Skip to content ↓

Election muddle points to need for rule change

The extraordinary election of 2000 is a trend-breaker among trend-breakers.

The statistical trends are that the winner wins the popular vote (except for Harrison in 1888), at least half the states (except for Kennedy in 1960 and Carter in 1976), and the two states with largest electoral vote (except for Wilson in 1916 and Truman in 1948.)

Against this total of only three rules broken in the previous 53 presidential elections, this year's election alone will break two rules if Bush wins, or one rule if Gore wins. Bush has not carried a plurality of the popular vote, and he did not carry either California or New York, the two states with highest electoral vote. If Gore wins Florida and Bush wins New Mexico, Gore will win 20 states and the District of Columbia (287 electoral votes), compared to Bush's 30 states (251 electoral votes). The previous record was a margin of just three states in 1960 and 1976.

The Electoral College was created solely to elect the president. There are 538 electoral votes, representing 100 US senators, 435 representatives in Congress, and three electoral votes for the District of Columbia (which is represented in Congress by a non-voting delegate). Each state is given its fractional share of those electoral votes based on its own census population. In addition, because every state, no matter how large or small, has two senators in Congress, it also receives two (senatorial) electoral votes. These votes were a part of the original Constitutional compromise that persuaded small states to enter the union, and they protect the equal voting power per vote of small-state voters by increasing their electoral weight disproportionately.

Until this election, those senatorial votes have played little or no role except, notably, in shaping the campaign strategies of the candidates. Their role was critical in 1916, when they provided every single vote of Woodrow Wilson's margin. He carried 12 more states than Hughes did, which earned him a margin of 24 electoral votes -- and he won the election by only 23.

George W. Bush would be the second president elected by senatorial electoral votes, matching Wilson's margin, though Bush did not carry the popular vote. By winning 32 states to Gore's 19, Bush would have a margin of 13 states, which would contribute 26 senatorial votes to his margin. That senatorial-vote margin, earned by victories in many states, has put Bush in a position to win if he carries Florida. If states were not given senatorial votes, Gore would have been elected (with or without Florida), as Hughes would have been in 1916.

Hidden in this dazzle of numerical rarities is the deeper truth that winning presidents generally dominate all the statistical categories. The six or seven historical exceptions of all kinds out of over 120 possibilities is a very small fraction of the total. It means that the Electoral College gets high grades for consistency beyond what we demand, explicitly, of our prospective presidents.

If we adopted raw national popular voting in its place, we would probably have many parties, our votes would certainly have lower voting power, and exotic if not vicious strategies for winning elections by aggressive blocs would suddenly become profitable. Above all, we could not rely on the generally benign politics we have been blessed with to date. Raw voting was the method chosen by the Weimar Republic and perverted by Hitler (after which there was no voting at all). It was also the choice of the Soviet Union, presumably because their leaders realized that they were least threatened by that kind of voting.

By choosing the formula our forebears chose, we have the advantages of Solomon who, when he could have asked the Lord for wealth, asked instead for wisdom and was granted wealth without asking for it. The best formula is one that gives every individual voter the greatest possible fair impact on the outcome. If we adopt this idea, we will get victories by candidates with popular pluralities, the support of most of the states, and the consent of the largest states, except a few times per century.

We have seen, in Florida, the dramatic impact that a few votes can have, under our present state-districted Electoral College, and should focus on extending that potential impact to poorly contested states. The lesson of Florida is that close districting multiplies individual impact. We should not dissipate that impact by destroying the districting that created it.

Instead, we can recover the national impact of voters from poorly contested states by allotting electoral votes according to the number of votes actually cast, instead of by census, as the present system does. Each vote cast will then add to a state's impact, and a voter can reduce a hostile opposition candidate's national total by not voting at all. Candidates will then have to contend with supporters and opposition in the states they control. Now, they can and do ignore both. If we add the actual-vote equivalent (about 460,000) of the present two senatorial votes to the state's electoral total, small-state voters will keep the protection they have now. This, not the adoption of raw voting, is the way we should refine our Electoral College system for the next century.


Dr. Natapoff is a research scientist in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. MIT Tech Talk published an earlier article on his idea for voting reform on March 20, 1996.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 2000.

Related Topics

More MIT News

Wind turbines on the top of a hill

A healthy wind

Health benefits of using wind energy instead of fossil fuels could quadruple if the most polluting power plants are selected for dialing down, new study finds.

Read full story