Problems with the Electoral College

Problems with the Electoral College

By Ralph R. Zobell | Posted - Dec. 20, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY -- We have recently completed another general election, with the fervor of next November's U.S. Presidential election now taking center stage.

However, in theory, you and I don't elect the president and vice president in November, our electors do that instead through the Electoral College.

Amidst all the straw votes and your own ballot, here's what really counts: the Electoral College, which convenes December 17, 2012. Electors are chosen on Election Day to meet usually in their respective state capitals always on the Monday after the second Wednesday in December, casting separate ballots for president and vice president.

This is what the Electoral College is: No tuition, founded in 1804, enrollment 538, members from all 50 states, 51 campus locations, class once every four years, graduates always become president and vice president of the United States.

Wanna talk turkey?

Here are five challenges seen in the Electoral College: manipulation, breaking moral obligations, being archaic to cover situations like unexpected death, lack of understanding how it operates, and appearing to go contrary to the popular vote.


Last month, a TV show on the History Channel on how states got their shapes showed that President Abraham Lincoln manipulated the Electoral College system to his advantage.

Nevada was admitted on October 31, 1864 as a state in the Union through Lincoln's help, even though it was about 40,000 residents short of the requisite 60,000 population. Lincoln did this because he knew the Electoral College votes from Nevada would be in his favor.

Utah will now have six votes in the Electoral College with the new apportionment provisions. Texas gains four seats in Congress, Florida two, and joining Utah with an additional seat are Nevada, Arizona, Washington, South Carolina and Georgia.

Two years ago this spring I attended my first grassroots precinct meeting with 80 neighbors at a local high school where I got to see this process work first-hand. I voted against the delegate elected by family and friends because she flew under the guise of being a Republican. I learned she was pro-Obama and liked the free food. She moved on to the county convention where they selected Utah's state delegates, some of whom were eligible to move on to the Republican National Convention to eventually cast the voter's will.

The five Utah Republicans who cast the votes in December 2008 in the Electoral College were chosen at the last Republican National Convention. They were Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart, former state GOP executive director and Utah League of Credit Unions President Scott Simpson, former Republican Party Chairman Richard Snelgrove and former Congresswoman Enid Greene Mickelsen.

Breaking moral obligations

In the 1960s the American Bar Association labeled the Electoral College as "archaic, undemocratic, complex, ambiguous, indirect and dangerous," according to the Fordham Law Review.

"Nowhere in the Constitution is there any specific requirement binding electors to vote for the candidates of their parties. Because of the design of the Framers that the electors are free agents, the predominant view is that they are not legally enforceable obligation to do so," said the Fordham Law Review.

A quirk in the Electoral College system occurred in 1916, as President-elect Charles Evans Hughes allegedly lost on a social blunder when he failed to make a campaign courtesy call to Governor Hiram Johnson while in California. Hughes would have lost in the popular vote election but garnering California's electoral votes would have legally given him rights to the presidency, according to the New York State Bar Journal.

Utah is among 29 states that have instituted a legal procedure to keep electors deviating contrary to the pledge of the popular vote.

This is proof that some change has occurred relative to the Electoral College process.

Going contrary to popular vote

Here are a couple of instances often cited regarding differences between the popular vote and the Electoral College:

"A person can be elected President even though he has received less than a plurality of the vote cast. This has happened a couple of times in our history: in 1824 John Quincy Adams was elected although he received only 30.54% of the total vote while his opponent, Andrew Jackson got 43.13%; in 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes, with 48.04% was elected in spite of the fact that Samuel Tilden had received a majority of the votes cast, 50.99%; and in 1888 Grover Cleveland, with 48.66%, was defeated by William Henry Harrison, with 47.86%.," as cited in the St. Louis Law Journal.

The Baby Boomer generation may remember the following:

"Two of the closest Presidential elections in recent years were those of 1960 and 1968, in both of which Richard Nixon was a candidate. In the closest of the two, the 1960 election, in which the two major candidates were separated by slightly more than 100,000 popular votes. John F. Kennedy received 34,221,340 votes to Nixon's 34,108,546 (with an additional 680,870 votes cast for other candidates). In the Electoral College, however, the vote was Kennedy 303, Nixon 219 and Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia 15.

"Had either the proportional or district methods of choosing the President been effect, however, the winner would have been Nixon — 263,632 electoral votes to 262.671 under a proportional system and 278 to 245 (with 14 unpledged) under a district system." according to the 1967 46th Congressional Digest.

George W. Bush became president after Al Gore challenged the system eventually through the Supreme Court. That hanging chad incident in Florida caused havoc for the TV networks who could not predict the General Election outcome amidst the vivid backdrop imagery of the patriotic bunting-draped Gore headquarters at the Parthenon in Nashville, Tenn.

Archaic to cover situations

Another challenge in the electoral college setup concerns this: What if in some future election we have a presidential candidate who dies between the general election and the day that Congress counts up the electoral votes?

Horace Greeley's death (November 29, 1872) is used as proof of the possibility that things could be thrown into limbo when his votes were split amongst four others when Ulysses S. Grant was elected President. Or doesn't it seem kind of unfair that Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and lost the presidency in 1876?

Lack of understanding how it operates

Attitudes of the American people are reflected in this selection of presidents and sometimes the question might be raised: Does the popular vote show a popularity contest or does the electoral vote reveal the candidate who courted just those who would count? Are we really getting the best man elected?

Over 200 years ago both the House and Senate agreed upon a way to elect a president through the 12th Amendment. That temporary decision hasn't been overturned and remains known as the Electoral College. The Electoral College isn't fail-safe although it might remain the best possible safeguard against flaws in a system of checks and balances rather than being redundant.

Another tangent that was explained in the textbook "Essentials of American Democracy" is "it is entirely possible for the minority party in the House to have control of a majority of the state delegations and thereby to be in a position to elect its candidate to the Presidency even though he stood second in both popular and electoral votes."

This would happen if the presidential elected were thrown into the House of Representatives.

To combat these quirks and problems, we should become better educated on how the Electoral College works. Study the issues, attend your precinct meeting and become involved. Reading this article is one of your first steps. Learning when your precinct next meets could be Step 2.

Ralph R. Zobell has worked for BYU Athletic Media Relations in various capacities for over 30 years. You can view his bio at or contact him at

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Ralph R. Zobell


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