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Richard Dawkins: Electoral College Is Viciously, Unnecessarily Undemocratic

6 minute read
Richard Dawkins is a biologist and author.

The time has come around again for my quadrennial tirade against the electoral-college system. A president can be elected despite his opponent’s receiving a larger popular vote. Candidates might as well not bother to campaign in non-swing states. It is for this same reason that campaign buses, planes, motorcades and TV commercials circle obsessively to Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and other “swing” states.

The same kind of problem can arise in Britain, but as an excusable, almost inevitable byproduct of parliamentary democracy. In a parliamentary democracy we don’t vote for our prime minister but for our local member of the House of Commons, who is supposed to look after our own interests in the same way as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The prime minister emerges as the individual who can command the support of the House of Commons (usually though not necessarily the leader of the largest party). This may sometimes not be the choice that would result from a plebiscite. You can see why. All it takes is for a minority of members of parliament to be elected by an overwhelming popular majority within their own local constituency, while a majority win by a small margin in theirs. You may regard this as less than perfectly democratic, and it’s one reason for supporting, as I do, some form of proportional representation. But it isn’t viciously, willfully, wantonly, unnecessarily undemocratic.

The electoral college, by contrast, is gratuitously, inexcusably undemocratic. It wasn’t always so. The original electoral college, which lasted only through the first four presidential elections, was a beautiful idea. It resembled the way a university chooses a new professor, and it had the same virtues. Rather than have the entire university vote, a committee or electoral board is set up. The committee members take their responsibility seriously. They meticulously scan the CVs of all the candidates, read their books and papers, solicit references from people who know them well, make them give a lecture to test their speaking skills, interview them, and spend hours in committee arguing about their merits and shortcomings. Finally, when all such information has been digested and mulled over, the committee votes.

The original, 18th-century electoral college was like that: a true electoral college. The members were elected within their own state, and it made sense that populous states should have more members. But the point was that the people didn’t elect presidents directly. They elected them indirectly, via a “college” of respected citizens who, unlike the populace at large, were expected to exercise well-informed due diligence before casting their definitive votes.

The rot set in when electoral college members were pledged to vote for named presidential candidates rather than exercising their own informed judgment. Such pledging renders pointless the whole idea of a true electoral college—the general population might as well vote for their president directly, rather than indirectly via a delegate pledged to him. But the truly pernicious innovation was the all-or-none rule. Except in Maine and Nebraska, all of a state’s electoral college votes go to the candidate with a majority of the popular vote in the state, regardless of how slender that majority was. This injustice is not an inevitable byproduct of something defensible, as it would be if, say, the House of Representatives exercised the choice of president. It is a gratuitous, eminently avoidable injustice which could be abolished at a stroke.

If you ever had any doubts about how preposterously undemocratic the electoral college is, your doubts could surely not have survived the 2000 looney-tunes show in Florida. Florida had 25 electoral college seats up for grabs. The popular vote was a dead heat. It couldn’t have fitted more snugly within the statistical margin of error if it had tried. The total vote in Florida was about 6 million, and the largest estimate of victory for either George Bush or Al Gore put the margin at a paltry few hundred. Yet the rules said that all 25 Electoral College votes must go to one candidate or the other. The final decision was effectively made by the Supreme Court halting the recount but, given such an exactly tied dead heat, they might as well have tossed a coin.

The justices could have cut through all that frenetic debate about hanging chads and butterfly ballots by asking themselves what the result would be if they could divide the Florida delegates. They would then have realised that Gore could afford to give 22 of the 25 electoral college seats to Bush and still win the election. Natural justice would then have compelled them to give the verdict to Gore. The Supreme Court either wouldn’t (shame on them) or legally couldn’t (shame on the law) do anything so rational.

The electoral college in its original form was admirable: for its time probably the ideal way of choosing a president. I would love to see serious consideration given to reviving the idea of a true electoral college, although I can see big problems: it would be vulnerable to corruption, for instance. But the present electoral college, with its pledged delegates and winner-take-all nonsense, is simply indefensible. I have never heard any defense of it, let alone a good one. All I hear is: “It would take an amendment to the Constitution and you’ll never get the necessary two thirds majority in both houses plus ratification by the states.” But why not? Twenty-seven amendments have made it through the hoops. That’s why they’re called amendments! Can it really be the case that such a grotesquely and obviously undemocratic system as the modern electoral college is supported by more than one third of congress? If so, why?

It’s been suggested to me that one of the two major parties benefits disproportionately from the electoral college, as compared to a straight popular vote. This may be so, but no congressman should dare to confess it as a reason for voting down the constitutional amendment. The same goes for the suggestion that the electoral college makes small states feel important because the allocation of seats is skewed in their favor. Isn’t it enough that small states have the full complement of two senators, the same number as large states, such that in senatorial elections an ordinary voter in Wyoming has 46 times the clout of a Californian voter? Can’t you be satisfied with that 46-fold degree of undemocratic unfairness? Do you really have to cling, in addition, to a system of presidential election which is not only unfair and undemocratic but capable of generating a situation as ludicrously farcical as Florida 2000? Shame on you. And shame on a constitution that lets you get away with it.

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