Why We Have an Electoral College — To Preserve a Two-Party System

2016 is the fifth time in the nation's history when the popular vote went to the loser of the presidential election. To some, it seems unfair. If the winner doesn't win, then why have a contest? Well, the Founding Fathers had a method to the seeming madness.

Why does it happen that a candidate can win the popular vote but still lose an election? You know the answer is that in the United States, the Electoral College selects the president. But was the Electoral College also designed to ensure a two-party system in the United States?

2016 is the fifth time in the nation’s history when the popular vote went to the loser of the presidential election. To some, it seems unfair. If the winner doesn’t win, then why have a contest? Well, there appears to be method to this madness, and perhaps the Founding Fathers were looking past the danger of a single-headed monarchy to the chaos of a multi-party system and its destructive impact on the republic.

You probably already know how the Electoral College came to be, but here’s a recap for history lovers: the Founding Fathers were concerned about flat-out letting the public elect a president. To rely on the popular vote would have meant each state would likely have put up its own candidate, and the biggest state would win with a small plurality of the popular vote.

At the same time, the Founding Fathers were smart enough to figure out that if the Congress selected the president, the president would eventually become beholden to it, when really the idea is to have checks and balances to prevent any concentration of power within one branch of government.

The “third way” called for each state to pick a body of electors to serve in an Electoral College that would meet only once — to select the president and vice president. In this way, the electors wouldn’t be subjected to political persuasion and each state could choose for itself how to select the electors.

Each state is assigned a number of electors based on its size and proportional representation in Congress. Originally, it was set up so that each elector got two votes — one for president and one for vice president. This was aimed at preventing each elector from choosing his state candidate only. A second vote would force electors to look at candidates from other states.

Over time, the system has faced a few changes, most notably the 12th Amendment, which shifted the election from the Electoral College choosing the president and vice president based on a first- and second-place vote to a shared presidential/vice-presidential ticket.

Fast forward to today: 48 states and the District of Columbia use a winner-take-all system for awarding Electoral College votes based on the popular vote in the state. Maine and Nebraska, however, award two electoral votes for the popular vote winner and then the Electoral College votes are distributed based on the popular vote winner in each congressional district.

Five hundred thirty-eight votes are cast in the Electoral College and the ticket must win a simple majority of 270 to win the presidency. Each political party gets a slate of electors based on the number of senators and congressional representatives in the state. Whichever political party’s candidates win the state, that’s which party’s slate gets to vote in the Electoral College. The District of Columbia gets three Electoral College votes even though it is not represented by a voting member of Congress. Hence, the 538 members of the Electoral College.

In 26 states, the members of the Electoral College are bound by law to cast their votes for the winner of the state’s overall vote. Though it’s not required in the rest of the states, the Electoral College is usually comprised of party loyalists so there’s no chance of overturning the state’s majority rule. However, the notion of the “faithless elector,” who disregards his state’s popular vote, has been known to happen, reemerging as an issue again in 2016.

Despite the “odd-man-out” behavior of faithless electors (and while some have tried to change how the Electoral College works within their own states), the Electoral College has served the nation for more than two centuries by maintaining the legitimacy of the outcome of presidential elections. This nation is governed under a constitutional system, not a parliamentary one, and despite the partisan motives (and questionable patriotism) of those behind the hashtag #notmypresident, the president represents all the people, even when elected only by a large plurality. Otherwise, we’d be electing a prime minister.

But could it be that the Electoral College was designed to create and preserve a two-party system? After all, a parliamentary system works in England without (too) many crises.

There have been several iterations of political parties in the United States — the ill-fated Federalists versus the Anti-Federalists, who became Democratic-Republicans who became Democrats, or Democratic-Republicans who became National Republicans who became Whigs who became New Republicans. But there have generally only been two major factions competing at a time, even with the participation of third parties like Anti-Masonics and Free-Soil and Constitutional Union and even the “American” Party.

In the 2016 election, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson was on the ballot in all 50 states, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein put up a show, even suing for a recount in three states. But neither of these candidates, nor any of the dozens of others running on third-party platforms, will impact the Electoral College.

Economist and public policy researcher Ben Zycher suggests that the Founding Fathers intended it that way, and for good reason (emphasis added below).

Because the plurality winner in a state gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes, third and fourth parties have little hope under most circumstances of winning important numbers of Electoral College votes (although they can deny a plurality to a given candidate in a particular state, as Ralph Nader almost certainly did to Al Gore in Florida in 2000). This means that the Electoral College promotes the two-party system at the state level. However unsatisfying and mushy the candidates and platforms often served up by the two parties, the two-party system offers the supreme long-term benefit of forcing candidates and party platforms toward the middle of the political spectrum so as to forge broader-based coalitions, thus increasing consensus and compromise and reducing political strife*.*

In other words, you think you don’t like the candidates now, imagine if there were 10 candidates of equal party stature to choose from in the general election. And if you think the nation can’t seem to make any progress, imagine if there were factions pulling for their specific and minimalist goals. We’d have special interest presidents who are way more specialized than they are today.

As a nation, we would be more divided than we are now. And that can’t be good for the republic. So to the victor go the spoils, and that’s just one example of the perennial wisdom of the Founding Fathers.