Losing Bargain: Why Winner-Take-All Vote Assignment is the Electoral College's Least Defensible Feature

115 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2017 Last revised: 24 Aug 2017

Date Written: July 10, 2017


The electoral college is usually considered as a single institution that, in contrast to a system of direct election, mediates the popular will and advances countermajoritarian principles. To its critics, this role is a destructive one; the electoral college thwarts the foundational democratic idea that all votes should count equally and the majority’s choice should lead. By contrast, defenders of the electoral college argue that it is a deliberately crafted institution whose deviations from nationwide popular sentiment are part of its design. Yet the electoral college is not a single institution but a combination of procedures. The electoral college produces results potentially different from those that would be achieved by direct election through several distinct mechanisms, including the two-vote bonus given to all states, the assignment of electoral votes based on total population rather than voters, and the award of state electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis. Of these mechanisms, the use of winner-take-all rules stands out as the least defensible. In contrast to other aspects of the electoral college, winner-take-all systems were not part of the electoral college’s original design and were adopted haphazardly at the state level, without systematic consideration of their national consequences. Further, winner-take-all rules cause considerable harm by contributing most strongly to the risk of popular/electoral splits, by creating incentives for fraud, voter suppression, and other undesirable campaign tactics, and by arbitrarily privileging some voters’ preferences at others’ expense. As a result, advocates for electoral college reform should make abolition of winner-take-all central to both their critiques of the current process and their evaluation of reform proposals.

Suggested Citation

Florey, Katherine, Losing Bargain: Why Winner-Take-All Vote Assignment is the Electoral College's Least Defensible Feature (July 10, 2017). Case Western Reserve Law Review, Forthcoming; UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3000008 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3000008

Katherine Florey (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
United States

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