political blog). It was the kind of bracing time period that led to me spending most of December lying prone on my bed, moaning softly.
We did tedious but useful things like learn how to put numbers into Microsoft Excel and then use formulas to make cooler numbers happen. I wisely didn’t show the students the enormous, complicated and completely disorganized spreadsheets I use to map election results. Because everyone was obsessed with the election in late October, when we were started our Excel unit, I had them build a simple Electoral College calculator so they could plan out who might win. I also explained a little about the Electoral College for those students who didn’t know much about it. They had a lot of fun building scenarios, and most agreed that Barack Obama was probably going to win based on what they knew about the different states. They were right, as it turned out.
I also had them do an exercise in which they tried to determine whether or not the Electoral College is fair. I set up a spreadsheet which had state names in one column, populations (2000) in another, and number of electoral votes in a third. I then asked the students to figure out a couple of things: first, how many people there were per elector in each state; second, the state population’s percentage of the national population; third, the state’s percentage of the total number of electoral votes. That led to them discovering suspect statistics like this: Connecticut has (or had in 2000) 486,509 persons per elector, while neighbor Rhode Island has 262,080 and Massachusetts has 529,091. In fact, the more populous the state is the more persons each electoral vote represents, and the less each persons’ vote counts.
They also found that there were clear problems with the proportional amount of representation in the electoral college each state had. California, for instance, had 12 percent of the nation’s population in 2000, but only 10 percent of the electoral vote. Smaller states, on the other hand, had more proportional representation; Rhode Island has 0.37 percent of the total population, but 0.74 percent of the electoral votes.
This system, they informed me, was not fair.
They were right about that, too. The Electoral College was hastily set up as a compromise measure during the Constitutional Convention, and has long outlived its usefulness. There are many arguments against it, including the clear mathematical problems noted above. It also tends to give wildly disproportionate weight to a few large swing states, leading candidates to focus most of their attention and money there. This cuts a huge swath of the country, including much of the densely-populated northeast, out of the presidential campaign. The Electoral College is also prone to throwing the legitimacy of a close election into doubt, which may be the most serious charge against it.
In 1876, Samuel Tilden won 51 percent of the popular vote, but Rutherford B. Hayes ended up winning the election in the House of Representatives through a confused, bitter process. The 2000 election, in which then-Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but narrowly lost the election on the basis of a few hundred disputed votes in Florida, caused many to see President George W. Bush’s first administration as illegitimate. The people of the United States should have full confidence that their leaders are freely and fairly elected, and that’s why an antiquated institution such as the Electoral College needs to go.
However, attempts to change the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College have all fallen short. This is why the current National Popular Vote bill awaiting committee action in the Connecticut General Assembly is so vital.
If the legislature passes the bill and the governor signs it into law, Connecticut would enter into a compact with other states to pledge our electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. The compact would only come into effect once enough states joined to make up a majority in the Electoral College—in effect swinging the election to the winner of the popular vote no matter how individual states voted. This is a fair and constitutional way of changing our system for the better, and Connecticut should join the effort. Six states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, have already joined the compact.
The bill was approved by committee in 2009 and passed the House, but never made it to a vote in the Senate. Legislators should work to approve this bill, not just because it would make Connecticut matter more in the national political debate, but because electoral fairness is a fundamental American value.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife, and cats.