The Mysteries of the American Electoral College


Oct 14, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in Le Figaro on October 14, 2004.

How America's Electoral College Impacts Europe

To understand the effect of the upcoming presidential election on US foreign policy and Europe, it is essential to understand the mechanics and politics of a somewhat obscure American institution called the Electoral College.

Because of the Electoral College, neither presidential candidate is focusing his attention on Europe's natural American constituency — the great urban areas of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago that are centers of a global outlook, international commerce and millions of immigrants. All this seems inexplicable to many Europeans. How can America's greatest cities and some of its most populous states wield so little influence in selecting the leader of their nation?

When I vote in California on November 2, I will not cast my ballot for either President George Bush or Senator John Kerry. Instead, I will choose between two groups of 55 “electors” — one group pledged to support Bush and the other Kerry. Whichever group of electors gets the most votes in California will be elected as a bloc to become members of the U.S. Electoral College. And the same thing will take place in almost every other U.S. state. All the electors pledged to the losing candidate each will be defeated. The winner in each state takes all that state's electoral votes, with two minor exceptions — Maine and Nebraska.

It now seems likely, based on opinion polls, that the 55 California electors pledged to Kerry will win. If so, on December 13, they will cast all their votes in the U.S. Electoral College for Kerry. The candidate with the majority of the 538 votes in the Electoral College will be the next President of the United States.

The European Union's constitutional compromise of “qualified majority voting” has its roots in the same problem that led to the Electoral College: how to balance the inevitable political power of populous states with the concerns of small states fearing they might be dominated in a political union.

The 13 newly independent American states that won their freedom from the British quickly discovered that the first union they formed in 1781 functioned poorly. The effort to create a second constitution in 1787 quickly ran aground on the big state/small state issue. The “Great Compromise” that broke the impasse accorded greater political power per capita to the less populous states than to the more populous ones. The European Union uses the same procedure today.

The Electoral College was part of the Great Compromise. It provides each state with a number of electoral votes equal to 2 (the number of senators from each state) plus the number of its members in the House of Representatives. The latter number can change following the U.S. Census every 10 years.

When I first voted in a presidential election I lived in New Hampshire. I cast my ballot for only four electors. In 2004, California has 53 representatives; hence 55 electors. The 1.3 million people of New Hampshire, which still has four electors, have one elector per 320,000, while the 35 million in California have one per 650,000. The least populous state, Wyoming, has one per 170,000.

This disparity in voting power shapes political campaigns and the objectives of each candidate and political party. If a candidate and party believe they have a “lock” on a state's electoral votes — a strong lead that makes losing the state extremely unlikely — they will ignore the state and focus on “battleground states,” areas where polls say the race is extremely tight.

Candidates trailing far behind in a state also will refrain from campaigning there to focus on the same set of battleground states. Consequently the people of locked states will have less weight than those in battleground states.

The division between locked and battleground states has shifted substantially over the past 40 years because of political strategy, largely of the Republican Party, and because of demographics. Richard Nixon successfully pried most Southern states out of the Democratic coalition, leaving urban dwellers, labor unions and minorities. To oversimplify, the Democrats have become the party of secular urban liberal America and the Republicans of religious rural conservative America. These groups have become the so-called “bases” of the two parties.

At the same time, a shift in the geographic distribution of the American population has taken place. The traditionally more Republican “Sunbelt” saw a major population growth. As a result, between 1960 and 2004 the more Democratic East and Midwest lost 60 electoral votes, with the biggest losers being New York (14), Pennsylvania (11), Illinois (6) and Ohio (5). The big gainers in the South and West were California (23), Florida (17), Texas (10) and Arizona (6).

Until recently, it was possible to say that the Republicans had achieved an advantage in locked states of around 50 votes. This advantage may have disappeared as former large battleground states — California, Illinois and New Jersey — appear to have shifted into the Democratic camp. But the Republicans still achieve a virtual tie in locked-up electoral votes with states having about 10 million fewer people, because of their advantage in the smaller states. The imbalance in the populations of the locked states is what made it possible for George Bush to win the 2000 election with fewer popular votes than Al Gore.

Bush appears to lead in Wisconsin, a state that Gore won. Kerry also seems in danger of losing Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington — all states that Gore won and that today have a total of 82 electoral votes. On the other hand, Bush appears in danger in only three states he won last time — Florida, New Hampshire and Ohio, with a total of 52 votes. The Electoral College arithmetic favors Bush.

As for the 11 or 12 battleground states, the most obvious and important point is that they do not contain many of the largest urban centers, except for Philadelphia and, arguably, Detroit. These states consist of mid-sized cities, their suburbs and rural areas. These are not the places where Michael Moore's “Fahrenheit 911” was popular. Instead, Mel Gibson's “The Passion of The Christ” turned out the big audiences.

During the first televised debate, Bush alluded to the possibility that France might have a veto over US policy under Kerry's leadership. Kerry immediately shot back that he would not subject the US to a veto if it needed to use force to defend itself. Clearly both sides feel that international cooperation, especially with France, is not popular in the remaining battleground states.

Many of my European friends were stunned to learn a year ago that I thought President Bush had a good chance to win the election. This was not a partisan statement, but simply an estimate of the odds. But why shouldn't they be surprised? After all, many who live in New York and Los Angeles share their surprise. They do not regularly visit Des Moines, Albuquerque or Kalamazoo or go to their hinterlands to talk to the locals. They get their information from news media based in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC - another city locked out of the Electoral College. The District of Columbia and the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia are already locked up in different camps.

The arithmetic of the Electoral College is one more reason why transatlantic relations will probably remain troubled in the next four years no matter who is chosen as president. Not only will American and European leaders have to wrestle with differing ideas about national interests, threat perceptions and the proper role of military force in policy, all while looking over their shoulders at electorates. The next president will especially be looking over his shoulder at the battleground states.

James Thomson is President and CEO of the RAND Corporation (a nonprofit research organization) and Chairman of RAND Europe.

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