Dump The Electoral College? Bad Idea, Says Al Gore’s Former Campaign Chairman


By William M. Daley

Now that Donald Trump has won the presidency despite losing the popular vote, there’s a growing cry to rethink, or even abolish, the electoral college. This would be a mistake.

Yes, the electoral college is a tempting target, especially for Democrats. Two of the past five presidential elections have seen Republicans claim the White House by winning the electoral vote while losing the popular vote.

I feel your pain. I was Al Gore’s campaign chairman in 2000, when he won a half -million more votes than George W. Bush but lost the presidency. Trump’s case is even more stark, as Hillary Clinton’s popular vote margin will exceed 2 million.

But I urge my fellow Democrats to think hard before trying to undo the admittedly hard-to-explain electoral college. The cure might be worse than the disease.

While imperfect, the electoral college has generally served the republic well. It forces candidates to campaign in a variety of closely contested races, where political debate is typically robust. It often helps new presidents get started by magnifying their mandate. That happened with Barack Obama, who twice finished with under 53 percent of the popular vote but carried the electoral vote comfortably.

The electoral college also tends to bolster the two major parties, which, for all the criticisms, have helped produce long-term political stability that many nations can only envy. With nearly all states awarding their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, it’s difficult for a third-party candidate to contend seriously for the presidency. While a truly national third party wouldn’t necessarily be bad, smaller niche parties are ill-suited to our federalist system. This system already divides power between the states and the federal government, and uses checks and balances to temper the legislative, executive and judicial branches’ authority.

In Europe’s parliamentary governments, by contrast, it’s not unusual to see multiple parties split the national vote several ways, enabling a politician with limited support to head the government (provided he or she can assemble a ruling coalition with other minority parties). That arrangement won’t work in our system of built-in tensions and checks between the president and Congress. And yet, eliminating the electoral college could produce such an unworkable situation – not through small parties but wealthy individuals. Aside from the Democratic and Republican nominees, a handful of billionaires could run campaigns focused especially on, say, Texas and Florida, or California and New York. One of them could win the presidency with a narrow slice of the vote. With so small a plurality, and no major party’s support, this president would face fierce head winds.

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg outlined this possibility when he decided against a presidential bid last March. “Even if I were to receive the most popular votes and the most electoral votes,” Bloomberg wrote, “victory would be highly unlikely, because most members of Congress would vote for their party’s nominee.”

But without the electoral college, the decision wouldn’t be tossed to Congress, and the billionaire would be president.

Constitutional scholars share this concern. “Without the electoral college, there would be no effective brake on the number of ‘viable’ presidential candidates,” Gettysburg College professor Allen Guelzo and Washington lawyer James Hulme wrote last month in The Post. “Abolish it, and it would not be difficult to imagine a scenario where, in a field of a dozen micro-candidates, the ‘winner’ only needs 10 percent of the vote.”

Already we’ve seen troubling ramifications of weakening our two major parties. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., demanded concessions to the left even though he was never truly a Democrat. And Republicans – whose nominating rules give party leaders even less influence than the Democrats’ do – have seen their party hijacked by Trump, a man of uncertain and ever-shifting ideologies often at odds with mainstream conservatism.

The electoral college is a curious institution, concocted by Founding Fathers struggling to balance the influence of big and small states. It’s not perfect. But until we have a clearly better replacement, let’s stick with it.

Special To The Washington Post · William M. Daley 



  1. A few thoughts:

    1) Nice map, but (IIRC) Trump got more than 119 electoral votes.

    2) Bloomberg’s point is baloney. He had the money to pursue a major party’s nomination and his (mostly) centrist positions would have allowed him to chase either the Democratic or Republican nomination. He had no problem changing his affiliation when he wanted to become NYC’s mayor.

    3) The two-party winner-take-all system that Mr. Daley defends gave us two universally disliked candidates in 2016. Furthermore, we haven’t had a Federalist, Democratic-Republican or Whig president in quite some time; a two-party system isn’t carved in stone. Is allowing a true popular vote winner worse than allowing only the two winners of a flawed nomination process (differing delegate rules state by state, differing voter rules state by state) to run?

    4) The only voters that the candidates spend any time courting are those in contested states. Is it really a good idea that three of the most populous states – California, New York and Texas – are ignored because they’re not in play?

    • is it really good in a scenario where you can lose 49 states and still win the popular vote by just winning in California overwhelmingly
      in this election if Trump had won in every state he lost by winning those states by less than 2 percent
      he would still lose the popular vote because of the winning margin for Hillary in california

      • Just to be clear, I’m *NOT* advocating that Hillary be declared the winner because she got more popular votes. The campaign was played out according to the rules as they exist and Trump won fair and square. Had the campaign been for the popular vote, we have no way of knowing who the winner would have been or by what margin, since the candidates would have campaigned differently and many voters in non-battleground states who skipped the election would have voted if the popular vote was what mattered.

        To answer your question, yes, if one candidate wins 49 states by one vote each and the other candidate wins the remaining state by more than 49 votes then the one-state winner would become President under a popular-vote system; that’s exactly what “Winning the popular vote” means. IMO, that makes more sense than throwing all 55 Californian electoral votes to the Democratic candidate despite millions of Republican votes (and vice versa in Texas).


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